International Study On Health Effects Of Mobile (Cellular) Phones To Go Ahead
International Union Against Cancer
Press Release
September 14, 1998

An international study of whether mobile phone use causes brain cancer in humans is feasible. This was the conclusion of a group of scientists from 10 countries who met at the International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon on 1-2 September. Convened by the Agency with support from the National Radiation Protection Board of the United Kingdom, the meeting reviewed the results of preliminary studies carried out in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, New Zealand, Sweden, and the UK. These studies showed that there had been sufficient use of mobile phones in the past in these countries for an effect on cancer risk to become apparent in 1998 or later, should there be one.

Dr Elisabeth Cardis, Chief of the Unit of Radiation and Cancer at the Agency, said estimates showed that, on average, about 2% of adults had been users of mobile phones in 1992 in the nine countries in which feasibility studies had been undertaken. Most of the use was in people 25 to 54 years of age; in this group, there was an average of 4% users across the regions surveyed. “We had to be sure there were enough users five or more years ago”, Dr Cardis said. “If mobile phones do affect cancer risk, the effect would probably not be detectable in less than about 5 years from first use”.

The international group said there would be enough cases of brain tumors in the populations that can be studied in the nine countries to show quite a small effect of mobile phone use, if there is one. In all, it is expected that the study will include more than 3,000 people with brain tumors and 3,000 control subjects selected from the same communities. The scientists agreed that people would probably be able to recall their mobile phone use accurately enough for the research. It would be more difficult to estimate actual exposure to radio-frequency electromagnetic energy released by the phones. Efforts will be made, however, to include estimates of this exposure.

The feasibility studies were carried out following the recommendation of a 1997 meeting of experts in favor of a case-control study of mobile phone use and tumors of the brain, parotid gland (a salivary gland in the cheek) and the acoustic nerve (the nerve from the ear to the brain). The brain, parotid gland and acoustic nerve are among the tissues most exposed to radio-frequency energy when a mobile phone is being used. The 1997 meeting was convened by the World Health Organization, the International Commission on Non-ionizing Radiation Protection, and the German and Austrian governments in response to public concern that increasing use of mobile phones may harm health.

Work will now begin on a detailed design for the study and design and validation of a questionnaire. The participating scientists will seek funds for the research from local and national research funding bodies as well as international organizations. It is hoped the research will begin in late 1999 or early 2000. Results are expected in 2003 or 2004.

There is currently no direct evidence of a link between mobile phone use and cancer. There is some evidence that people exposed occupationally to high levels of radio-frequency energy from other sources may have an increased risk of leukemia and brain tumors. “People should not be concerned that increasing rates of brain tumors that are now being observed worldwide are linked to mobile phone use”, Dr Bruce Armstrong (Chairman of the international group and Director, Cancer Control Information Centre, Sidney, Australia) said. “These increases, which are most marked in people over 60 years of age, generally began before mobile phone use became widely used. Even now, people in this age group are very infrequent users of mobile phones. In fact, we presently have no evidence that mobile phone use is linked to brain tumors. If it is, the risk for an individual user is likely to be very small”.

The feasibility study was prompted by public concern because of the growing use of mobile phones. If a risk exists, at the individual level it is likely to be small; it is, however, important for public health reasons that it be studied.