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mobiles & health

Many reviews have concluded that there is no convincing evidence to date that mobile phones are harmful to health. However, the widespread use of mobile phones is a relatively recent phenomenon and it is possible that adverse health effects could emerge after years of prolonged use. Evidence to date suggests that short term (less than ten years) exposure to mobile phone emissions is not associated with an increase in brain and nervous system cancers. However, regarding longer term use, the evidence base necessary to allow us to make firm judgments has not yet been accumulated. There are still significant uncertainties that can only be resolved by monitoring the health of a large cohort of phone users over a long period of time.


IARC announcement

In May 2011 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organisation, announced in a press release (1) that it had classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B); this was later published as an IARC Monograph in 2013 (2). The IARC Working Group of 31 scientists reviewed the scientific literature and concluded that there was limited evidence of carcinogenicity among users of wireless telephones for glioma and acoustic neuroma, but inadequate evidence to draw conclusions for other types of cancers. IARC concluded that a close watch should be kept for a link between mobile phones and cancer risk, and that it is important that additional research be conducted into the long-term, heavy use of mobile phones.

This year (2014) a commentary on Mobile Phones and Cancer was published, providing viewpoints from members of the IARC Working Group on ‘Next Steps After the 2011 IARC Review’ (3). Authors reiterated the inconclusive nature of previous studies and reviewed four cohort studies that were published after the IARC meeting in 2011. The authors concluded that ‘these newer results do not remove the uncertainty inherent in the “possibly carcinogenic”(2B) IARC classification’, and with the forever growing exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields, the authors ‘made the call for more research’, recognising prospective cohort studies, like that of COSMOS, as essential for a valid assessment of exposure.


The Current Research Agenda

In 2010, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a new research agenda for radiofrequency (RF) fields (4). This agenda sets out the priorities for health effects research relating to RF exposures, which include the use of mobile phones. In terms of epidemiological research, the WHO agenda identifies the COSMOS study as one of the most important studies currently ongoing in this field, and the study continues to be classified as high priority in order to evaluate potential long-term risks of mobile phone use.


Key reviews of research to date

A major report on mobile phones and health was published by the UK Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones in 2000, known as the ‘Stewart report’ (5).  This report was updated by a further review of mobile phones and health undertaken by the Advisory Group on Non-Ionizing Radiation (AGNIR) (6) and published by the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) in 2005. In 2007, the independent Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research programme (MTHR), which was established in 2001 following the ‘Stewart Report’, published a report (7) describing research undertaken as part of its programme. None of the research supported by the MTHR programme and published so far demonstrates that biological or adverse health effects are produced by radiofrequency exposure from mobile phones.

In 2009, reports reviewing mobile phones and health research were published by both The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), an independent international scientific organisation formally recognised by the World Health Organization, and The Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR), which was established in 2004 by the European Commission. In relation the mobile phones and tumour risk, the report by ICNIRP (8) concluded that studies published to date do not demonstrate an increased risk within approximately ten years of use for any tumor of the brain or any other head tumor. However, the Commission notes that whilst the available data do not suggest a causal association between mobile phone use and fast-growing tumors (such as malignant glioma), the observation period for slow-growing tumors (such as meningioma and acoustic neuroma) has been too short for the absence of associations reported so far to be considered conclusive. The report by SCENHIR (9) concluded "that exposure to RF fields is unlikely to lead to an increase in cancer in humans. However, as the widespread duration of exposure of humans to RF fields from mobile phones is shorter than the induction time of some cancers, further studies are required to identify whether considerably longer-term (well beyond ten years) human exposure to such phones might pose some cancer risk."


Find Out More

You can also learn more about mobile phones, mobile phone base stations, and health protection policy in the UK from the following websites:

Public Health England

World Health Organization

International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)

MTHR

Department for Culture, Media & Sport

Planning Portal

Directgov

US National Cancer Institute


References

  1. Press Release No. 208 - 31 May 2011.
    IARC, 2011.
  2. Non-ionizing radiation, Part II: Radiofrequency electromagnetic fields / IARC Working Group on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans (2011: Lyon, France)

  3. Commentary: Mobile Phones and Cancer: Next Steps After the 2011 IARC Review
    Epidemiology 2014; 25: 1 p 23-27
  4. WHO Research Agenda for Radiofrequency Fields.
    WHO International EMF Project 2010.
  5. Mobile Phones and Health.
    The Stewart report, UK Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones, 2000.
  6. Health Effects from Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields.
    National Radiology Protection Board, Volume 14, No. 2, 2003.
  7. Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme: report 2007.
    Health Protection Agency, 2007.
  8. Exposure to high frequency electromagnetic fields, biological effects and health consequences.
    ICNIRP, 2009.
  9. Health Effects of Exposure to EMF.
    SCENIHR, 2009.