Mobile phone and brain cancer: radiofrequency electromagnetic fields classified by IARC (WHO) as possibly carcinogenic to humans.

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Highlights summarized by GreenFacts of the IARC classification and of the Interphone study, update of  Nov 2011.

On May 31, 2011 the WHO/International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B)[2] , based on an increased risk for glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer, associated with wireless mobile phone (or cell phone) use.

The evidence was reviewed critically, and overall evaluated as being limited among users of wireless mobile telephones for glioma and acoustic neuroma, and inadequate to draw conclusions for other types of cancers. The evidence from the environmental exposures mentioned above was similarly judged inadequate. The Working Group did not quantitate the risk; however, one study of past mobile or cell phone use (up to the year 2004), showed a 40% increased risk for gliomas in the highest category of heavy users (reported average: 30 minutes per day over a 10‐year period).

This has relevance for public health, says the report, particularly for users of mobile phones, as the number of users is large and growing, particularly among young adults and children.

Overall, said the  Chairman of the Working Group, indicated that the evidence, while still accumulating, is strong enough to support a conclusion and the 2B classification. The conclusion means that there could be some risk, and therefore we need to keep a close watch for a link between mobile phones and cancer risk

A concise report summarizing the main conclusions of the IARC Working Group and the evaluations of the carcinogenic hazard from radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (including the use of mobile telephones) was published in The Lancet Oncology on June 22, 2011.


Over the last few years, there has been mounting concern about the possibility of adverse health effects resulting from exposure to radiofrequency elecromagnetic fields, such as those emitted by wireless communication devices.

In May 2011, a Working Group of 31 scientists from 14 countries assessed the potential carcinogenic hazards from exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields. The Working Group discussed the possibility that these exposures might induce long‐term health effects, in particular an increased risk for cancer.

To this end, the Working Group evaluated the available literature tackling the exposure data, the studies of cancer in humans, the studies of cancer in experimental animals, and the mechanistic and other relevant data. Among the exposure categories involving radiofrequency electromagnetic fields examined were personal exposures associated with the use of wireless telephones and environmental exposures associated with transmission of signals for radio, television and wireless telecommunication.

The Working Group considered hundreds of scientific articles; the complete list will be published as part of the Volume 102 of the IARC Monographs. Several recent in press scientific articles resulting from the Interphone study were made available to the working group shortly before it was de to convene, reflecting their acceptance for publication at that time, and were included in the evaluation.

The Interphone study . Coordinated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, WHO-related) and anticipated for several years, the Interphone study, which includes data from 13 countries, was finally published in May 2010. It is the largest study to date evaluating the risk of brain tumors that could be related to the use of mobile phone.

Overall, said the study,  no increased risk of glioma (a type of brain cancer that develops in the cells that surround and support nerve cells) or meningioma (brain tumor that is usually mild and is growing very slowly in the meninges) was observed which may be associated with the use of mobile phones.

There were suspicions of an increased risk of glioma at the highest levels of exposure, but the biases of the study, said the report,  limit the conclusions that can be drawn from these analyzes and prevent a finding of cause and effect . The conclusion of the Interphone Study Group in 2010 was then that these  “biases and errors limit the strength of the conclusions that can be drawn from these analyses and prevent a causal interpretation.

Researchers stressed indeed that the possible effects of long-term heavy use of mobile phones require further investigation.

Nevertheless, based on this risk of increased glioma, a type of malignant brain tumor, associated with mobile phone usage.), the International Agency on Research on Cancer (IARC) eventually classified in 2011 radiofrequency electromagnetic fields in the category “possible human carcinogen” (Group 2B)

You can find the reference to the full article[1] on the Interphone study risk of brain tumors associated with mobile phone use: results of the Interphone case-control study International (2010) on

You can also read the GreenFacts summary of the Notice on mobile phones and electromagnetic fields emitted in 2009 by the Scientific Committee on Emerging and new health risks (SCENIHR) of the European Commission

[1] “Brain tumour risk in relation to mobile telephone use: results of the INTERPHONE international case–control study”, the Interphone Study Group. International Journal of Epidemiology 2010;1–20. doi:10.1093/ije/dyq079. Plus Appendix 1;  Appendix 2.

[2] ‘Limited evidence of carcinogenicity': “a positive association has been observed between exposure to the agent and cancer for which a causal interpretation is considered by the Working Group to be credible, but chance, bias or confounding could not be ruled out with reasonable confidence.”

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