As Jonathan Samet — the dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, who advised the World Health Organization on cellphone radiation and cancer — told me, you can argue anything based on the science we currently have “because there’s not enough evidence to start with.” Actually, there’s not enough high-quality evidence. Before we get into why, and what we know, we need a quick primer on cellphone radiation.
Since 2011 RF radiation has been classified as a Group 2B “possible” human carcinogen by the International Agency on Cancer (IARC), an agency of the World Health Organization. Based on the new animal findings, and limited epidemiological evidence linking heavy and prolonged cell phone use with brain gliomas in humans, Fiorella Belpoggi, director of research at the Ramazzini Institute and the study’s lead author, says IARC should consider changing the RF radiation designation to a “probable” human carcinogen. Even if the hazard is low, billions of people are exposed, she says, alluding to the estimated number of wireless subscriptions worldwide. Véronique Terrasse, an IARC spokesperson, says a reevaluation may occur after the NTP delivers its final report.
Peer review is a vital part of any scientific study; it brings several more lifetimes of expertise into the room to rigorously check a study for any weak points. Melnick calls the peer reviewers’ choice to change some conclusions an unusual move; “It’s quite uncommon that the peer review panel changes the final determination,” he says, noting if anything, he’s seen peer reviewers downgrade findings, not upgrade them. “Typically when NTP presents their findings, the peer review almost in all cases goes along with that.” In this case, the peer reviewers felt the data—when combined with their knowledge of the cancers and with the study design itself—was significant enough to upgrade several of the findings.
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In June, at a meeting of scientific counselors to the toxicology agency, Donald Stump, one of the members, worried that the study “will be vulnerable to criticism that it was conducted using outdated technology.” The challenge, he added, is how to move forward with experiments that are large enough to be significant yet nimble enough to keep pace with the rapidly evolving devices.
Exposure to ionizing radiation, such as from x-rays, is known to increase the risk of cancer. However, although many studies have examined the potential health effects of non-ionizing radiation from radar, microwave ovens, cell phones, and other sources, there is currently no consistent evidence that non-ionizing radiation increases cancer risk in humans (2).