Workers Health & Safety Centre

Radiation from cell phones a human carcinogen, new review finds

Recent research into radiofrequency radiation (RFR) provides the evidence necessary to reclassify and prevent exposures urges a recently published scientific literature review.
 
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) first classified RFR as a possible human carcinogen (Group 2B) in 2011. Authors of the literature review say IARC should now upgrade RFR’s designation to carcinogenic to humans (Group 1).
 
 “With the epidemiological studies of humans over many years and the recent findings of the US National Toxicological Program and Ramazzini Institute animal studies, we now have enough evidence to classify radiofrequency radiation as carcinogenic to humans,” says Dr. Anthony Miller, lead author of the review and professor emeritus, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto.  Miller is also a former Senior Epidemiologist for IARC and former Director of Epidemiology for the National Cancer Institute of Canada.
 
Miller and his coauthors add this same evidence is “strong enough to go from precaution concerning possible risk to prevention of known risks.”

Enough known to act

IARC based their initial 2011 designation on increased risk for glioma, a type of brain cancer, associated with wireless phone use. At the time, then-IARC Director Christopher Wild cited the need for more research, but also called for immediate “pragmatic measures to reduce exposure such as hands‐free devices or texting."
 
Now, eight years on, the evidence summarized in this review, 13 new studies in all, links RFR to cancers of the brain and vestibular nerve. To be specific nine studies reported increased risk of brain cancer from cell phone use. Meantime, four case-controlled studies reported increased risk of tumors to the vestibular nerve from cell phone use.
 
Other related cancers to “consider” say the authors include cancers of the saliva glands, blood, breast, testis, and perhaps even colon.  They highlight too potential non-cancer health impacts, including sperm damage, electromagnetic hypersensitivity, plus loss of hearing and visual acuity.
 
These other cancers and impacts will take further research to fully understand the relationship between exposures and disease causation say the review researchers. They go to some extent to explain the challenges researchers face in exploring these relationships and how some can bias findings of no association. Study of occupational groups with “excess exposure” to RFR may be key to further understanding the researchers suggest. As the World Health Organization acknowledges of the some 150 known or probable carcinogens “many occur in occupational settings.”
 
Regardless, we know enough now to act they say. Epidemiological studies reported since 2011 at least justify a classification of “probable” human carcinogen. But couple these with the recently reported animal data from the US National Toxicology Program and Ramazzini Institute and a definitive classification of carcinogenic to humans is warranted, they conclude.

Sources of radiation

Radiofrequency radiation are electromagnetic waves emitted from wireless transmitting devices, including cell phones, cordless phones, tablets, headphones (wireless and bluetooth), gaming devices, baby monitors, smart meters and Wi-Fi computer networks. The infrastructure supporting these devices, including the ever-expanding number of cell towers in residential areas, also emit RFR.
 
Still, for most the principle source of exposure are cell and cordless phones. The most significant exposure occurs when devices are in close contact with the body, as is the case when speaking on phones held directly against the ear. Radiation is absorbed directly into the head and brain.
 
Concerned about lack of public awareness, the city of Berkeley, California passed a law in 2015 requiring cell phone retailers to display safety information relating to radiation exposure.  No such requirements exist here in Canada.
 
A national survey completed for CBC Marketplace in 2017 found 81 per cent of Canadians were unaware of the mandatory manufacturer warnings to keep cell phones 5-15 mm away from our bodies to help reduce exposure to radiation. When told this precaution information is available through their cell phone, most could not find the information.
 
This same survey found more than half of Canadian cell phone owners carry their cell phone against their body “always” or “often”. If they were aware of the exposure risk, 75 per cent said they would stop carrying their phone against the body.  

Blueprint for prevention

Beyond an IARC reclassification for RFR, Miller and his coauthors suggest a range of measures to raise awareness and chart a course for prevention. In their paper they advocate, “A concerted program of public and health professional education should be undertaken throughout society explaining current knowledge and devising policies to promote safer technology in partnership with designers of software and hardware. In addition, methods should be developed and validated to reduce exposures in schools, hospitals and other workplaces.”
 
The authors also flag concerns with new, untested wireless technology, including 5G. “Before we blanket our nation with 5G, yet another layer of microwave radiation, we must critically examine its impact on our health and environment,” says co-author of this report and President of Environmental Health Trust, Dr. Devra Davis. 
 
Back in 2011, Health Canada weighed in to offer advice for limiting exposure to RFR from cell phones calling for shorter calls, use of hands-free devices, text messages in place of calls and encourage children under 18 to limit their cell phone usage (as studies have shown children are particularly vulnerable to exposures).  Though this advice is still relevant, additional and more current information is available from many trusted sources. Below are but a few examples.
 
Environmental Health Trust
California Department of Public Health
- Canadians for Safe Technology
EMF Scientists
Dr. Magda Havis