Local neurosurgeons: Study linking cellphones, cancer too preliminary

June 14, 2011

By Laura Geggel

Studies proliferate possible connection between cellphone use, cancer cases

Ever since the World Health Organization announced that cellphones were “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” in May, many people have wondered if they should change their cellphone habits.

Two Swedish Medical Center physicians have said it’s too soon to tell whether people should modify their mobile behavior.

“Most experts in the field are skeptical about this recommendation,” said John Henson, director of the Ben and Catherine Ivy Center for Advanced Brain Tumor Treatment at Swedish Medical Center.

At a conference he recently attended — the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in Chicago — the attending brain tumor specialists “were amazed at this recommendation” and wanted to see the full report, which will be published in July in “The Lancet Oncology,” Henson said.

The research behind the statement

In a world approaching 7 billion people, cellphones are nearly as ubiquitous. There are an estimated 5 billion cellphone subscriptions worldwide, the World Health Organization reported.

From May 24-31, a working group of 31 scientists from 14 countries convened in France at a meeting with the International Agency for Reach on Cancer. The group did not complete new research, but it did review epidemiological data — basically looking at data of people who used cellphones and then seeing how many of them had cancer.

The data showed an increased risk among heavy cellphone users for glioma, a type of brain tumor.

After reviewing the group’s work, the organization called cellphones a possible carcinogen, placing them in the same category as gasoline engine exhaust and coffee.

The group acknowledged the epidemiological data was limited, the organization reported.

The group did not give a percentage for the risk, but another study, called the Interphone study, did.

The Interphone study, also an epidemiological study, studied two groups of people: those with and without cancer. Researchers asked both groups how much they had used cellphones in the past 10 years.

The Interphone study found a 40 percent increased risk for gliomas in the highest category of heavy users, or people who used cellphones for at least 30 minutes per day during a 10-year period. Still, glioma is a rare cancer, so the elevated risk will affect relatively few people.

Other studies

The International Agency for Reach on Cancer group’s study is only one of many about cellphones. Earlier this year, research from the National Institutes of Health found that cellphones could speed up brain activity. Researches observed that when people talked on the phone for 50 minutes, the area of their brain that was closest to the phone’s antenna had faster activity.

The significance of the findings is unknown, the group reported in the Journal of American Medical Association.

Reactions to the WHO statement

The new study is a good start, but more research needs to be done, Douglas Backous, medical director for the Center for Hearing and Skull Base Surgery at Swedish Medical Center, said.

“Part of the role of the World Health Organization is to look at the best data available, and if there is enough concern, to at least draw attention to it until more analysis can be done,” he said.

He noted that cellphone use has dramatically increased during the past decade.

“People are using their phones extensively,” Backous said. “If cellphones are indeed a carcinogen, you should be seeing more cases.”

People who are concerned could always use a speakerphone or an earpiece when talking on their cellphone, and Backous urged parents to weigh risks before taking away a child’s cellphone.

“Would I withhold a cellphone from my daughter?” he asked, and answered, “I’m much more worried about her being alone in a parking lot, not able to call me.”

Instead, people should continue to follow the news and learn about updates when new studies are released.

“I think it is a little early to say we should put our cellphones down,” Backous said. “I do think it is going to drive a lot of good critical question asking.”

Laura Geggel: 392-6434, ext. 241, or lgeggel@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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