Can your cellphone cause cancer? Scientists find definitive link in study of rats.

March 28, 2018 05:10 PM

Updated March 29, 2018 03:23 PM

Melnick said the health risks acknowledged Wednesday could compel public officials and telecom leaders "not to promote the use of some of these radio-frequency emitting devices for kids."

Just last month the draft report had been deemed inconclusive by the FDA and by the American Cancer Society, and the scientific panel was expected by the activists to rubber-stamp those conclusions in Wednesday's meeting.

Before the scientists voted, Kevin Mottus, the outreach director of the California Brain Tumor Association, demanded from the floor that the entire panel recuse itself for lacking qualifications to assess radio-frequency data. Mottus later said that cellphones are comparable to asbestos and tobacco and should carry health warning labels.

But as the voting discussion got underway, the scientists began proposing motions to upgrade the level of the findings to state that prolonged radio-frequency exposure can be clearly linked to heart tissue cancer in male rats. The draft study had previously said there was some link but no clear evidence.

The heart tissue cancers were particularly significant because they are a rare form of cancer that rarely occurs in rats and could not be explained as random illnesses.

National Toxicology Program senior scientist John Bucher said the heart tissue cancer that developed in male rats is the same type of cancer that has been seen in some people who have used cellphones at the highest power settings for years.

"The fact that this tumor type was the same really drew our eye to it," Bucher said. "And also they were some of the strongest findings from a numerical standpoint."

The panelists also voted that the study shows some link between cellphone radiation and brain cancer in rats. The draft had said that link was equivocal, a scientific designation indicating it was inconclusive and arguably inconsequential.

In addition to showing an increase in cancers in rats, the study also showed that newborn rats weighed less and suffered higher death rates when living in a radio-frequency radiation chamber.

What's next?

The FDA's director of the office of science and engineering, Edward Margerrison, attended the meeting and warned afterwards against forming rash conclusions based on Wednesday's votes. "We're taking a responsible approach," he said. "We're not gonna knee-jerk on anything." 

The FDA will translate the rodent findings to human health risks, and the Federal Communications Commission will decide whether the FDA conclusions are serious enough to warrant setting lower emissions standards for U.S. cellphones or taking other precautions.

Margerrison noted that the rat experiment exposed the animals to much higher levels of radio-frequency waves than a typical cellphone user experiences. But activists at the meeting said that the exposure over two years — the levels that the rats experienced — was comparable to a lifetime exposure for a human being.

The science panel's decision is only advisory and would need to be adopted by the agency to become final, but Bucher said it's unusual for an advisory panel's recommendations to be rejected. Bucher was the lead scientist on the study, which was commissioned by the FDA in 1999 and carried out in underground chambers, where 3,000 rodents were bombarded with radio-frequency radiation for nine hours a day for two years.

The telecommunications industry has long insisted its products are safe for daily use. Jason Johnson, spokesman for CTIA, the telecom industry trade group, said Wednesday's decision will need to be assessed, noting that the panel is not the last word on the contentious issue.

"The scientific community will consider the NTP draft reports in the context of the many other scientific studies conducted over several decades," he said by email. "The Federal Communications Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization, the American Cancer Society and numerous other international and U.S. organizations and health experts have maintained their longstanding conclusion that the scientific evidence shows no known health risk due to the RF energy emitted by cellphones."

The science panel included pathologists and other industry scientists from Merck, Pfizer, Procter & Gamble, and GlaxoSmithKline, as well as academic experts in electrical engineering, pathology and other disciplines. The National Toxicology Program evaluates hazardous substances and conducts chemical safety testing to provide scientific information that is used to form U.S. public health policy.

How to protect yourself

The public health activists said that as the war of conflicting studies and expert opinions grinds on, the public can take concrete steps to protect themselves from cellphone radiation exposure. They recommend using corded (not wireless) earbuds or headsets. They also recommend keeping the phone away from the body, carrying it in a backpack or purse, setting it on "airplane mode" when not in use, and using a speakerphone when conversing. And they said men should not carry cellphones in their pockets because male reproductive organs are particularly sensitive to radio-frequency waves.

The science panel's conclusions validated the long-standing concerns of epidemiologist and author Devra Davis, president of the Environmental Health Trust and a visiting professor of medicine at the Hebrew University in Israel.