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Do smartphones cause cancer? World Health Organisation to assess brain tumour link
United Kingdom Created: 20 Mar 2019
The World Health Organisation (WHO) is reviewing whether smartphones might increase the risk of cancer, the Telegraph understands.

The UN health body is conducting a review of the latest scientific studies in an attempt to put to bed an ongoing row among scientists about the link between brain tumours and increased use of mobile phones.

Despite their widespread use researchers have for decades disagreed about the extent to which mobile phone signals constitute a health risk. The last report of its kind was released by WHO in 2011. It graded high radiofrequency, the energy emitted from wireless devices like phones, WiFi routers and phone masts, as a “possible carcinogen".

Since then, several new pieces of research have been published including a 10-year US study commissioned by the US Food and Drugs Administration, which showed clear evidence of cancer in male rats and some in female rats when exposed to the kinds of radiation emitted from 2G and 3G phones. It was thrown out by the FDA upon its release in November last year because the animals were exposed to the highest possible radiation a human might experience from their phone for prolonged amounts of time, something the organisation said was unlikely to happen in real life.

A deadline for the review has not been set but Dr Eric Van Rongen, chair of the organisation that is tasked with setting the limit at which phones can emit radiofrequency, ICNIRP and a member of the WHO, said that his peers were currently looking "at all the high quality papers ever published" with the review expected "next year".

Industry-wide guidelines limiting how much radiation phones can generate have been in place since 1999 following concerns about the emission of radiowaves from phones, which are absorbed by about 1-2cm into the body.

Evidence suggests that those using smartphones infrequently are unlikely to have a risk of cancer and experts point to the fact that brain tumours have not become epidemic despite the increased use of the technology. But Joachim Schüz, head of radiation at the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer said there were questions over “heavy users” who are on their phone for several hours a day with some studies suggesting an increased risk in brain tumours.

“We have some uncertainty with very heavy use of mobile phones, but that definition is not very easy to make,” Mr Schüz said. “On the one hand, people use their phone much more often nowadays because it is cheaper but they use it in different ways, like holding it in their hand rather than by their head or they leave it in their pocket.”

Phone makers including Samsung, Apple and Google warn users to hold the phone at least 5 or 10mm away from their head and body, and avoid using a metal case to ensure the radiation adheres to current guidelines. Those who use their phone for several hours a day could consider using headphones or a hands-free device, Mr Schüz said.

Official NHS advice says that those concerned should ensure children, deemed a higher risk factor because they absorb more energy, “should only use mobile phones for essential purposes and keep all calls short” and “only use your phone when your reception is strong”. Phones emit more radio waves in areas with poor reception because it uses more energy to try and find a connection. It says the biggest health risk of phones is using them while driving.

Other countries have been cautious with an Italian court forcing the government to fund a public awareness campaign over potential risks to health this summer. France has ruled that phone manufacturers must display the radio wave absorption rate (SAR) and test handsets to make sure they comply. Last year it found eight models on the market which did not. Berkeley, California, alerts customers that phones might pose a health risk owing to the radiation they emit.

Alarmed by a body of conflicting evidence over the past decade, scientists have called for further studies to be conducted into the potential impacts. The advent of fifth generation wireless, of 5G, has sparked further debate over the impacts it could have on the population because the networks will require higher frequencies and more phone masts.

Simon Mann, head of radiation dosimetry at Public Health England said: “It is possible that there may be a small increase in overall exposure to radio waves when 5G is added to an existing telecommunications network or in a new area; however, the overall exposure is expected to remain low relative to guidelines and as such there should be no consequences for public health.”

Dr Rongen of ICNIRP, the organisation which is tasked with setting the limit at which phones can emit radiofrequency that it would be “very difficult to predict” if there are any potential health hazards associated with the new network.

“It is not set up as a public health experiment but of course you can consider it as such. It will be necessary to gain more information about the exposure and any health problems that might come from an effect of that exposure,” however, he added, “this is not any different to monitoring prescription drugs that we rely on”.

ICNIRP plans to relax the emissions limits ahead of 5G, which will grant telecommunication companies more leeway when designing the phone masts needed to provide coverage across the UK, US and Europe.

Researchers have long disagreed over the effects of mobile signals In the late Nineties, studies by Sweden, Japan and other countries found higher risk of brain tumours in heavy users. However, scientists have not noticed increased rates of cancer in countries where smartphones have become ubiquitous.
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Source: Telegraph, Margi Murphy, 03 Mar 2019

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