EWG letter published in JAMA Oncology: 'Evidence Base on the Potential Carcinogenicity of Radiofrequency Radiation'

Recent research points to the cancer risks caused by radiofrequency radiation from wireless communication devices, EWG says in a letter this week to JAMA Oncology’s editor.

We’ve worried for decades about the harm caused by exposure to radiofrequency radiation. Now technological advances are leaping well ahead of government assessments of these risks: New communication devices have moved much faster than government agencies’ capacity to assess their potential health risks.

Today it’s clear we need more research about the safety of wireless devices. And we need more government oversight.

In the meantime, there are easy steps people can take to lower their exposure from all kinds of wireless devices, such as using a wired headset and turning the cell phone off at night.

“Electromagnetic fields (EMF) occur in nature and have always been present on earth. However, during the 20th century, environmental exposure to man-made sources of EMF steadily increased due to electricity demand, ever-advancing wireless technologies and changes in work practices and social behaviour. Everyone is exposed to a complex mix of electric and magnetic fields at many different frequencies, at home and work, and concern continues to grow over possible health effects from overexposure.”

- World Health Organization, “Supporting the development of national policies on electromagnetic fields” 

Studies show that radiofrequency radiation can cause a host of health issues – it can harm fetal growth and development, affect the reproductive system, change brain metabolism, and increase the risk of tumor development. Concerns about potential cancer risks are especially critical when it comes to our children, for two reasons. They’re exposed from the time they’re in the womb and throughout their lifetime. And research shows their bodies absorb more radiofrequency radiation than adults.

Sound public health policy depends on assessing and identifying the sources of cancer risk. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, in 2011 classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans. The agency’s decision was based on the increased risk of a malignant brain cancer, glioma, that was linked with the use of cell phones. 

The National Toxicology Program, or NTP, conducted a large-scale animal study of cell phone radiation effects in 2018. The NTP study concluded that exposure to radiofrequency radiation at a frequency of 900 MHz – the frequency commonly used by second and third generation, or 2G and 3G, cell phones – was linked to:

  • A clear association with tumors in the hearts of male rats. The tumors were malignant schwannomas.
  • A possible association with tumors in the brains of male rats. The tumors were malignant gliomas.
  • A possible association with tumors in the adrenal glands of male rats. The tumors were benign, malignant or complex combined pheochromocytoma.

Another 2018 study, by the Ramazzini Institute, in Italy, found lab rats exposed to wireless radiation at 1.8 GHz frequency developed heart and brain tumors like those seen in some studies of human cellphone users. The NTP and the Ramazzini Institute studies confirm the evidence from epidemiological research that radiofrequency radiation increases the risk of cancer.

We don’t yet know exactly how exposure to radiofrequency radiation affects the human body, and how it can raise the risk of cancer, and research continues. The NTP study said that more DNA damage was observed in laboratory mice and rats exposed to radiofrequency radiation. Additionally, according to a 2008 report by the U.S. National Research Council, radiofrequency radiation changes the function of proteins that play an important role in the electrical signaling of cells and changes cell membrane permeability.

Recently, new research frameworks, like the Hallmarks of Cancer and the Key Characteristics of Carcinogens, have brought together a more complete way of understanding the development of cancer by considering a wide variety of pathways that can contribute to carcinogenesis. These frameworks can help us identify factors that increase the risk of cancer and move public health policy toward a greater focus on cancer prevention.

Scientific research made great strides over the past several decades in early detection and treatment of cancer, but the cancer burden in the U.S. and worldwide is significant, and for some cancers, such as breast cancer, cases are increasing. This points to the urgency of investing in cancer prevention. Many experts say lowering exposure to the objects in everyday settings that increase cancer risks is crucial to reducing overall cancer burden.

For radiofrequency radiation, as for other chemical and physical agents associated with higher risk of cancer, caution is the most prudent approach, especially when it comes to our children’s exposure and health.

EWG's Guide to Safe Cell Phone Use

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