WHO says cell phones may cause cancer

Yikes, put down that phone!
Yikes, put down that phone!
Flickr, by liber

Yeah, they may. Or may not.

This is a perennial story and it never seems to make much progress toward resolution.

Today, a number of news agencies like Reuters, AP and the BBC are reporting that an expert panel convened by the World Health Organization has determined that cell phones may cause an increased risk of cancer. The Telegraph reported on this last week.

NPR’s Scott Hensley notes that the WHO finding is a “bit of a surprise” since only last year a WHO-sponsored study found just the opposite:

Only last year, a WHO-organized study of cellphone risks that was the largest conducted to date found scant evidence to support a link between cellphones and brain cancers.

But a group of 31 experts from 14 countries conducted a review of the scientific literature and determined that the evidence, though limited, could support a connection between cellphone use and two types of brain cancer — gliomas and acoustic neuromas. (A summary of the findings is described in this press release.)

Again, the conclusion that cell phones are “possibly carcinogenic” is hardly new. But the finding seems to be getting a lot of news attention even if it appears to offer no new information or any kind of useful risk assessment.

Here’s a story I did years ago featuring a UW professor, Henry Lai, who has been sounding these kinds of warnings for a decade — and claims to have been blackballed by industry for raising the question.

CNET has done a fairly thorough job looking at the history of, and evidence for, this hypothesis.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.