Hyderabad: Three months ago newspapers and TV channels the world over created a major public scare when they carried reports linking cell phones to cancers in human beings. They quoted the “deliberations” of the International Agency for Research on Cancer held in Lyon, France in the last week of May.
But now health experts debunk the concerns saying they were based on the “hyped or exaggerated” portrayal in the media of the carcinogenic potential of cell phone use. They also accuse the media of reading of isolated parts of the discussions from the IARC meeting. The IARC, which is controlled by the World Health Organisation, has not officially published its full deliberations and a complete report (monograph) is expected only next year.
This “isolated” reporting has only created unnecessary fears in the common man and triggered wide debate in India, which is fast emerging as a major cell phone hub in the region. Almost everyone in the world is exposed to radiofrequency-electromagnetic frequency (RF-EMF) of 30 kHz to 300 GHz from a variety of sources including cell phones, Bluetooth-enabled products, induction heaters, high-powered pulsed radar, mobile-phone base stations, broadcast antennas, and certain medical devices.
What had really happened at the IARC meeting, according to experts is there were suggestions to declare radiofrequency from cell phones as a “possible carcinogen”, and the meeting agreed to include RF-EMF in the list of items (Group 2B) that could possibly cause cancers after it failed to muster proper scientific evidence.
Cancer expert Dr Gopala Kovvali compared the possible harm that a cell phone would cause to that of a cup of coffee or pickled vegetables, a mouth-watering dish in India. He said cell phone use is no more dangerous than pickled vegetables, which too fall under class 2B carcinogens. Other items in the Group 2B include Styrofoam cups, automobile exhaust and common medications like valium.
That it was unnecessary media hype became clear after the IACR panel comprising 30 scientists from 14 countries officially released a summary of the deliberations in the Lancet Oncology Journal. The panel delved into as many as 40 studies but found "limited evidence" of radiofrequency-electromagnetic frequency carcinogenicity. It noted that similarly, studies examining mechanisms of carcinogenesis provided "only weak mechanistic evidence relevant to RF-EMF-induced cancer in humans."
“The evidence was reviewed critically, and overall evaluated as being limited among users of wireless telephones for glioma (a malignant type of brain cancer) and acoustic neuroma (cancer of nerve that links ear to the brain), and inadequate to draw conclusions for other types of cancers,” the team reported. The WHO, however, has not conducted any study of its own.
And this brings to debate what constitutes a “possible carcinogen” and is cell phone alone in this category? The IARC considers vegetable pickles and coffee too in its list of “possible carcinogens”. IARC has a long list of items that are definitely carcinogenic in nature and those that possibly cause cancers. At present IARC has placed radiofrequency from wireless phones in the Group 2B (possible carcinogens).
Consider this. Way back in 1991, coffee was placed in the Group 2B. The note against coffee in the IARC list says “there’s some evidence of an inverse relationship between coffee drinking and cancer of the large bowel; coffee drinking could not be classified as to its carcinogenicity to other organs”. In other words it means, as far as large intestine is concerned coffee is cancerous, but it is safe for other body parts.
Dr Gopala, who is also the executive editor of the Journal of Carcinogenesis, pointed out that after reading and seeing media reports he was “editorially excited” that a new source of cancer in humans was found. “I was sure that I could show the reports to my family and convince them to give up cell phones and save a huge amount of money. When I realised that the reports suggested that radiofrequency-energy from cell phones was not considered any more carcinogenic than coffee, as both are now in the company of other
class 2B carcinogens, I gave up the idea, lest I be asked to give up coffee, as I am used to caffeine without which my brain freezes!”
What many had missed was that the studies that were discussed at the IARC meeting were conducted 11 years ago, much before the world caught up with the 3G technology. As Dr Gopala noted the old type of cell phones emitted 100 times more radiofrequency than the modern wireless instruments. In their over enthusiasm some enterprising researchers used “anatomical models” of human beings to drive home their argument that cell phone causes damage to the brain, particularly in children. Anatomical models cannot always reflect the true studies.
As Dr Gopala clarifies “looking at the pictures on TV of the brain that was impacted by the wicked RF energy coming from the cell phones, I was remorseful to have ever used the cell phone. I was especially saddened to hear that the brain of a child was more vulnerable to the harmful effects of the RF-EMF. Little did I know then that these conclusions were based on the anatomical models of humans”.
Incidentally, the IARC last week published a research report which says regular users of mobile phones were not statistically significantly more likely to have been diagnosed with brain tumors compared with nonusers. Children who started to use mobile phones at least 5 years ago were not at increased risk compared with those who had never regularly used mobile phones. No increased risk of brain tumors was observed for brain areas receiving the highest amount of exposure. The absence of an exposure–response
relationship either in terms of the amount of mobile phone use or by localization of the
brain tumor argues against a causal association.
* Cancer experts say radiofrequency and electromagnetic waves that come out of a cell phone are as “dangerous” as a cup of coffee. This is because the International Agency for Research on Cancer lists both coffee and cell phones under Group 2B. It regards both as “possibly causing” cancers. Other items in the IARC’s Group 2B of possibly causing cancers include vegetable pickles, polystyrene foam cups, automobile exhaust and common medications like valium (prescribed for anxiety disorders).
* The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a WHO body, did not declare that cell phone causes cancers. It did not find any strong evidence to link cancers with the use of cell phone. But newspapers and TV channels reported that the IARC studies had linked cancer to cell phones. In fact, IARC has not conducted any study on its own.
* IARC is now busy preparing a monograph on the proceedings of its working committee consisting of 30 scientists from 14 nations. The full report will be ready next year. Whether the full report links cell phone to cancers and upgrade RF-EMF from “possible carcinogen” to “carcinogen” category is to be seen. However, IARC’s preliminary summary published in the Lancet Oncology journal says there’s no proper scientific evidence that use of cell phone causes cancer of the brain.