Do you think frequent use of your cell phone could cause cancer?
by Connie Midey – Jun. 1, 2011
The Arizona Republic
The report Tuesday of a possible connection between cellphone use and increased risk for a hard-to-treat brain cancer caused lots of chatter, but a Phoenix physician cautioned that confirming any such link “will take many, many years, if it exists at all.”
“I think ‘possible’ is the operative word,” said Dr. Nader Sanai, director of neurological oncology at Barrow Neurological Institute on the campus of St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix. “I use a cellphone, but I use it hands-free when driving because there’s a far greater risk of a car accident than my lifetime risk of developing a glioma.”
Glioma, an often deadly type of brain tumor named in the report, is diagnosed in four or five out of 100,000 people, he said. Lung cancer is diagnosed in 65.6 per 100,000.
The report, released by the World Health Organization and its affiliated International Agency for Research on Cancer, said a panel of international experts found “limited” evidence that radio-frequency energy from wireless phones could increase the risk for glioma and acoustic neuroma. The latter is a usually benign tumor on nerves near the inner ear.
“What we have here is a warning from a public health point of view,” said Dr. Jonathan Samet, chairman of the department of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine and chairman of the panel that issued the report. “We have half the world’s population already using cellphones, and people are using them younger and longer. We clearly need to keep track of this.”
The WHO panel did not conduct new research but reviewed hundreds of scientific articles, deciding that evidence warranted a 2B classification for cellphones as “possibly” carcinogenic to humans.
“We have to put everything in perspective,” Sanai said. “Coffee is in that same (2B) category, and that speaks to the generality of it. There are bigger, real risks, like the association between smoking and lung cancer.”
Substances classified as 2A, or “probable” causes of cancer, include anabolic steroids and inorganic lead compounds. Known carcinogens, in Group 1, include asbestos, formaldehyde and tobacco use.
Other scientists also remain skeptical of any cancer link, which is mired in contradictory science.
“I find the conclusions surprising given that there is increasingly strong evidence that cellphone use has no association with brain-cancer occurrence,” said David A. Savitz, a professor in the departments of epidemiology and obstetrics and gynecology at Brown University and a researcher on environmental exposures and health.
Still, Sanai said taking sensible precautions while awaiting further evidence is wise.
“We know from studies about other sources of radiation that there may not be immediate changes,” he said. “It would be prudent to limit exposure, especially for children who use cellphones, because they will have many decades of exposure. These days, the expected lifetime of Americans is very long, so exposure to even small risks can accumulate.”
Scientists have long debated the potential cancer risk linked to cellphone use, but this WHO statement marks the first time an independent group of scientists has taken anything other than a neutral stand.
The panel based its conclusions primarily on data from the multicountry Interphone studies that were coordinated by the IARC as well as research by Swedish cancer researcher Lennart Hardell. The Interphone data showed that people who used a cellphone 10 or more years had a doubled risk of glioma. One study showed a 40 percent increase risk of gliomas for people who used cellphones an average of 30 minutes a day over a 10-year period.
A 2004 study put the increased risk of acoustic neuromas at twice the normal risk after 10 years of cellphone use and higher for tumors on the side of the head where the phone is typically placed.
There is too little evidence to draw conclusions about other types of cancer, the report stated.
Enrique Blanco, 27, took a break Tuesday from buying books for his Arizona State University classes in criminology to talk about the WHO report – from his cellphone.
The Tolleson resident carries the phone in his pants pocket, and it’s almost always turned on so that he can keep in touch with his wife, three kids and friends. His Baby Boomer parents communicate with him by cellphone, too.
“This worry about cancer and cellphones has been out there for a while,” said Blanco, who served with the Army infantry in Iraq. “It doesn’t scare me. I use a regular phone at home, and I don’t sleep next to my cellphone. But I’m on the cellphone probably three to four hours a day altogether.”
After hearing about the report, though, Blanco said he is considering the purchase of earpieces for his phone.
Moving a cellphone from 1 inch to 10 inches away from the head reduces radio-frequency energy 100-fold, experts say.
The Los Angeles Times contributed to this article.