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Cellphone, cancer link confirmed

The number of mobile phone subscriptions is estimated to be at five billion globally.

Heavy cellphone use can possibly lead to cancer, said the World Health Organisation's (WHO's) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) yesterday.

The IARC's mission is to coordinate and conduct research on the causes of human cancer, the mechanisms of carcinogenesis, and to develop scientific strategies for cancer control.

It classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans. It says this is based on an increased risk for glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer, associated with wireless phone use.

“Over the last few years, there has been mounting concern about the possibility of adverse health effects resulting from exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields, such as those emitted by wireless communication devices,” says the agency.

The WHO said the evidence of harm is limited and based on inconclusive research, but cellphones warrant classification as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”. This category includes 266 items, from gasoline exhaust to talcum powder.

The number of mobile phone subscriptions was estimated to be at five billion globally by the International Telecommunications Union last year. According to local mobile giant Vodacom, SA has an estimated mobile penetration of 107%.

Identifying risks

A working group of 31 scientists, from 14 countries, held meetings at the IARC, in France, from 24 to 31 May, to assess the potential carcinogenic hazards from exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields.

The group discussed the possibility that these exposures might induce long‐term health effects, in particular an increased risk for cancer, says the agency.

“This has relevance for public health, particularly for users of mobile phones, as the number of users is large and growing, particularly among young adults and children.”

The group discussed and evaluated the available literature on exposure categories involving occupational exposure to radar and microwaves; environmental exposure associated with transmission of signals for radio, television and wireless telecommunication; and personal exposure associated with the use of mobile phones.

“International experts shared the complex task of tackling the exposure data, the studies of cancer in humans, the studies of cancer in experimental animals, and the mechanistic and other relevant data.”

Limited cause?

The results show that overall there is a limited cause of glioma from the use of wireless phones, but the evidence has been inadequate to draw conclusions for other types of cancers.

The evidence from the occupational and environmental exposures was also judged as inadequate. This means that the available studies are of insufficient quality, consistency or statistical power to permit a conclusion regarding the presence or absence of a causal association between exposure and cancer, or no data on cancer in humans are available.

“The working group did not quantitate the risk; however, one study of past cellphone use (up to the year 2004), showed a 40% increased risk for gliomas in the highest category of heavy users (reported average: 30 minutes per day over a 10-year period).”

More SMSing please

"The evidence, while still accumulating, is strong enough to support a conclusion. The conclusion means that there could be some risk and, therefore, we need to keep a close watch for a link between cellphones and cancer risk," says chairman of the working group Jonathan Samet.

IARC director Christopher Wild adds that, given the potential consequences of these findings for public health, it is important that additional research be conducted into the long‐term, heavy use of mobile phones.

“Pending the availability of such information, it is important to take pragmatic measures to reduce exposure, such as [using] hands‐free devices or texting."

Safe distance

Mobile phones communicate by transmitting radio waves through a network of fixed antennas, called base stations.

The WHO previously said 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 30–40cm 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.”

It added that using the phone in areas of good reception also decreases exposure as it allows the phone to transmit at reduced power.

Microwave warfare

The potential health effects of mobile technologies were thrown into the spotlight in April last year in SA.

Retired military intelligence scientist Barrie Trower visited the country to address various concerns around the health risks of cellphone use, under the auspices of the then newly-founded Electromagnetic Radiation Research Foundation of SA.

Speaking at a media briefing in Johannesburg, he warned that radiation from cellphones and masts causes severe behavioural and health problems.

Trower said he observed that microwaves, often with added pulsed frequencies, caused behavioural disturbances such as depression, mood swings, and suicidal tendencies, as well as health problems, including lowered immunity and cancer.

He advocated that cellphone masts and WiFi systems should not be allowed in schools, due to the health hazards they pose for children and staff. Trower said he had identified 200 leukaemia clusters of 10 or more children near masts in the UK, France and Spain.

Tower down

Residents in the suburb of Craigavon, in Fourways, were up in arms in 2009 after iBurst switched on a tower that they claimed caused a variety of illnesses.

The tower at the centre of the issue was blamed for a host of illnesses, including skin rashes, headaches, vomiting, sleep disorders, fatigue, upset stomachs and tinnitus.

iBurst repeatedly denied the tower caused any of these illnesses, but turned the structure off for two weeks as a gesture of goodwill.

After the residents failed to provide any medical proof of their allegations, the tower was turned back on.


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