Put the cancer risk from mobile phones up there with pickled vegetables

The latest attempt to settle the debate over whether handset radiation is harmful is in danger of being ridiculed.

A study from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a panel of the World Health Organisation (WHO), which looked into  has concluded that the RF produced by mobile phones is "possibly carcinogenic." Importantly, the IARC working group, which included 31 scientists from 14 countries, did not conduct new research but reviewed available scientific literature on the topic. In an attempt to quantify this level of danger, the organisation has put handsets on a par with 240 other agents where the level of harm is uncertain. These include talcum powder, coffee, working in a drycleaners and, believe it or not, eating pickled vegetables.

Putting, for the moment, this farcical comparison to one side, worries over the harmful effects of handset radiation have been around for several decades and no investigation--regardless of how thorough--has provided conclusive evidence to support the case that mobile phone do, or do not, cause cancers.

The WHO is confident, however, when it comes to labelling alcohol, smoking and sunlight, among others, as being in Group 1--those agents proven to be associated with causing cancer in humans.

Then there is Group 2A which has "probable association, but limited evidence" of causing cancers, followed by Group 2B, which is where mobile phones are positioned with "possible association, but with limited evidence."

The IARC has not helped dispel the many half-truths that cling to this debate by hedging its bets. The head of the IARC, Jonathan Samet, a scientist at the University of Southern California, said that some threads of evidence are telling the group how cancers might occur, but there are acknowledged gaps and uncertainties.

However, the IARC report stated that there was no clear mechanism for mobile phone RF to cause brain tumours, with the radiation from handsets being too weak to cause cancer by breaking DNA, leading scientists to suspect other, more indirect routes.

Needless to say, while this study seems not to have moved the scientific frontier on this topic any further forward, a sector of society has jumped on the key words "possibly carcinogenic" and demanded that governments and employers take immediate action.

This call to arms, not surprisingly, often recommends employing the services of these bandwagon-jumpers to fight for the rights of mobile phone users, or to protect firms from being sued by their handset-equipped workforce.

At a more objective level, mobile phones have been around for 25 years or more, with approximately 5 billion in use today. Surely, if there was a risk of these devices causing a health problem we would have seen clearer evidence by now--as against teams of expert researchers still struggling to identify the risk.

So, I'll keep using my handset, and take the risk of eating pickled vegetables.--Paul