WHO Verdict: Cell Phones 'Possibly' Cause Cancer

Is that really their idea of settling the matter?

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A somewhat unsatisfactory verdict has finally, haphazardly been delivered on cell phones and brain cancer. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a division of the World Health Organization, the radiation emitted by cellular devices is "possibly carcinogenic." The announcement comes from a working group of 31 scientists from 14 countries who sat down in Lyon, France last week "to assess the potential carcinogenic hazards from exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields" by surveying hundreds of papers published on the topic over the past few years. In other words, WHO set out to settle an argument that thousands of scientists have been waging since the Zack Morris brick-phone days.

Let's start with the bad news. The results of the IARC survey do show a trend that links cell phone use and cancer, but the study was limited to two particular kinds of brain tumor, gliomas and acoustic neuromas. A sort of catch-all category, gliomas account for about half of the brain tumors and depending on the location can be treatable. Acoustic neuromas form on the nerve that runs from the ear to the brain and can exist undetected for a long time. The correlation of these types of cancer and cell phone use will probably convince conspiracy theorists and hypochondriacs alike that cell phones are dangerous. Of the hundreds of studies reviewed, "one study of past cell phone use (up to the year 2004), showed a 40% increased risk for gliomas in the highest category of heavy users [with a reported average use of] 30 minutes per day over a 10‐year period." As Engadget bloggers have pointed out for years, however, people have been saying this for years.

On a brighter note, that oft-quoted logical fallacy you learned in college made its way quite prominently in the researchers' conclusion. The correlation between cell phone use and brain cancer does not imply that cell phone use causes brain cancer. The IARC's press release is careful to show that in the limited types of cancers studied in the papers reviewed, there was only "limited evidence of carcinogenicity" confirmed. Further, studies revied for other types of cancers yielded "inadequate evidence of carcinogenicity." Hence the "possibly carcinogenic" conclusion. And so despite the ambivalent language and newspapers' propensity to write scary headlines, today, one an IARC spokesman told Bloomberg very clearly, "There is some evidence for an increased risk of glioma. It's not at the moment clearly established that the use of mobile phones does in fact cause cancer." There's still no word on the dangers of cell phone addiction.

Just for fun, we made a list of other recent hypotheses that cell phones may be destroying our brains and bodies:

  • The last shake-up over cell phone use happened earlier this year with the Journal of the American Medical Association determined that cell phone use could be tied to changes in brain activity. (So can sleeping, though.) 
  • In 2009, a group of researchers in Cleveland found that men who keep cell phones in their pockets while using a Bluetooth headset may experience decreased fertility. The notion that men who use a Bluetooth headset may experience decreased sexual activity, as well, was not mentioned.
  • A 2008 study by the European Research Institute for Electronic Components concluded that cell phone use could cause heart disease and kidney stones. The radiation emitted by cell phones apparently could cause red blood cells to leak hemoglobin which causes all kinds of problems.
  • A review of over 100 studies by an award-winning cancer expert in 2008 revealed that cell phones could be more dangerous than smoking or asbestos as a carcinogen. A mobile device lobby called the study "a selective discussion of scientific literature by one individual."

If you're still seriously worried, it's worth drawing your own conclusions. The National Cancer Institute offers an effective FAQ about cell phone use and cancer risk.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.