The latest news that mobile phones could possibly cause human cancer might have sent millions reaching for their hands-free kits, but the electronics industry has been quick to put it into perspective.
One group representing the mobile industry said the latest findings from the World Health Organisation put handsets in the same risk group as pickled vegetables and coffee.
The WHO has classified the mobile threat in the 2B category. That means, in their own words, there is limited evidence of a carcinogenic effect on humans, and less than enough evidence from animal experiments.
The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer found some findings suggested an increased risk for a specific type of brain tumour called glioma. The statement said there was not enough evidence to draw conclusions on other types of cancer.
Thirty-one scientists from 14 countries gathered at Lyon in France to review previously published studies.
The IARC’s Christopher Wild said: “What this working group has found is a possible risk of cancer in association with the use of mobile phones, or cell phones, and that was derived by looking at the whole data set of whether there is an association with cancer in humans, what are the animal experimental data and whether there are any plausible mechanisms.”
The chair of the IARC’s working group, Jonathan Samet said: “Tobacco, for example, is a long known human carcinogen and we have evidence going back 50 years that is very very strong, here unfortunately the evidence says only ‘possibly’ and I think that is an indication that we need to continue and watch and track what is happening with brain tumours and do studies that will inform us as to whether there is a potential cause, causal link.”
Communications industry experts believe mobiles have become such an ingrained part of daily life, especially now that they are used increasingly for web surfing, that it will take much more compelling evidence to change users’ lifestyles. They point to the fact that the IARC did not conduct any new research before issuing these latest conclusions.
Even the scientists agree more studies are needed for a clearer picture.
Samet said: “Several of the epidemiological studies looked pretty closely at this question, it seems logical that if cell phones were to contribute to the causation of cancer the tumour would be more likely to be on the side where people use the phone and there is some indication that that is in fact the case.”
There have been numerous studies on the safety of mobile phones. Last year research was published that had looked at 13,000 cell phone users over 10 years. That found no definitive answer on whether the mobile devices cause brain tumours.
But American scientists have discovered that using a mobile phone can change brain cell activity.
The IARC said until there is a clearer picture it would be wise to take precautions.
“There are approaches you can take,” said Wild. “Use texting or use hands free systems to reduce or limit your exposure whilst we are in this period of uncertainty.”
They first appeared in the 1980s as big, unwieldy and expensive accessories for the well-off. But the mobile has now become ubiquitous, a common and essential partner to an estimated five billion users around the world.