Cell Phones, Cancer and Precaution

written by Elise Miller, MEd
Director 

The National Toxicology Program’s study on the potential health impacts of cell phone radiation published at the end of May has been called a potential “game-changer” by some leading researchers in the field. The preliminary findings of this study, the largest of its kind ever conducted, indicate that male rats exposed to radio-frequency (RF) radiation emitted from wireless devices have an increased risk of developing brain cancer (malignant glioma) and tumors on the heart (schwannomas). This affirms the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) decision in 2011 to classify RF radiation as “possibly carcinogenic” in humans. It also suggests that if IARC were to assess the emerging research from the last five years, it might have good reason to raise that classification to “probably carcinogenic.”

Critics, such as Dr. Aaron Carroll whose column was published in the New York Times, have questioned the legitimacy of the results on various grounds. But researchers intimately involved in reviewing this area of science for years have released statements refuting those perceived shortcomings, including a piece in Scientific American by Dr. Chris Portier, former director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the director of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), and another in Microwave News by Dr. Ronald Melnick, who led the design of the study and was a senior toxicologist and director of special programs in the Environmental Toxicology Program at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) before his retirement. Dr. Joel Moskowitz, director of the Center for Family and Community Health School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley also issued a statement regarding different interpretations of the study.

What does all this mean? In a phrase: Practice precaution. As Dr. Portier puts it, “…proximity matters, as does duration, and level of exposure. Think of it this way: sitting around a campfire is a fine thing, but sitting in the flames yields a very different outcome.” In other words, the further you are from your phone the better. That means using headsets, not carrying a cell phone near your body, turning it off when not in use, and so forth. As is true with toxic exposures of any kind, however, the consumer shouldn’t have to figure out whether a product is safe or not. Appropriate labeling is of course key. And ultimately, manufacturers of cell phones and other wireless devices need to develop safer designs that emit far less radiation. We know cell phones are not going away, and of course additional research is needed to deepen our understanding of the extent and scope of these concerns. In the meanwhile, we can use the results from robust studies like NTP’s to move us, individually and collectively, towards healthier choices.

See CHE’s Working Group on Electromagnetic Fields.

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