“It’s looking increasingly likely that cellular phones (mostly smartphones these days) are harmful in terms of cancer risk, particularly to the head and neck,” says Joel M. Moskowitz, Director of the Center for Family and Community Health at the University of California at Berkeley. “A lot of scientists have come round to the view that radiofrequency radiation is probably carcinogenic because of new research that has emerged since 2011.”
That was the year the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” A panel of 31 expert scientists from 14 different countries concluded radiofrequency radiation, which is emitted by cell phones and other wireless communication devices should be placed in Group 2B alongside a fairly long list of other substances that includes lead, coffee, nickel, and gasoline.
But is it really so dangerous? Despite the passionate views espoused by many experts, others are confident that the risk is overblown, or at least reluctant to push for sweeping societal changes. So should you be afraid, or gab away as usual? We asked a few experts to find out the truth.
Independent studies are showing danger
Cell phone emissions were classified as “possibly carcinogenic” based on an increased risk of glioma, which is the most common form of brain cancer, but they were also strongly linked with another type of tumor, benign acoustic neuromas. A lot of the available evidence back in 2011 came from a series of studies known as the Interphone studies, which were partly funded by the wireless communications industry.
A panel of 31 expert scientists from 14 different countries classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
“I’ve been tracking the research for five years now and the evidence of the effect is growing stronger,” Moskowitz told Digital Trends. “This is perhaps in part because the new studies are independent, not funded by the wireless industry.”
Back in 2006, Henry Lai, a professor at the University of Washington analyzed all available studies on cell phone radiation from 1990 to 2006. He found that 50 percent of the 326 studies showed a biological effect from radio-frequency radiation, but when he divided them into independently funded studies and those funded by the wireless industry he found the split was 70 – 30.
“Even if you accept all the industry studies, you still end up with 50-50,” Lai told Seattle Mag in 2011. “How could 50 percent all be garbage? People always start with the statement ‘hundreds of studies have been done on this topic, and no effect has been found’ — but this is a very misleading statement.”
Another potentially telling revelation is that the industry can’t get product liability insurance for mobile devices. Some people within the insurance industry feel that there’s a real risk of a wave of lawsuits related to brain tumors and other conditions caused by cell phones over the next couple of decades. Insurance giant the Swiss Re Group included “unforeseen consequences of electromagnetic fields” in its Emerging Risk Insights report.
“Governments are flying blind on this, they’re either ignorant or they’re in denial,” Moskowitz says. “In part it’s ignorance, but in part they’re getting pressure from an industry that dwarfs big tobacco. It’s just too profitable, about a sixth of your cell phone bill in the U.S. goes to government in fees or taxes.”
Do we all have our heads in the sand? This is a controversial topic and it’s hard to get definitive answers. We decided to speak to Dr. Kurt Straif, Head of the World Health Organization program that classified RF electromagnetic fields as “possibly carcinogenic” back in 2011. And in Straif’s eyes, the situation is far muddier.
“We don’t know for sure if it’s causing cancer or not.”
“We’ve done almost 1,000 different agent assessments,” Dr. Straif told Digital Trends, “and this is probably the most heated controversy in terms of strong believers — scientists in the field that say we already know it’s causing cancer to the other extreme that says every additional cent spent on research is wasted because we know it can never cause cancer.”
The IARC Monographs program Straif headed up was formed with the backing of the World Health Organization and the United Nations, at the request of member states looking to identify substances and circumstances that are known to cause cancer in humans, and to make that information available for cancer prevention.
An independent advisory group suggests topics and the Monographs group decides what to pursue. It gathers all the published research, identifies the best experts in the world for each topic, and they draft working papers, and then there is an 8 day meeting to classify each possible carcinogen and create a volume of Monographs.
“The Monographs are the most authoritative program in cancer-hazard identification, running for the longest time, looking at all types of environmental exposure, but also known for being the strongest program in terms of a very strict policy to exclude conflicts of interest,” Straif explains. “Scientists with a link to industry, or on the other hand, scientists with a very strong link to advocacy groups, would not be eligible to serve on the working group.”
He points out that, though the Interphone study was partly funded by industry, there was a very strict firewall in place overseen by the Union for International Cancer Control.
“I did not sense any strong orchestrated efforts by industry to influence the outcome of the 2011 meeting,” he told us.
We can safely say that the IARC group is impartial. It’s no stranger to controversy and it does not bend to big business. Take for example the recent classification of glyphosate — the main chemical in the pesticide Roundup — as “probably carcinogenic,” a move that incurred the wrath of Monsanto, the pesticide’s maker. Glyphosate is in group 2A, which is still one step down from Group 1, “carcinogenic to humans.” Radiofrequency EMF radiation was placed in Group 2B, largely based on cell phone studies. So what does the “possibly carcinogenic” classification actually mean?
“It means that there is scientific evidence, in this case limited evidence from the human studies, that it could cause cancer in humans,” says Straif. “There is also limited evidence from animal studies, and there is weak mechanistic data. These three things together result in the evaluation of possibly carcinogenic.”
There is currently no firm plan to reassess radiofrequency EMF radiation, but Dr. Straif says it is on the radar, and if important new evidence was to emerge, the IARC Monographs group could make it a priority.
“Knowing about the studies that have been published since 2011, I think that the epidemiological evidence is still limited,” says Straif, making it clear that this is his personal opinion and not that of the IARC group. “It has not changed in the one or the other direction. There are lots of different scientific groups out there. Some think with the new publications that the human evidence is now sufficient to result in a Group 1 classification as a known human carcinogen. I don’t think these studies would change the current overall evaluation of 2B.”
Next page: Are you more likely to get cancer? If so, how much more?