Int'l study cautions cellphone users

Brain cancer researchers find heavy use elevates risk of tumors.

By
May 18, 2010 04:27
A  cell phone user [illustrative]

Cellphone user 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

The cellphone – which in recent years has become almost a bodily appendage – should be regarded with caution by its users, following the Monday release of findings from Interphone, the world’s longest and most comprehensive case-control study of the relationship between cellphone use and brain tumors.

The same caution should be taken with cordless phones, which emit the same radio frequency radiation, according to the top Israeli researcher in the study, Prof. Sigal Sidetzky.

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The results of 10 years of research in 13 countries around the world, including Israel, were published by the International Journal of Epidemiology early Monday afternoon. Its publication was supposed to have been embargoed until 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, but soon after hush-hush press conferences in various parts of the world, including Sheba Medical Center’s Gertner Institute for Health Policy, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) lifted the embargo without explanation.

The researchers found a 40-percent higher prevalence of gliomas and meningiomas (two types of brain cancer) among adults who used cellphones for an average of 30 minutes a day for 10 years, but could not state whether there was a link – even though the malignancies were more often located on the side of the head where people held their cellphones. By way of comparison, the risk of lung cancer (and many other diseases) is 1,000% higher among smokers than non-smokers.

Sidetzky, director of the cancer and radiation epidemiology unit at Gertner, said in a briefing for health reporters there that the Interphone study “sets off red lights.” She has been working on the possible effects cellphones since 1998.

“The study did not produce results that are black and white. One cannot summarize them in a sentence; it is very complicated,” said the epidemiologist, who conceded later that she used a cellphone and would continue to use one while taking precautions to keep it as far away from her head and body as possible.

Radiation epidemiologist Prof. Elisabeth Cardis of Barcelona led a team of 21 researchers in 18 centers in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and the UK. Over 5,000 people who had been diagnosed with gliomas and meningiomas were interviewed about their cellphone use and compared with a control group that had no brain tumors. It was not known from the outset how many people used cellphones and to what extent.

“There were individual publications of results, but this is the first time that the results of all the groups were summarized together,” said Sidetzky, noting that when data had been gathered as long ago as 2004 (and since analyzed), what was then considered “heavy” use is now considered minimal use. This is true especially in Israel, where cellphone use is very high and many children have their own phones. The results were to have been published five years ago, but were not because of disagreements on methodology and other matters.

Sidetzky said she had joined a new research effort funded by the European Union called MobiKids, in which children and teenagers diagnosed with malignant brain tumors would be studied for the next five years regarding their cellphone use, compared to that of a control group.

The researchers concluded that when cellphones are used 30 minutes or more a day for a decade, there is an elevated risk of brain tumors; the more they are used, the higher the risk. But the research was problematic, Sidetzky admitted, as between 30% and 60% of cancer patients declined to participate. Israeli patients were less likely to participate than others, although the reason could not be explained.

Surprisingly, among the cancer patients, cellphone use was actually connected with a lower risk of cancer, which Sidetzky attributed to “problems” in the study, such as measurements, as it was “impossible that using a cellphone could actually protect people against brain cancer. Presumably, there are underestimates of the real risk.”

She said she had begun the research without any views about possible cancer risks.

“I can’t say that my view today is the same as when we started,” she said. “Things are clearer and more complex. It doesn’t mean we are against the technology, but we are today in a different place.”

The Israeli lead investigator said the most practical conclusion reached by Interphone was that the phone manufacturing companies must get their engineers together and find ways to keep the devices far from the head and body. Speakers are one way, but those, of course, would lead to cacophonies in closed spaces such as buses.

“The results do not prove that cellular phone use causes brain tumors, but they also don’t rule this out. As a public health expert, I believe there is justification for precautionary practice, especially with children, who are more sensitive to the radiation,” said Sidetzky.

“Results in the various countries have been published separately before, and there has been a lot of criticism,” she added. “No doubt there have been mistakes, but the results are disturbing, especially as what was considered heavy use then is considered light use today, and people are now exposed from childhood.”

She noted, however, that new “third-generation” cellphone technology was apparently safer than the older GSM technology. She said that of the €19.2 million that Interphone cost, €5.5m. had been donated by international cellphone companies, but an absolute “firewall” had been set up to prevent them from having any influence on its findings.

Asked whether it would have been better to invest the money in monkey or mice studies, Sidetzky said the number of primates needed would have been huge and prohibitive.

Mice studies have been done, The Jerusalem Post has learned, but conclusions are not automatically applicable to humans; it seems that mice sense the radiation and try to escape it.

Sidetzky would not make specific recommendations on where to keep a cellphone when it’s not in use – i.e., in a back or front pocket. Wearing it could increase the risk of other cancers, but this was not studied. Keeping it in a pocketbook or elsewhere away from the body would be best, she said. It is now up to the Health Ministry, as well as every government and the World Health Organization, to produce commentary and make recommendations, the Sheba researcher concluded.

Hebrew University-Hadassah Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine (emeritus) Prof. Elihu Richter, a longtime activist against excessive cellphone use, told the Post he recommended the use of old-style corded phones instead of cordless phones.

“The bottom line is that today, recommendations on cellular phones are no longer based on the need for precaution because we are uncertain. It’s better to be safe than sorry,” Richter said. “Today, recommendations should be based on the need for prevention of certain risks. Preventive strategies can be based on reducing use, redesign to reduce exposures, and requiring warnings, including when turned on and held next to the body while not in use.”

Richter called for restoring public telephones in public buildings, stricter standards for radiation emissions, phones with wired headsets to decrease radiation to the head by several orders of magnitude, and fiber optic cables to reduce far-field exposure from cellphone transmission antennae.

Lloyd Morgan, a retired American electronics engineer who has long been a critic of cellphone use, issued a statement with advice to those who use them.

“When on a call, use a wired headset (not a wireless headset, like a Bluetooth), use in speaker-phone mode or send text messages,” the statement said. “Keep the cellphone away from your body (particularly trousers or shirt pockets); use a belt holster designed to shield the body from cellphone radiation when on standby. Avoid use in a moving car, train, bus or rural areas at some distance from a cell base station. Use the cellphone like an answering machine: Keep it off until you want to see who has called; only then, return calls.”

Morgan added that one should use a corded land-line phone whenever possible. One should not allow children to sleep with a cellphone beneath their pillow or at their bedside, and children under 18 should not be allowed to use one except in emergencies.

The Web site Microwave News, run by journalist-activist Louis Slesin of the US, has stated that the Interphone findings were only “partial results, publishing the data on gliomas and meningiomas, but not the other tumor types studied, such as acoustic neuromas and parotid gland tumors that are closest to the ear.”

Morgan and Slesin charged last year that the Interphone results had “little relevance as a gauge of risk today,” as both adults and children use phones many more minutes a day now.   


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