In a nearly unanimous decision, 31 expert advisers to the World Health Organization (WHO) last week stunned the world's 5 billion cell phone users and declared radiofrequency and electromagnetic radiation a "possible" cause of brain cancer. Microwave radiation from cell phones joins a list of well-reviewed cancer-causing agents, that includes engine exhaust, some pesticides, lead, coffee and unusually preserved vegetables. (See TIME magazine's perspective here).
Founded on an exhaustive analysis, the WHO expert opinion rests on a simple and well-accepted public health premise: Every compound known to cause cancer in humans also produces it in animals when adequately studied. The goal of such assessments is not to prove harm, but to provide the grounds for steps to prevent damage from unfolding. How did preserved vegetables make the list? In areas of rural China that lack refrigeration, extremely high levels of salts in preserved meats, fish and vegetables that form toxic compounds have created devastating rates of digestive system cancers. What about caffeine? In fact, like a number of chemotherapy agents that have both positive and negative impacts, caffeine slightly raises the risk of bladder cancer, while reducing that of colon and other tumors.
In fact, brain cancer is hardly the only health issue of concern linked to cell phone radiation, nor are cell phones the only source of radiofrequency and electromagnetic radiation. Studies in rabbits and rats have showed that pulsed digital signals from today's smartphones damage sperm, brain, liver, eyes and skin of exposed offspring, and impair their memory and behavior. According to independent studies at the Cleveland Clinic and Australia's national research center, men who use cell phones four hours a day have about half the normal sperm and three times more damage to their DNA than those with much less use.
More studies on cell damage (Chavdoula et al, Mutation Research, 2010) and birth defects (Fragopoulou et al, Pathophysiology, 2010) caused by cell phone radiation were presented in Istanbul last month.
Fortune magazine asks: If cell phones caused brain cancer, then why don't we face an epidemic now? To those who understand the long latencies involved, the absence of a general brain tumor epidemic at this time provides no comfort. Survivors of the atomic bombs that fell on Japan experienced no increase at all in brain cancer until four decades after the war's end. Cell phones were not heavily used until quite recently. Three out of every four cases of brain cancer occur in someone over age 60 -- a group that had not used cell phones extensively even a decade ago. In contrast, every major study ever conducted has found that those who use cell phones half an hour a day or more have a doubled risk of brain cancer, and those who began using cell phones as teenagers have four to five times more disease in less than 10 years.
Concerned about the growing evidence that cell phone radiation damages membranes of living cells, many nations are acting now to reduce cell phone radiation exposures to the young brain. With its latest expert review, WHO joins with medical specialists in Israel, Finland, France, Russia, India and Brazil, all of whom agree that cell phone radiation should be reduced now, rather than waiting for the deadly confirmation we received with tobacco and asbestos.
The WHO's advice rests on a fundamental concept: It is far better to prevent rather than to prove danger. Thanks to pioneering exposés by Professor Stan Glantz and others, we now know that scientists' warnings about tobacco and asbestos were long suppressed and ignored -- fueled by a sophisticated campaign that saw science as just another public relations tool.
The United Kingdom's distinguished Sir William Stewart chaired a Royal College of Physicians Commission more than a decade ago that advised that those under age 16 to limit their use of cell phones, and offered similar advice to that which was just affirmed by WHO. Given the absence of serious and extensive research on this topic at this time, we are treating ourselves and our children like experimental rats and rabbits, but without any unexposed control groups.
Because children's skulls, brains and bodies are thinner and more vulnerable, we put them in bicycle helmets and car seats. We need to take parallel steps to protect them and ourselves from the potential impact of microwave radiation from cell phones. If sales of children's thongs are to be banned in the United Kingdom to protect against early sexualization, we also need to protect their developing brains and bodies from exposure to a sea of radiofrequency radiation whose full impact cannot be gauged at this time.
Follow Devra Davis, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DevraLeeDavis