Mobile-phone use has joined the World Health Organization's purgatorial category of “possibly carcinogenic for humans”. A committee of experts brought together by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a World Health Organization (WHO) scientific centre in Lyon, France, announced yesterday that it cannot rule out the possibility that heavy mobile-phone use may increase the risk of brain cancer.
The IARC's formal opinions on such matters — always based on published data — are influential, and likely to raise the temperature of an already overheated debate on mobile-phone use and health. The WHO's 'possible carcinogen' category covers 266 other radiation sources and chemicals, including certain pesticides and gasoline — and also items such as coffee, which joined the list in 1991 as a possible cause of bladder cancer. The IARC regularly puts together expert groups to evaluate evidence for the carcinogenic potential of chemicals and radiation sources that have raised concern. Its categories include 'carcinogenic', 'probably carcinogenic', 'possibly carcinogenic' and 'not classifiable'. The IARC expert group of 31 scientists from 14 countries was headed by epidemiologist Jonathan Samet of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The group held a closed conference between 24 and 31 May to assess potential carcinogenic hazards associated with exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields, including radio and television transmitters, as well as mobile phones.