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Is Your Cell Phone Giving You Cancer?

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By Eirish Sison 


Could your iPhone or Android be giving you cancer? This notion has been circulating as an urban myth for years, but a new study released by the World Health Organization (WHO) gave some validity to the idea by suggesting that cell phone use may raise the risk of cancer. On May 31, 2011, a panel of 31 experts from 14 countries convened by WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reported that radiation exposure from cell phone usage may be associated with the development of two types of rare tumors, one a cancerous brain tumor called glioma.

The panel has no definitive proof that cell phones cause cancer, but found enough evidence to classify exposure to cell phone radiation as "possibly carcinogenic to humans." The panel cited data that showed an increased risk among heavy cell phone users of glioma, a rare type of brain tumor that arises from glial cells of the brain and spine (glial cells provide structural support for the brain and support nerve cell function), and acoustic neuroma, a rare, slow-growing, non-cancerous tumor that develops on the nerve that connects the ear to the brain. Between 10,000 and 12,000 Americans develop glioma each year and only 3,000 develop acoustic neuroma. In comparison, 222,520 new cases of lung cancer are diagnosed each year in the U.S., making it the most common and deadliest form of cancer.

Scientists performed no new research for this report; all conclusions were drawn from exhaustive reviews of hundreds of published scientific articles that also examined the link between radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (cell phone signals) and cancer. They found that exposure to cell phone radiation might be capable of causing these tumors over a long period of time (about 10 years) among people who use their cell phones a lot (more than 30 minutes a day).

The ruling puts cell phones in the same category as lead, engine exhaust, the pesticide DDT and chloroform in terms of their likelihood to cause cancer.

Cell phones emit relatively low doses of radiation and low doses of radiation are less likely to create cancerous cells, said Steven D. Chang, MD, Robert C. and Jeanette Powell Professor in the Neurosciences at Stanford University. "But the concept is that a low dose of radiation over many years could result in a probability that's not inconsequential."

Any form of radiation can damage a human cell, and in the process of being damaged or in the process of cells trying to repair the damage, the cell can turn cancerous.

The IARC categorizes carcinogenic agents, substances capable of causing cancer, by how cancerous they are. Radiofrequency electromagnetic fields have now been put in the 2B classification, meaning they are "possibly carcinogenic to humans." Many experts feel that, while it's important that the public is aware of the possible increased cancer risk, people shouldn't become overly alarmed.

The WHO announced their decision as "a precaution to let people know that [cell phone use] may not be completely safe like we assumed it was 5 to 10 years ago," said Herbert Newton, MD, Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, and Director, Division of Neuro-oncology at the Ohio State University Medical Center and James Cancer Hospital. "There may be some long-term risks with this device after all, so you may need to be a little more careful with how you're using it and be a little more prudent with the device."

Previous studies that have attempted to link brain cancer with cell phone use have also hinted that there may be some risk. A decade-long international study called Interphone, which concluded in 2010, was of particular interest to the panel. This study, the largest ever of its kind, included thousands of participants from 13 countries to examine mobile phone safety.

The findings reported that cell phone users showed no overall increased risk of developing brain cancer (because both gliomas and acoustic neuroma are so rare, an increased risk of developing these two tumors does not increase an individual's overall brain cancer risk). However, the report also mentioned that the highest category of users, averaging 30 minutes a day over a 10-year period, showed a 40 percent increased risk for gliomas. Studies that included at least 10 years of cell phone radiation exposure have shown that gliomas are twice as likely to form on the side of the head that is exposed to the most cell phone radiation.

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