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Cell phone radiation and health hazards: New discoveries likely to rekindle debate

Syarafina Radzi, 08 Feb 2018
In May 2011, a group of 31 scientists from the World Health Organisation (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) met to assess the potential carcinogenic hazards from exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields. After reviewing the evidence, the group has classified radiofrequency electromagnetic field as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2B), although the evidence was “limited” among users of wireless telephones for glioma and acoustic neuroma, and “inadequate” to draw conclusions for other cancer types.

According to Dr Jonathan Samet from the University of Southern California, who is also the overall Chairman of the group, the evidence is strong enough to support a conclusion and the classification. “The conclusion means that there could be some risk, and therefore we need to keep a close watch for a link between cell phones and cancer risk.”

As part of the effort to clarify the matter, which has increasingly become a public as well as governmental concern, the US National Toxicology Programme (NTP) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched studies to probe deeper into the issue. Recently, the NTP released findings from two studies. Even so, it does not seem likely that the mixed, baffling findings are going to lead experts and regulatory bodies to reach a final verdict concerning the cell phone radiation-cancer debate anytime soon.

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Are the health risks overplayed?

Results from the NTP studies revealed differences in terms of evidence of carcinogenic activity in different groups of rats exposed to radiofrequency radiation (RFR). One of the main findings was that there was an increased incidence of tumours, known as malignant schwannomas, in the heart of male rats. There was also an observed increase of an unusual pattern of heart tissue damage in male and female rats. Overall, however, researchers found little indication of health problems in the mice due to RFR.

NTP studies showed differences in terms of evidence of carcinogenic activity in different groups of rats exposed to radiofrequency radiation.
NTP studies showed differences in terms of evidence of carcinogenic activity in different groups of rats exposed to radiofrequency radiation.

According to a press release, NTP senior scientist John Bucher expressed that “the levels and duration of exposure to RFR were much greater than what people experience with even the highest level of cell phone use, and exposed the rodents’ whole bodies. So, these findings should not be directly extrapolated to human cell phone usage.” He added, “We note, however, that the tumours we saw in these studies are similar to tumours previously reported in some studies of frequent cell phone users.”

Previously, in 2002, a study conducted by scientists at the Washington University School of Medicine concluded that radiation from cell phones does not appear to cause cancer in rats. Later, in 2012, another report was presented by a Norwegian Expert Committee stating that there is no scientific evidence of adverse health effects due to low-level electromagnetic field exposure from mobile phones and other transmitting devices.

A potential concern – but, no need to 'hang up'

According to the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), the key to avoid health hazards from high-frequency (HF) exposure emitted by mobile phones is to restrict the temperature rise in the body. This can be done by limiting the absorption of HF energy which is expressed in terms of the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR). In 1998, the ICNIRP has published guidelines for limiting exposure to time-varying electric, magnetic and electromagnetic fields up to 300GHz. The guidelines are now being revised.

The ICNIRP has published guidelines for limiting exposure to time-varying electric, magnetic and electromagnetic fields up to 300GHz. Photo credit: Science News
The ICNIRP has published guidelines for limiting exposure to time-varying electric, magnetic and electromagnetic fields up to 300GHz. Photo credit: Science News

While it is certainly worth to consider taking pragmatic measures to reduce exposure to radiation, and along with it excessive cell phone use, results from the recent NTP studies are not likely to cause cell phone users to make a drastic shift in their cell phone use or habits in the near future. Perhaps it is safe to say – at least for now – that cell phone users should not be overly worried.

Otis W. Brawley, MD, Chief Medical Officer of American Cancer Society, responded to the findings, saying “additional research will be needed to translate effects at these high doses to what might be expected at the much lower doses received by typical or even high-end cell phone users. Also, cell phone technology continues to evolve, and with each new generation, transmission strengths have declined – and with it, radio frequency exposures.” MIMS


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Sources:
https://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2011/pdfs/pr208_E.pdf
https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/about/org/sep/trpanel/meetings/docs/2018/march/index.html
https://www.niehs.nih.gov/news/newsroom/releases/2018/february2/index.cfm
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2002/06/020626071255.htm
https://www.fhi.no/globalassets/dokumenterfiler/moba/pdf/low-level-radiofrequency-electromagnetic-fields--an-assessment-of-health-risks-and-evaluation-of-regulatory-practice.-niph-report-20123.pdf
http://www.icnirp.org/en/applications/mobile-phones/index.html
http://pressroom.cancer.org/NTP2016