The World Health Organization (WHO) has classed mobile phone radiation as a “possible human carcinogen”. It has just issued its full report in The Lancet Oncology Journal outlining the evidence for an association between mobile phone use and certain brain cancers. It states that the evidence for the link is not conclusive but is possible. So what should we make of that?
To paraphrase the conclusion of the WHO report: when people use phones over a long-ish period – if their estimates of their use can be trusted – they seem to get more brain tumours, especially on the side they usually hold their phone.
But we don’t know for sure whether one causes the other. There could be a confounding factor: maybe people who use phones a lot also lead unhealthier lives . More fast food? Less sleep? More X-rays? Who knows?
So is this an “everything gives you cancer” moment, as some have suggested? Is this a trifling risk, maybe like the coffee that appears in same World Health Organization category listing“possible” carcinogens ? Or is it a major one like tobacco and asbestos?
The body of evidence showing risk from mobile phone radiation has been growing rapidly. From a smattering of studies in the early Noughties showing up some disquieting results, recently we have seen study after study find a link between phone use and cancer (though interestingly that isn’t always what the press has reported). Almost every one of the many studies published that has looked at people who have used a phone for at least 10 years has found an increase in brain tumours.
People who liken phone health risks to those of drinking coffee (a parallel brought to journalists’ attention by the phone industry’s representative body, the CTIA, immediately after the WHO ruling) ignore the fact that many of the other toxins in the WHO’s Class 2B have all been around for a very long time, such as coffee, gasoline and bitumen. So we can get a handle on how serious a risk we are dealing with there.
But when it comes to mobiles, the science is in its infancy. The longest period of use that’s been studied is 10 years. Yet brain tumours take around 20 years to develop, so the full effects would not yet be showing up in the research and we may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg.
This is critical. Ninety per cent of over 11’s in the UK now have their own mobile phone and research shows children are muchmore vulnerable to the radiation emitted by mobiles: theyabsorb up to 60% more radiation because of their smaller heads and thinner sculls. By the time they are in their thirties they will have used mobiles for as long as it takes a tumour to develop.
A new review of studies concluding that there has been no ‘material increase’ in brain tumours in the past 10-15 years hascreated headlines . But we wouldn’t expect to see an increase yet given the latency lag. And in this review, unlike the World Health Organization one, key studies demonstrating statistically significant increases in certain brain tumours were ignored.
Contradictory reports leave us all feeling disoriented. They alsopander to our hope that mobile phone danger isn’t yet another problem to worry about. This does a disservice to the children growing up ill-informed and exposed to a potentially serious – and easily avoidable – risk.
In 1929 Fritz Lickint published the first paper linking tobacco to lung cancer. The evidence was the first warning bell following a mass explosion in smoking during and after the First World War. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that governments started getting serious about discouraging smoking. The early signs were ignored, while the tobacco industry milked the scientific and regulatory uncertainties for all they were worth.
The explosion in mobile phone use means that we are in uncharted territories again. The science just doesn’t tell us enough about the profile of this risk. So we need to think intelligently about how we deal with it . The MobileWise Safe Mobile Code is one way – better safe than sorry.
The UK government recognised the unquantified risk for young people when it issued a recommendation in 2000 that under-16s limit their phone use. But it hasn’t publicised this warning to anyone who might have conveyed it to children – like their parents or teachers. The latest version of the Department of Health leaflet containing the warning is not even being printed.
When we look back, will we be proud if we dismiss the compelling (if not conclusive) evidence that mobile phones might be giving us brain tumours? Might we wish we’d taken the label ‘possible’ more seriously and not responded with that lazy cliche´ “everything gives you cancer”?