cellphones are mostly harmless, probably

As an undergraduate studying in London about twenty years ago, I can still recall a few details of a guest lecture given on hertzian dipole emission, which sounds complicated and is, but bear with me… When radio waves are produced by an antenna, the lecturer explained, those waves radiate away with a characteristic directionality. They spread out into an expanding doughnut, with most of the power transmitted directly away from the centre of the aerial. Then, and to illustrate this point, he told us about an increasing health problem that police officers were suffering from as a result of using their walkie-talkies. Apparently, the design was leading to a higher incidence of eye tumours – the centre of the aerials being located close to eye-level.

Now, I have just searched the internet for evidence of a connection between eye tumours and walkie-talkies but I can find none at all, so why did the guest lecturer ever make such a claim? It’s not that he was talking about health and safety in the first case, but merely trying to support the established electromagnetic theory of hertzian dipole emission by providing a little supporting evidence – he told us, in other words, because he thought it was interesting and relevant. So he was simply misinformed, presumably.

Nowadays, of course, many of us carry the state of the art equivalent to walkie-talkies, pressing them to our ears on a daily, if not hourly, basis. About 40 per cent of the microwave energy produced being absorbed directly into our heads. So should we be worried?

Well the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), having just completed an extensive review of a range of existing studies, has concluded that cellphones are indeed “possibly carcinogenic’’, recategorising them as a potential threat to human health alongside certain dry cleaning chemicals and pesticides:

The finding, from the agency’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, adds to concerns among a small but growing group of experts about the health effects of low levels of radiation emitted by cellphones. The panel, which consisted of 31 scientists from 14 countries, was led by Dr. Jonathan M. Samet, a physician and epidemiologist at the University of Southern California and a member of President Obama’s National Cancer Advisory Board.1

The New York Times article continues:

The W.H.O. panel ruled only that cellphones be classified as Category 2B, meaning they are possibly carcinogenic to humans, a designation the panel has given to 240 other agents, including the pesticide DDT, engine exhaust, lead and various industrial chemicals. Also on the list are two familiar foods, pickled vegetables and coffee, which the cellphone industry was quick to point out.

“This I.A.R.C. classification does not mean cellphones cause cancer,’’ John Walls, vice president for public affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association, an industry group, said in a statement. Mr. Walls noted that both the Federal Communications Commission and the Food and Drug Administration have concluded that the weight of the scientific evidence does not link cellphones with cancer or other health problems.

Click here to read the full article.

The Japanese Broadcasting Corporation NHK decided that the new IARC report was significant enough to run as its headline:

Cancer experts at the World Health Organization have for the first time found evidence that the heavy use of mobile phones may increase the risk of developing brain tumors. The announcement was made on Tuesday during a meeting of scientists at WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon, France…

The researchers advised that cellphones be placed in the third highest cancer-risk category on the agency’s 5-scale classification system. That category also includes lead and chloroform.

The scientists said research indicates that the risk for developing brain cancer increases by 40 percent among people who use mobile phones for 30 minutes a day for at least 10 years. They added that more research should be conducted. One scientist advised taking practical measures to reduce exposure, such as using hands-free devices or texting.

It was the first time WHO has reported that electromagnetic waves emitted by mobile phones pose a cancer risk.2

Click here to read the full text.

But the mobile phone industry is hanging tough of course. Like the asbestos industry, the tobacco companies and the nuclear lobby, it is demanding further proof, whilst reminding us that there is still no established mechanism that links microwave radiation to cancer, which is perfectly correct. Basically, we’ll just have to wait and see, because as Professor Lawrie Challis, an expert in the field and Chairman of the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research (MTHR), told The Times in an interview back in 2007:

 “You can look at almost any cancer where you know what the cause was. You find absolutely nothing for ten years,” he says. The groundbreaking study proving the link between lung cancer and smoking showed a similar delay, he says. “You look at what happened after the atomic bomb. Nagasaki, Hiroshima. You find again a long delay, nothing for ten years. The same for asbestos disease.” So although the many existing studies into mobile phone safety have shown no dangers does not deter him. “The people who’ve done these studies have been cautious. They say, ‘We can’t rule out the possibility’. But I want to know whether it’s there.”3

Click here to read full article.

As NHK reports, this is the first time WHO has warned that mobile phones pose any risk of cancer, and it may very well be that the dismal data needed to make their judgement conclusive will arrive in future years, just as it did with atomic radiation, asbestos, and smoking. Or perhaps the men from the industry were right for a change, and so who knows, regularly microwaving the brain might not cause cancer, or a whole range of other suspected neurological disorders. Maybe instead it will turn out to boost intelligence, promote feelings of well-being and happiness, and generally increase life expectancy. Crazier discoveries have been made, probably.

What we can be sure, is that if and when cellphone users begin suing for damages, the industry will fight any claims to the bitter end. Their defence, as usual, will depend upon plausible deniability. Meanwhile, with the release of this week’s report, WHO have put themselves in the clear. They’re not taking any chances. And though their announcement might well be too little, too late, at least you can’t say they didn’t warn you.

From a New York Times article entitled “Cellphone Radiation May Cause Cancer, Advisory Panel says”, by Tara Parker-Pope and Felicity Barringer, published Tuesday 31st May. well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/31/cellphone-radiation-may-cause-cancer-advisory-panel-says/

2  From NHK World news headlines “WHO panel warns cellphones may cause cancer” published Wednesday 1st June. www3.nhk.or.jp/daily/english/01_35.html

3  From an article entitled “Could these be the cigarettes of the 21st century?… ‘Absolutely’” by Alice Miles and Helen Rumbelow, published in The Times on 20th January 2007. www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article1294717.ece?token=null&offset=0&page=1

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