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Ringtone cancer. Are phones really safe?

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8th Nov 2011
Linda McSweeny   all articles by this author

New WHO advice has intensified the mobile phone safety debate, but should we be concerned?

THERE’S a plethora of scientific articles probing whether or not using a mobile phone causes brain cancer, but few have provoked such cause for alarm in the global health community as a media release from the World Health Organization in May.

Four words from the release, “possibly carcinogenic to humans”, had the potential to completely change the game with regard to mobile phone safety.1

The dust from the ensuing media headlines and scientific scuffle has now settled, but is there really cause to be concerned about the cancer risk of mobile phones?

Some researchers and doctors now say it’s time we all knew about that risk.

In June, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the WHO, had a week-long meeting in France of more than 30 scientists from 14 countries.

Their goal was to determine whether radiofrequency electromagnetic fields generated by mobiles phones were definitely, probably, possibly or probably not carcinogenic.

They decided the evidence so far, while still accumulating, was strong enough to warrant a classification that mobiles are possibly carcinogenic to humans.1

Put more succinctly, the decision can be interpreted as saying there’s a less than 50% chance people will get cancer from using mobiles, according to Professor Bruce Armstrong, an epidemiologist from the University of Sydney, who was a member of the IARC scientific group.

Mobile phone use is now in the same category as coffee drinking and using progestin-only contraceptives but is also in the same group as DDT, according to the WHO. 

The decision has met with mixed reaction, from outright rejection by some in the telecommunications industry, to calls from some scientists for a closer watching brief on the health impacts of mobile phone use in children.

The IARC report was not without controversy both in the lead-up to, and the aftermath of, the meeting in France.

One group of international scientists demanded the removal of industry scientists from the IARC meeting table, citing the potential for undue influence.

The scientists remained and in the end, the IARC panel emerged from talks with a statement that made the world sit up and question the potential for harm in answering a mobile phone call.

Professor Bruce Armstrong says what the IARC is saying is not new but people are now taking more notice of its classification because the WHO holds more weight than a lone researcher spruiking a message.

Professor Armstrong agrees with the IARC panel decision of which he was a part, and understands why there has been controversy surrounding the decision because it involved people using their own judgment to reach consensus conclusion.

“It’s quite common for there to be differences of opinion and that’s certainly what happened on this occasion. There were people who differed, principally about the epidemiological evidence and ultimately about the final categorisation.”

Professor Armstrong says for years he has been talking about the possible yet inconclusive hazard with mobile phone use and cancer but it’s now gaining more traction because the WHO has made the classification.

He led the Australian arm of the Interphone 12-year scientific study, involving 13 countries, on the carcinogenicity of mobile phones, which found no link between mobile phones and brain cancer overall, but found a subset of mobile phone users who had a specific type of brain cancer.2

The study of past mobile phone use, up to the year 2004, showed a 40% increased risk for gliomas in the highest category of heavy users, who reported using a mobile 30 minutes per day over 10 years.

Professor Armstrong says the issue isn’t divisive in the medical community and he doesn’t believe the IARC decision has caused panic in the community. Ultimately, he says, people’s tolerance for risk will determine whether or not they change their behaviour.

“People who are fairly tolerant of risk can say, ‘Well I don’t care’. They’re going to be less likely to worry about it, more likely not to change their mobile phone behaviour.

“I guess other people who are less tolerant of risk, or perhaps people who have had an experience of brain tumour in the family or something like that, are going to say, ‘Well I wouldn’t want that to happen to me and I’m not going to take any risk, so I’ll take steps to reduce the likelihood that if mobile phone use does increase tumours that I’m not likely to get one’.”

Personally, Professor Armstrong hasn’t modified his mobile phone use patterns since he first started using one in 1994.

But he says he’s “not a frequent user” and if there was a risk or hazard associated with using a mobile, his risk would be relatively low because his exposure has never been high.

“I suppose the only change I have made – hardly for this – is to use text messaging more in recent times than I did before,” he says.

The Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) says it understands some mobile phone users may be concerned following the IARC finding but highlighted that research is ongoing in identifying possible health hazards. However, “it is important that it is put into perspective and we reiterate the fact that the IARC found only the possibility of a link, not a proven one, between wireless devices and some forms of cancer”, AMTA chief executive Chris Althaus told MO in a statement.

“If people are concerned, there are some simple steps they can take to reduce exposure, such as using a hands-free device or texting, until further long-term research is conducted,” he says.

Dr Don Maisch (PhD), a communications consultant whose PhD focused on the need for public representation in WHO agencies, says it is surprising that the IARC found an effect regarding the possible carcinogenicity of mobile phone use on the basis of the papers they looked at; however, he is pleased with the outcome.

“The evidence… is preliminary. I think they did the best job they could possibly do,” Dr Maisch says of the IARC panel’s decision. Dr Maisch, who runs an independent website with information on the health and safety aspects of electromagnetic energy exposure, says there’s enough evidence to say we should be cautious, especially for children and adolescents.3

He says the IARC will need to keep a watching brief on the issue as more studies emerge.“My opinion is that the evidence is getting stronger and stronger. I think it’s only a matter of time before maybe the IARC classification goes up from ‘possibly’,” he says. 

Dr Maisch himself doesn’t own or use a mobile phone and advises his family to use text messaging.He was with his brother, a heavy mobile phone user, when he died from a brain tumour. 

Dr Maisch does, however, say mobile phones are “here to stay”, so there should be rules governing phone use to limit exposure.

“Let’s look at a safe approach to it,” he says, adding that anecdotally, neurosurgeons he’s dealt with have told him they’re seeing an increasing number of people with brain tumours.

In June, prominent Sydney neurologist Dr Charlie Teo, a director at the Centre for Minimally Invasive Neurology at Prince of Wales Private Hospital, said the IARC conclusion should not be ignored.

“There is an increasing body of evidence that there is an association between brain tumours and mobile phones,” Dr Teo told Australian Associated Press.

The IARC report “should serve as a wake-up call alerting both the public and the mobile phone industry to the link between mobile phone use and cancer,” he said.

IARC says it’s important to take “pragmatic measures” until further research is completed to reduce exposure such as hands-free devices or texting.

Latest research4

AN UPDATE of an 18 year Danish cohort study published in October this year of 350,000 mobile phone subscribers showed no increased risks of cancers associated with mobile phone use. 

The authors noted the study allowed follow-up of long term users of mobile phones, with more than 1.2 million person years for those with a mobile phone subscription for more than 10 years. 

They also included for the first time information on socio-demographic variables of mobile phone users.

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