This week, following three days of live-broadcast peer review sessions, experts concluded that a pair of federal studies show “clear evidence” that cell phone radiation caused heart and brain cancer in male rats.

“This animal evidence, together with the extensive human evidence, coupled with the rising incidence of brain cancers in young people in the U.S., conclusively confirms that radiofrequency radiation is a Category 1 human carcinogen,” explains Anthony Miller MD, University of Toronto Dalla Lana School of Public Health Professor Emeritus, medical advisor to EHT, who has served as an advisor to the World Health Organization.

The National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences released a statement on the conclusions of the panel for each endpoint found here https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/about_ntp/trpanel/2018/march/actions_508.pdf.

The peer review panel noted that the malignant schwannoma tumors found in the heart of male rats be scientifically categorized as “clear evidence of carcinogenicity” and that the malignant gliomas found in the brain of male rats be categorized as “some evidence of carcinogenicity.” In addition, they noted that the increased tumors of the adrenal medulla in male rats exposed to the GSM type of cell phone radiation be categorized as “some evidence of carcinogenicity,” adding a new type of tumor thought to be caused by the exposure. The expert panel advised strengthening the conclusions regarding seven different health effects. The panel called attention to statistically significant increases in an unusual pattern of cardiomyopathy, or damage to heart tissue, in exposed male and female rats. The panel highlighted that in Italy a recent animal study on radiofrequency radiation at much lower radiation levels than the NTP study found the same types of rare malignancies.

In addition to the heart and brain cancers, statistically significant increased numbers of tumors were found in other organs at one or more of the exposure levels studied, including the prostate gland, pituitary gland, adrenal gland, liver, and pancreas.

This substantially changes the debate on whether cell phone use is a cancer risk. Up until this point, the federal government and cell phone manufacturers operated on the assumption that cell phones cannot by their very nature cause cancer because they emit non-ionizing radiation. Whereas ionizing radiation—the kind associated with x-rays, CT scans, and nuclear power plants, among others—definitely causes cancer at high enough doses, non-ionizing radiation was believed to not emit enough energy to break chemical bonds. That meant it couldn’t damage DNA, and therefore couldn’t lead to mutations that cause cancer.

But the pair of studies by the US National Toxicology Program found “clear evidence” that exposure to radiation caused heart tumors in male rats, and found “some evidence” that it caused tumors in the brains of male rats. (Both are positive results; the NTP uses the labels “clear evidence,” “some evidence,” “equivocal evidence” and “no evidence” when making conclusions.)

“Enough is enough, how many more deaths would be needed before serious action is taken? The evidence just continues to accumulate. On March 28, 2018, the external peer reviewers of the National Toxicology Program voted to increase the level of evidence for the causal role of radiofrequency radiation for several tumors and other negative health effects. It’s time for action,” commented Annie Sasco MD, DrPH, former Chief of Research Unit of Epidemiology for Cancer Prevention at the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization and medical advisor to EHT.

What the studies actually found – What Will Change?

“What should happen now is the FDA should be immediately working on developing a quantitative risk assessment from this data and in the meantime the FDA, FCC, and other agencies should promote precautionary measures for the population—especially for children,” said Ronald Melnick PhD, who lead the design of the NTP study in his 28-year career as a scientist at the National Toxicology Program. Melnick is currently a senior advisor to Environmental Health Trust(EHT).

The papers found that, in male rats, there was “clear evidence” that exposure to cell phone radiation increased the 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.

Tumors were found in the hearts of female rats, too, but they didn’t rise to the level of statistical significance and the results were labeled “equivocal;” in other words, the researchers couldn’t be sure the radiation is what caused the tumors.

“The peer reviewers reviewed the tumor data in a transparent scientific process. This landmark U.S. government study, in addition to the recently released Italian Ramazzini study, provides the scientific evidence governments needs to take swift action to protect the public,” said Theodora Scarato, Executive Director of EHT who added, “The rollout of 5G small cells must be halted. Schools need to install wired internet networks. Communities should have maintained landlines. Solutions exist such as Ethernet and fiber optic networks. Public Health Departments need to initiate public awareness campaigns to educate the public on how to reduce exposure. People need to understand just how easy it is to use safe wired technologies, especially at home. Employers need to prioritize this issue and make changes in the workplace to limit and minimize workplace exposures. We have a responsibility to future generations to take action on this issue now.”

The next scientific step will be to determine what this means for humans. The peer-reviewed papers will be passed on to the US Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for determining human risk and issuing any guidelines to the public, and the Federal Communications Commission, which develops safety standards for cell phones. The FDA was part of the group of federal agencies who commissioned the studies back in the early 2000s.

Ronald Melnick, the NTP senior toxicologist who designed the studies (and who retired from the agency in 2009), says it’s unlikely any future study could conclude with certainty that there is no risk to humans from cell phone use. “I can’t see proof of a negative ever arising from future studies,” Melnick says.

He believes the FDA should put out guidance based on the results of the rat studies. “I would think it would be irresponsible to not put out indications to the public,” Melnick says. “Maintain a distance from this device from your children. Don’t sleep with your phone near your head. Use wired headsets. This would be something that the agencies could do right now.”

A re-evaluation of the data

When the draft results of the papers were published earlier this year, all results were labeled “equivocal,” meaning the study authors felt the data weren’t clear enough to determine if the radiation caused the health effects or not. But the panel of peer reviewers (among them a brain and heart pathologists, toxicologists, biostatisticians, and engineers) re-evaluated the data and upgraded several of the conclusions to “some evidence” and “clear evidence.”

Peer review is a vital part of any scientific study; it brings several more lifetimes of expertise into the room to rigorously check a study for any weak points. Melnick calls the peer reviewers’ choice to change some conclusions an unusual move; “It’s quite uncommon that the peer review panel changes the final determination,” he says, noting if anything, he’s seen peer reviewers downgrade findings, not upgrade them. “Typically when NTP presents their findings, the peer review almost in all cases goes along with that.” In this case, the peer reviewers felt the data—when combined with their knowledge of the cancers and with the study design itself—was significant enough to upgrade several of the findings.

The peer reviewers did have some quibbles with the study; some wished it could have lasted longer (the rodents were exposed to radiation for two years) to catch later-developing tumors, for example, but others on the panel noted that the longer a rodent lives, the more likely it is to develop tumors regardless of radiation, making it harder to find the signal in the noise. Others wanted the researchers to have dissected the rodent brains more than they did, to seek hard-to-find tumors. But they noted that science is an iterative process; the study wasn’t perfect, but it’s better than anything that’s been done so far.

Overall, the peer reviewers commended the study for its rigorous design and execution. George Corcoran, the chair of the department of pharmaceutical sciences at Wayne State University who sat on the panel, says the study was of a “gold standard for design and conduct” and was “comprehensive and robust throughout.”

There was also “equivocal” evidence that it raised the risk of heart conditions, and led to evidence of DNA damage. Baby rats born to mothers during the trial had lower birth weights. The scientists also found a statistically significant increase in lymphoma (cancer of the lymph nodes) among female mice and heightened rates of liver cancer in the male mice. All those findings were labeled “equivocal.”

As we’ve noted before, animal studies can’t perfectly replicate human cell phone use; you can’t make a rat hold a tiny mobile phone, or put it in its pocket, for example.

But the results of these two rat studies align with those of the biggest cell-phone-radiation human study to date, INTERPHONE. The INTERPHONE study, published in 2011, was a coordinated effort by researchers at 16 institutions across 13 countries and found that the heaviest mobile phone users were more likely to develop glioma—the same type of brain cancer the NTP study found in the male rats. “So there’s a concordance between the animal and human data,” Melnick says.

In response to the INTERPHONE report, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the cancer arm of the World Health Organization, classified radiation from cell phones as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” in 2011. (Melnick also sat on the panel that made that determination.)

The INTERPHONE authors reported various problems with their data. The study was based in part on interviews with people who already had brain cancer, so could be subject to recall bias, creating plenty of uncertainty.

But Melnick says that when the INTERPHONE study looked at the rates of different types of brain cancer (meningioma, for example) they found no difference in heavy cell phone users. He points out that if there was recall bias, “why was it this type and not this other type of cancer?”

The FDA will make the next move in determining the risk posed to humans, and how to interpret the results for the public. “We’re taking a responsible approach,” FDA’s director of the office of science and engineering, Edward Margerrison, said on Wednesday, according to the News & Observer. “We’re not gonna knee-jerk on anything.”

MORE ON THIS NEWS

NEWS STORIES
New Studies Link Cell Phone Radiation with Cancer, Scientific American March 29, 2018
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/major-cell-phone-radiation-study-reignites-cancer-questions/

Can cell phones really cause cancer?, PITTSBURGH (KDKA)
http://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/2018/03/29/can-cellphones-cause-cancer/

“Can your cell phone cause cancer? Scientists find the definitive link in the study of rats” The News and Observer March 28, 2018
http://www.newsobserver.com/news/business/health-care/article207112454.html

The Nation: How Big Wireless Made Us Think That Cell Phones Are Safe: A Special Investigation: The disinformation campaign—and massive radiation increase—behind the 5G rollout. By Mark Hertsgaard and Mark Dowie, The Nation, March 29, 2018
https://www.thenation.com/article/how-big-wireless-made-us-think-that-cell-phones-are-safe-a-special-investigation/