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World Health Organization: Mobile phone cancer risk 'possible'

Not 'probable'. Not yet

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In a move that's sure to fan the flames of the ongoing debate about the safety of mobile phones, a panel of World Health Organization (WHO) experts has classified those ubiquitous handsets as "possibly carcinogenic to humans".

The group of 31 scientists from 14 countries, meeting in Lyon, France, under the auspices of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), formally classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as Group B carcinogenic agents due to their potential to induce gliomas, a particularly nasty type of brain cancer that, for example, killed US Senator Ted Kennedy in 2009.

"The evidence, while still accumulating, is strong enough to support a conclusion and the 2B classification," said Dr. Jonathan Samet of the University of Southern California and the chairman of the group. "The conclusion means that there could be some risk, and therefore we need to keep a close watch for a link between cell phones and cancer risk."

The IARC's director Christopher Wild added: "Given the potential consequences for public health of this classification and findings, it is important that additional research be conducted into the long‐term, heavy use of mobile phones."

Until mobile phones are bumped up to Group 2A – "Probably carcinogenic to humans" – or demoted to non-carcinogenic, Wild recommends that "it is important to take pragmatic measures to reduce exposure such as hands‐free devices or texting."

Among the IARC's classifications, Group 2B includes 266 "possibly" carcinogenic agents, including carbon tetrachloride, chloroform, lead, some versions of the human papilloma virus (HPV), and extremely low-frequency magnetic fields.

With mobile phones being classified along with those rather unnerving agents, it should also be noted that Group 2B also includes traditional Asian pickled vegetables and coffee.

Tuesday's IARC release notes that the group used as one of its sources the Interphone study published in March 2010. The 13-country, decade-long investigation of 7,416 tumor patients and about twice that number of controls concluded that "Overall, no increase in risk of glioma or meningioma was observed with use of mobile phones" for normal users.

The Interphone study, however, also came to the conclusion that "There were suggestions of an increased risk of glioma at the highest exposure levels, but biases and error prevent a causal interpretation."

In addition, that study came to the paradoxical conclusion that those who use a mobile phone on a normal, but not heavy, basis actually had fewer tumors than those who use a corded phone.

Simply put, the jury is still out – but the IARC group, after studying "hundreds of scientific articles" on the topic, believes that caution is warranted and that further study is necessary.

A cynic, of course, might opine that the IARC is merely calling for further study in order to justify its existence and secure future funding. While it is impossible to either prove or disprove that assertion, the size, scope, literature-based research, and broad range of funding sources of the IARC argue against that accusation. A far more likely reason for the request for further study is the need for further study – Occam's Razor, y'know?

A "concise report" on the group's finding will be published in "a few days" in The Lancet's online oncology report. ®

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