Cross talk: Federal agencies clash on cellphone cancer risk

Alicia Farmer
November 5, 2018

The study found that 2 to 3 percent of the exposed male rats developed malignant gliomas, a deadly brain cancer.

And, "the exposures used in the studies can not be compared directly to the exposure that humans experience when using a cellphone", NTP senior scientist John Bucher noted in an NIEHS news release. The studies also found evidence that the radiation was linked to tumors in male rats' brains and adrenal glands. For female rats, and male and female mice, the evidence was ambiguous as to whether cancers observed were associated with exposure to RFR.

What does this mean for us?

According to John Bucher, Ph.D., NTP senior scientist, the exposures used in the studies can not be compared directly to the exposure that humans experience when using a cell phone.

What's more, the rodents were exposed to cellphone radiation - known as radio-frequency radiation - at greater levels, and for much longer periods, than what people experience, the researchers said.

The study saw its rats subjected to the lowest exposure level that is equal to the maximum local tissue exposure now allowed for cell phone users.

These studies did not investigate the types of RFR used for Wi-Fi or 5G networks. "From what we now understand, it likely differs dramatically from what we studied", said Wyde.

The Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization, said in a statement Thursday that "the findings reinforce the need for people, especially children, to exercise caution when using cellphones and other radiation-emitting devices". "In fact, we only begin to observe effects to animal tissue at exposures that are 50 times higher than the current whole body safety limits set by the FCC for radio frequency energy exposure".

But the FDA has already taken issue with the findings.

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To see if radiation itself - not heat from cell phones - could cause cancer, they exposed male and female rats and mice to full-body RFR at levels far higher than we experience from our phones. The higher frequencies used by current cellphones can not penetrate the tissues of humans and rats as easily as the previously used frequencies.

The National Toxicology Program will share the results of the studies with the US Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Communications Commission, which will then review the information as part of its monitoring of research on the potential effects of RFR.

One of the strengths of the studies was that scientists could control how much radiation the rats and mice were getting, which isn't possible when studying how humans use cell phones, Wyde said. The radiation exposure occurred for nine hours a day, starting before birth and continuing for two years.

Some scientists have warned that 5G - which uses milimeter waves, rather than the microwaves that were the basis of previous generations - may in fact be more risky, but its far too soon to tell for sure.

Bucher was clear: "We believe that the link between radiofrequency radiation and tumors in male rats is real, and the external experts agreed". We believe the existing safety limits for cell phones remain acceptable for protecting the public health'.

People can be exposed to radiofrequency radiation from cellphone towers, the report notes, but it's much more diffuse than what people get from using a cellphone.

According to Dr. Jeffrey Shuren, the U.S. FDA's director for Devices and Radiological Health, such animal studies are important in the discussion, but it was not created to test the safety of cellphones in humans and could therefore not be used to draw conclusions for humans.

'These findings should not be applied to human cell phone usage, ' it said.

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