Electromagnetic fields and public health: mobile phones

Fact sheet N°193
June 2011
Key facts

Mobile phone use is ubiquitous with an estimated 4.6 billion subscriptions globally.
The electromagnetic fields produced by mobile phones are classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as possibly carcinogenic to humans.
Studies are ongoing to more fully assess potential long-term effects of mobile phone use.
WHO will conduct a formal risk assessment of all studied health outcomes from radio frequency fields exposure by 2012.

Mobile or cellular phones are now an integral part of modern telecommunications. In many countries, over half the population use mobile phones and the market is growing rapidly. At the end of 2009, there were an estimated 4.6 billion subscriptions globally. In some parts of the world, mobile phones are the most reliable or the only phones available.

Given the large number of mobile phone users, it is important to investigate, understand and monitor any potential public health impact.

Mobile phones communicate by transmitting radio waves through a network of fixed antennas called base stations. Radiofrequency waves are electromagnetic fields, and unlike ionizing radiation such as X-rays or gamma rays, can neither break chemical bonds nor cause ionization in the human body.
Exposure levels

Mobile phones are low-powered radiofrequency transmitters, operating at frequencies between 450 and 2700 MHz with peak powers in the range of 0.1 to 2 watts. The handset only transmits power when it is turned on. The power (and hence the radiofrequency exposure to a user) falls off rapidly with increasing distance from the handset. A person using a mobile phone 30–40 cm away from their body – for example when text messaging, accessing the Internet, or using a “hands free” device – will therefore have a much lower exposure to radiofrequency fields than someone holding the handset against their head.

In addition to using “hands-free” devices, which keep mobile phones away from the head and body during phone calls, exposure is also reduced by limiting the number and length of calls. Using the phone in areas of good reception also decreases exposure as it allows the phone to transmit at reduced power. The use of commercial devices for reducing radiofrequency field exposure has not been shown to be effective.

Mobile phones are often prohibited in hospitals and on airplanes, as the radiofrequency signals may interfere with certain electro-medical devices and navigation systems.
Are there any health effects?

A large number of studies have been performed over the last two decades to assess whether mobile phones pose a potential health risk. To date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use.
Short-term effects

Tissue heating is the principal mechanism of interaction between radiofrequency energy and the human body. At the frequencies used by mobile phones, most of the energy is absorbed by the skin and other superficial tissues, resulting in negligible temperature rise in the brain or any other organs of the body.

A number of studies have investigated the effects of radiofrequency fields on brain electrical activity, cognitive function, sleep, heart rate and blood pressure in volunteers. To date, research does not suggest any consistent evidence of adverse health effects from exposure to radiofrequency fields at levels below those that cause tissue heating. Further, research has not been able to provide support for a causal relationship between exposure to electromagnetic fields and self-reported symptoms, or “electromagnetic hypersensitivity”.
Long-term effects

Epidemiological research examining potential long-term risks from radiofrequency exposure has mostly looked for an association between brain tumours and mobile phone use. However, because many cancers are not detectable until many years after the interactions that led to the tumour, and since mobile phones were not widely used until the early 1990s, epidemiological studies at present can only assess those cancers that become evident within shorter time periods. However, results of animal studies consistently show no increased cancer risk for long-term exposure to radiofrequency fields.

Several large multinational epidemiological studies have been completed or are ongoing, including case-control studies and prospective cohort studies examining a number of health endpoints in adults. The largest retrospective case-control study to date on adults, Interphone, coordinated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), was designed to determine whether there are links between use of mobile phones and head and neck cancers in adults. The international pooled analysis of data gathered from 13 participating countries found no increased risk of glioma or meningioma with mobile phone use of more than 10 years. There are some indications of an increased risk of glioma for those who reported the highest 10% of cumulative hours of cell phone use, although there was no consistent trend of increasing risk with greater duration of use. The researchers concluded that biases and errors limit the strength of these conclusions and prevent a causal interpretation. Based largely on these data, IARC has classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B), a category used when a causal association is considered credible, but when chance, bias or confounding cannot be ruled out with reasonable confidence.

While an increased risk of brain tumors is not established, the increasing use of mobile phones and the lack of data for mobile phone use over time periods longer than 15 years warrant further research of mobile phone use and brain cancer risk. In particular, with the recent popularity of mobile phone use among younger people, and therefore a potentially longer lifetime of exposure, WHO has promoted further research on this group. Several studies investigating potential health effects in children and adolescents are underway.
Exposure limit guidelines

Radiofrequency exposure limits for mobile phone users are given in terms of Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) – the rate of radiofrequency energy absorption per unit mass of the body. Currently, two international bodies 1, 2 have developed exposure guidelines for workers and for the general public, except patients undergoing medical diagnosis or treatment. These guidelines are based on a detailed assessment of the available scientific evidence.
WHO’S response

In response to public and governmental concern, WHO established the International Electromagnetic Fields (EMF) Project in 1996 to assess the scientific evidence of possible adverse health effects from electromagnetic fields. WHO will conduct a formal risk assessment of all studied health outcomes from radiofrequency fields exposure by 2012. In addition, and as noted above, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a WHO specialized agency, has reviewed the carcinogenic potential of radiofrequency fields, as from mobile phones in May 2011.

WHO also identifies and promotes research priorities for radiofrequency fields and health to fill gaps in knowledge through its research agendas.

WHO develops public information materials and promotes dialogue among scientists, governments, industry and the public to raise the level of understanding about potential adverse health risks of mobile phones.

1 International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP). Statement on the “Guidelines for limiting exposure to time-varying electric, magnetic and electromagetic fields (up to 300 GHz)”, 2009.

2 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). IEEE standard for safety levels with respect to human exposure to radio frequency electromagnetic fields, 3 kHz to 300 GHz, IEEE Std C95.1, 2005.

From the WHO announcement above “The use of commercial devices for reducing radiofrequency field exposure has not been shown to be effective.” Waveshield has never maintained since its inception that we alter, modify, harmonize or otherwise render harmless the non ionizing radiation from cell and cordless telephones unlike all of our competition that sell stickers, buttons and cases. What the Waveshield does is block the radiation from coming out of the earpiece which then passes into the ear, through the ear canal and on into the brain. IN 2002 when the FTC in the USA shut down all of the manufacturers marketing bogus anti radiation devices they allowed Waveshield to remain in business until today as our test results from accredited FCC labs showed that what we claimed was in fact the truth. We will continue to educate the public about the potential dangers and health risks and exactly what needs to be done to reduce the risk.

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Gupta: Cell phones, brain tumors and a wired earpiece

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Chief Medical Correspondent

Just about every time I use a cell phone, I plug in my wired earpiece first. Having discussed the use of earpieces on several news shows, people expect to see me using one. If I am walking around the CNN studios, my colleagues often comment on it. In airports, people will stop me in the rare cases I forget to use the earpiece, and remind me about it. Perhaps, they are intrigued because I am a neurosurgeon who openly shows some concern about cell phones.

Truth is, it is a pretty easy thing to do – using an earpiece. Furthermore, my neck doesn’t hurt after being on the phone for a long conference call, and given that many of those calls take place in a car, an earpiece becomes a requirement. Still, though, I don’t want to dodge the obvious question: Do cell phones cause brain cancer?

It may be too early to say for sure. The latency period or time between exposure and recognition of a tumor is around 20 years, sometimes longer. And, cell phone use in the U.S. has been popular for only around 15 years. Back in 1996, there were 34 million cell phone users. Today there are 9-10 times as many. Keeping that in mind, it is worth taking a more detailed look at the results of Interphone, a multinational study designed to try to answer this question.

The headline from this study was there was little or no evidence to show an association between cell phones and cancer. Though, if you went to the appendix of the study, which interestingly was available only online, you found something unsettling. The data showed people who used a cell phone 10 years or more doubled the risk of developing a glioma, a type of brain tumor. And, across the board – most of the studies that have shown an increased risk are from Scandinavia, a place where cell phones have been popular since the early 1990s. For these reasons, the whole issue of latency could become increasingly important.

Cell phones use non-ionizing radiation, which is very different from the ionizing radiation of X-rays, which everyone agrees are harmful. Non-ionizing radiation won’t strip electrons or bust up DNA. It’s more like very low power microwaves. Short term, these microwaves are likely harmless, but long term could be a different story. Anyway, who likes the idea of a microwave, even a low-powered one, next to their head all day?

And, what about kids? I have three of them, aged 5, 4 and 2. Fact is, they are more likely to lead to my early demise than cell phones. But, as hard as it is to believe sometimes, they actually have thinner skulls than adults, and will probably be using cell phones longer than I ever will.

The first person to encourage me to regularly wear an ear piece was Dr. Keith Black. He also is a neurosurgeon, and makes a living removing – you guessed it – brain tumors. Keith has long believed there is a link, and for some time, his was a lonely voice in this discussion. Nowadays, he has loud and prominent voices accompanying him. Ronald Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, sent a memo warning staffers to limit their cell phone use. One of the possible consequences, he says, is an increased risk of brain cancer. The city of San Francisco is trying to pass an ordinance requiring radiation warning labels on all cell phones. The European Environmental Agency has said cell phones could be as big a public health risk as smoking, asbestos and leaded gasoline. Even the makers of cell phones suggest you don’t place a device against your head, but rather advocate holding it 5/8 to a full inch away.

Many will roll their eyes at this, scoffing at the precautionary principle on display here. Fair enough. Still, I like my wired earpiece, and I don’t have to turn my life upside down to use it. I also text and email a lot more, because my kids rarely allow me to have a phone conversation. Speaking of kids, you will probably see mine using earpieces too, when my wife and I decide they are old enough to use one, which isn’t in the foreseeable future.

With reporting from CNN’s Danielle Dellorto

Post by: Dr. Sanjay Gupta – CNN Chief Medical Correspondent
Filed under: Brain • Cell Phones • Dr. Sanjay Gupta

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A new study fuels debate over cell phones and tumors

What gives cancer its awful power is its mystery. For thousands of years, there was virtually no mention of the disease in the nascent medical literature because we could not see it, could not recognize our cells rebelling against us. Even though doctors began to understand the nature of certain cancers–and then began reducing death rates through better screening, drugs and surgery–the essential enigma of the disease has never been resolved. Nowhere is that more the case than with brain tumors, which remain as deadly as they are rare. Lung tumors and other cancers can be blamed on lifestyle factors or environmental triggers, but aside from a few statistical quirks, there is little explanation for why a brain tumor strikes one patient and spares another. So if you were that unlucky one, wouldn’t you grasp for any reason that the “emperor of maladies”–as oncologist and author Siddhartha Mukherjee calls cancer–had come for you?

That desperation helps explain why the question of a possible connection between cell-phone radiation and brain tumors remains so heated for a handful of scientists and a larger group of activists and victims. For most cancer experts and medical organizations, it’s an open-and-shut case, and cell phones have been exonerated. Radiation is considered potentially carcinogenic when it is powerful enough to ionize atoms or molecules–adding or removing a charged particle. Nuclear decay and X-ray radiation are known ionizers–and known carcinogens–able to rip molecules to shreds and cause genetic damage that leads to cancer. Cell-phone radiation is non-ionizing and thus considered too weak to cause such damage.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the National Cancer Institute, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and countless other bodies have agreed that cell phones are safe to use. On the World Health Organization’s (WHO) website for “Electromagnetic Fields and Public Health: Mobile Phones,” you can read the verdict in black and white: “To date, no adverse health effects have been established for mobile phone use.”

But those first two words may be key. At the end of May, 31 scientists from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)–the WHO body that does what its name says–spent a week reviewing the latest studies on cancer and cell-phone-radiation exposure. And to the surprise of many cancer experts, IARC classified cell-phone-radiation exposure as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” The panel put cell phones in category 2B on the agency’s willfully unhelpful scale, below sure carcinogens like cigarette smoke and in the same category as the pesticide DDT and gasoline-engine exhaust. “A review of the human evidence of epidemiological studies shows an increased risk of glioma and malignant types of brain cancer in association with wireless-phone use,” Dr. Jonathan Samet, the chairman of the IARC working group, told reporters the day the study was released.

For those who had been sounding the alarm on mobiles, the IARC verdict was a moment of vindication. Last year Devra Davis–an award-winning environmental epidemiologist and the author of The Secret History of the War on Cancer–dived into the cell-phone scrum and produced a new book on the subject: Disconnect. She argued that the wireless industry had all but suppressed any evidence that cell phones might be dangerous, controlling research by controlling funding just as the tobacco industry had for decades. “The world is not fair or just on issues that affect a global multitrillion-dollar industry,” Davis wrote in an e-mail to TIME. But the IARC results, she suggested, could begin to change all that.

The cell-phone industry disagrees. “The IARC classification does not mean cell phones cause cancer,” John Walls, vice president of public affairs for the industry group CTIA–the Wireless Association, said in a statement. He noted that the FCC and FDA had largely dismissed any link between cell phones and cancer. And many epidemiologists and radiation researchers were similarly puzzled by IARC’s conclusions. The agency admitted that the only links it found between increased cell-phone use and certain kinds of brain tumors were epidemiological–meaning that they were based on case-control studies that followed people with cancer, vs. healthy subjects, and asked how often they had used their phones. But there’s still no clear biological explanation–from animal models or anything else–that explains how cell-phone radiation could cause brain tumors. Nor have brain-cancer rates risen in the two decades during which cell phones went from being used by a wealthy few to being used by some 3 billion people around the globe. “To the best of our knowledge, cell-phone radiation does not make use of any of the pathways known to cause cancer,” says David Savitz, a Brown University epidemiologist who has studied the environmental causes of cancer. “Everything I’ve seen points in the opposite direction” of IARC’s conclusion.

IARC itself is equivocal about its findings. Specifically, the study found “limited” evidence of a relationship between cell-phone use and glioma and acoustic neuroma, while evidence for other types of cancer was considered inadequate. Limited evidence is slightly more damning than inadequate evidence, but neither is a slam dunk. What’s more, while DDT and other nasty things are classified as 2B carcinogens, so are seemingly unthreatening products like pickles and coffee. Most troubling of all, the majority of epidemiological studies done so far are flawed and out of date, including the ones on which the IARC based its report. The freshest data the group was able to use comes from 2004. Think about how much cell phones–and cell-phone habits–have changed in that time.

Given all these reasons to doubt IARC’s findings, it would have helped if the researchers had released the details of how they came to the unsettling conclusion they reached, but the full story won’t come out until publication in a journal on July 1. Ultimately, IARC’s leaders essentially argued that it was better to be safe than sorry at a time when nearly the entire planet is exposed to cell-phone radiation.

“So many people around the world are now using mobile phones,” Samet said. “And as use patterns grow, we can anticipate more people using phones longer and longer. What we need is ongoing research and tracking of the way people actually use cell phones.”

Even the cell-phone manufacturers can agree with that conclusion and voice no opposition to more research. But it’s important to keep the studies independent of the industry and other vested interests, which hasn’t been the case so far. When companies bankroll research on their own products, even objective studies can be tainted by the appearance of bias, increasing neither public safety nor public confidence. Davis suggests that a major interdisciplinary research program on bioelectromagnetics be undertaken, funded by a small fee on each handset sold. The National Toxicology Program is already working on what many hope will be the gold standard of animal studies–submitting rats and mice to cell-phone radiation at regular intervals for 20 hours a day. Such total-immersion dosing might help us reach an unambiguous answer.

But chances are just as good that absolute clarity will never happen. What the cell-phone controversy teaches us yet again is that cancer still has its secrets and that it fights to keep them. We’ll search for causes wherever we can because the alternative–that we simply can’t know why these rare and horrible things happen–is too difficult to bear.

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