Several national and international agencies study different exposures and substances in the environment to determine if they can cause cancer. (Something that causes cancer or helps cancer grow is called a carcinogen.) The American Cancer Society looks to these organizations to evaluate the risks based on evidence from laboratory and human research studies.
This 2017 systematic review and meta-analysis, published in PLOS One, looked at mobile phone use in case-control studies and the risk of glioma. “Our results suggest that long-term mobile phone use may be associated with an increased risk of glioma,” they wrote. The researchers found an association between mobile phone use and low-grade glioma in the people who used cellphones regularly or for 10 years or more. “However, current evidence is of poor quality and limited quantity,” they added, and called for prospective studies to confirm the results.
Also noteworthy is that the studies evaluated radiation exposures in different ways. The NTP looked at “near-field” exposures, which approximate how people are dosed while using cell phones. Ramazzini researchers looked at “far-field” exposures, which approximate the wireless RF radiation that bombards us from sources all around us, including wireless devices such as tablet and laptop computers. Yet they generated comparable results: Male rats in both studies (but not mice or female animals) developed schwannomas of the heart at statistically higher rates than control animals that were not exposed.
The papers found that, in male rats, there was “clear evidence” that exposure to cell phone radiation increased risk for a rare type of malignant tumor called schwannoma in the connective tissues that surround nerves in the heart (they found “equivocal” evidence for the same thing in female rats). They also found “some evidence” that the radiation caused malignant glioma—a type of brain cancer affecting glial cells—in the male rats.
Third, most of the studies published so far have focused on adults, rather than children. (One case-control study looking at children and teens did not find a significant link to brain tumors, but the small size of the study limited its power to detect modest risks.) Cell phone use is now widespread even among younger children. It is possible that if there are health effects, they might be more pronounced in children because their bodies might be more sensitive to RF energy. Another concern is that children’s lifetime exposure to the energy from cell phones will be greater than adults’, who started using them at a later age.
In March, however, a peer-review panel of 11 experts from industry and academia voted to advise the agency that it should raise the confidence level from “equivocal evidence” to “some evidence” of a link between cellphone radiation and brain tumors in male rats. (The female rats did not show evidence of a link between the radiation and such tumors.) Two panel members, Lydia Andrews-Jones of Allergan and Susan Felter of Procter & Gamble, proposed the risk upgrade.
Taken together, the findings “confirm that RF radiation exposure has biological effects” in rats, some of them “relevant to carcinogenesis,” says Jon Samet, a professor of preventive medicine and dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, who did not participate in either study. Samet, however, cautioned the jury is still out as to whether wireless technology is similarly risky to people. Indeed, heart schwannomas are exceedingly rare in humans; only a handful of cases have ever been documented in the medical literature.
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There were no biological hypotheses tested in the study. It was therefore only a numbers game. Ignored were mechanisms of disease found in other studies of cell phone radiation effects, including genetic damage, blood-brain barrier leakage, and disrupted intercellular communication. The study did not discuss any research supporting the notion that cell phones could cause problems in users.
Researchers need funding to move fast to study the potential health effects of 5G networks and how they might change our exposures to radiation. “So far, we’ve got research that’s done on 3G and 4G but not 5G,” said Brawley of the American Cancer Society. “We do think the answers [about cell radiation’s cancer effects] for 5G may be different from the answers for 4G or 3G. ... As these types of radio waves and energy change over time, the answers [about their health effects] may change.”