Carcinogenicity of EMF

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Carcinogenicity of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields

In May, 2011, 30 scientists from 14 countries met at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon, France, to assess the carcinogenicity of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF). These assessments are published as Volume 102 of the IARC Monographs.1
It appears that the number of incidences of glioma does not correlate to the large increase in cellphone use over time.

IARC  on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans

Non-Ionizing Radiation, Part 2: Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields (2013)


 6.1 Cancer in humans

There is limited evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of radiofrequency radiation.

 Positive associations have been observed between exposure to radiofrequency radiation from wire-less phones and glioma, and acoustic neuroma.

 6.2 Cancer in experimental animals

There is limited evidence in experimental animals for the carcinogenicity of radio frequency radiation.


 It is worth mentioning that the 3G and 4G mobile phones commercially available today – equipped with adaptive power control – emit considerably less RF energy than the GSM phones used more than a decade ago. The key epidemiological studies were conducted in the late 1990s and the early 2000.

The Working Group agreed to consider three categories of human exposure to RF radiation:

bullet1. environmental sources such as mobile-phone base stations, broadcast antennae, smart meters, and medical applications;
bullet2. occupational sources such as high-frequency dielectric and induction heaters, and high-power pulsed radars; and
bullet3. the use of personal devices such as mobile phones

6.3 Overall evaluation

Radiofrequency electromagnetic fields are possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B).

 6.4 Rationale for the evaluation of the epidemiological evidence

The human epidemiological evidence was mixed. Several small early case–control studies were considered to be largely uninformative.

 A large cohort study showed no increase in risk of relevant tumours, but it lacked information on level of mobile-phone use and there were several potential sources of misclassification of expo-sure.

 The bulk of evidence came from reports of the INTERPHONE study, a very large inter-national, multicentre case–control study and a separate large case–control study from Sweden on gliomas and meningiomas of the brain and acoustic neuromas.

 While affected by selection bias and information bias to varying degrees, these studies showed an association between glioma and acoustic neuroma and mobile-phone use; specifically in people:-

bullet  With highest cumulative use of mobile phones,
bullet  who had used mobile phones on the same side of the head as that on which their tumour developed, and
bullet  whose tumour was in the temporal lobe of the brain (the area of the brain that is most exposed to RF radiation when a wireless phone is used at the ear).

 The Swedish study found similar results for cordless phones. The comparative weakness of the associations in the INTERPHONE study and inconsistencies between its results and those of the Swedish study led to the evaluation of limited evidence for glioma and acoustic neuroma, as decided by the majority of the members of the Working Group.

 A small, recently published Japanese case–control study, which also observed an association of acoustic neuroma with mobile-phone use, contributed to the evaluation of limited evidence for acoustic neuroma.

 There was, however, a minority opinion that current evidence in humans was inadequate, therefore permitting no conclusion about a causal association. This minority saw inconsistency between the two case–control studies and a lack of exposure–response relationship in the INTERPHONE study.

 The minority also pointed to the fact that no increase in rates of glioma or acoustic neuroma was seen in a nation-wide Danish cohort study, and that up to now, reported time trends in incidence rates of glioma have not shown a trend parallel to time trends in mobile-phone use.


Volume 80 (Static and Extremely Low-Frequency (ELF) Electric and Magnetic Fields; IARC, 2002), and the fourth and last in a series on physical agents, after

 Volume 75 (Ionizing Radiation, Part 1: X- and Gamma-radiation, and Neutrons; IARC, 2000) and

 Volume 78 (Ionizing Radiation, Part 2: Some Internally Deposited Radionuclides; IARC, 2001).

 Solar radiation and ultraviolet radiation were evaluated in Volume 55 (IARC, 1992).

 The types of radiation evaluated as human carcinogens (Group 1) were revisited in Volume 100D (IARC, 2012). A summary of the findings in the present volume  has appeared in The Lancet Oncology(Baan et al., 2 011)


Human exposures to RF-EMF (frequency range 30 kHz to 300 GHz) can occur :-

from use of personal devices (eg,

bulletmobile telephones,
bulletcordless phones,
bulletBluetooth, and amateur radios

from occupational sources (eg,

bullethigh-frequency dielectric and induction heaters, and
bullethigh-powered pulsed radars),

and from environmental sources such as

bulletmobile-phone base stations,
bulletbroadcast antennas, and
bulletmedical applications.


For workers, most exposure to RF-EMF comes from near-field sources, whereas the general population receives the highest exposure from transmitters close to the body, such as handheld devices like mobile telephones. Exposure to high-power sources at work might involve higher cumulative RF energy deposited into the body than exposure to mobile phones, but the local energy deposited in the brain is generally less.

Typical exposures to the brain from rooftop or tower-mounted mobile-phone base stations and from TV and radio stations are several orders of magnitude lower than those from global system for mobile communications (GSM) handsets. The average exposure from use of digital enhanced cordless telecommunications (DECT) phones is around five times lower than that measured for GSM phones, and third-generation (3G) phones emit, on average, about 100 times less RF energy than GSM phones, when signals are strong. Similarly, the average output power of Bluetooth wireless hands-free kits is estimated to be around 100 times lower than that of mobile phones.

EMFs generated by RF sources couple with the body, resulting in induced electric and magnetic fields and associated currents inside tissues. The most important factors that determine the induced fields are the distance of the source from the body and the output power level. Additionally, the efficiency of coupling and resulting field distribution inside the body strongly depend on the frequency, polarisation, and direction of wave incidence on the body, and anatomical features of the exposed person, including height, body-mass index, posture, and dielectric properties of the tissues. Induced fields within the body are highly non-uniform, varying over several orders of magnitude, with local hotspots.

Holding a mobile phone to the ear to make a voice call can result in high specific RF energy absorption-rate (SAR) values in the brain, depending on the design and position of the phone and its antenna in relation to the head, how the phone is held, the anatomy of the head, and the quality of the link between the base station and phone. When used by children, the average RF energy deposition is two times higher in the brain and up to ten times higher in the bone marrow of the skull, compared with mobile phone use by adults.2 Use of hands-free kits lowers exposure to the brain to below 10% of the exposure from use at the ear, but it might increase exposure to other parts of the body.3
Epidemiological evidence for an association between RF-EMF and cancer comes from cohort, case-control, and time-trend studies. The populations in these studies were exposed to RF-EMF in occupational settings, from sources in the general environment, and from use of wireless (mobile and cordless) telephones, which is the most extensively studied exposure source. One cohort study4 and five case-control studies5—9 were judged by the Working Group to offer potentially useful information regarding associations between use of wireless phones and glioma.
The cohort study4 included 257 cases of glioma among 420 095 subscribers to two Danish mobile phone companies between 1982 and 1995. Glioma incidence was near the national average for the subscribers. In this study, reliance on subscription to a mobile phone provider, as a surrogate for mobile phone use, could have resulted in considerable misclassification in exposure assessment. Three early case-control studies5—7 encompassed a period when mobile phone use was low, users typically had low cumulative exposures, time since first use of a mobile phone was short, and effect estimates were generally imprecise; the Working Group considered these studies less informative. Time-trend analyses did not show an increased rate of brain tumours after the increase in mobile phone use. However, these studies have substantial limitations because most of the analyses examined trends until the early 2000s only. Such analyses are uninformative if excess risk only manifests more than a decade after phone use begins, or if phone use only affects a small proportion of cases—eg, the most heavily exposed, or a subset of brain tumours.
 The INTERPHONE study,8 a multicentre case-control study, is the largest investigation so far of mobile phone use and brain tumours, including glioma, acoustic neuroma, and meningioma. The pooled analysis included 2708 glioma cases and 2972 controls (participation rates 64% and 53%, respectively). Comparing those who ever used mobile phones with those who never did yielded an odds ratio (OR) of 0·81 (95% CI 0·70—0·94). In terms of cumulative call time, ORs were uniformly below or close to unity for all deciles of exposure except the highest decile (>1640 h of use), for which the OR for glioma was 1·40 (95% CI 1·03—1·89). There was suggestion of an increased risk for ipsilateral exposure (on the same side of the head as the tumour) and for tumours in the temporal lobe, where RF exposure is highest. Associations between glioma and cumulative specific energy absorbed at the tumour location were examined in a subset of 553 cases that had estimated RF doses.10 The OR for glioma increased with increasing RF dose for exposures 7 years or more before diagnosis, whereas there was no association with estimated dose for exposures less than 7 years before diagnosis.

A Swedish research group did a pooled analysis of two very similar studies of associations between mobile and cordless phone use and glioma, acoustic neuroma, and meningioma.9 The analysis included 1148 glioma cases (ascertained 1997—2003) and 2438 controls, obtained through cancer and population registries, respectively. Self-administered mailed questionnaires were followed by telephone interviews to obtain information on the exposures and covariates of interest, including use of mobile and cordless phones (response rates 85% and 84%, respectively). Participants who had used a mobile phone for more than 1 year had an OR for glioma of 1·3 (95% CI 1·1—1·6). The OR increased with increasing time since first use and with total call time, reaching 3·2 (2·0—5·1) for more than 2000 h of use. Ipsilateral use of the mobile phone was associated with higher risk. Similar findings were reported for use of cordless phones.

Although both the INTERPHONE study and the Swedish pooled analysis are susceptible to bias—due to recall error and selection for participation—the Working Group concluded that the findings could not be dismissed as reflecting bias alone, and that a causal interpretation between mobile phone RF-EMF exposure and glioma is possible. A similar conclusion was drawn from these two studies for acoustic neuroma, although the case numbers were substantially smaller than for glioma. Additionally, a study from Japan11 found some evidence of an increased risk for acoustic neuroma associated with ipsilateral mobile phone use.
For meningioma, parotid-gland tumours, leukaemia, lymphoma, and other tumour types, the Working Group found the available evidence insufficient to reach a conclusion on the potential association with mobile phone use.
Epidemiological studies of individuals with potential occupational exposure to RF-EMF have investigated brain tumours, leukaemia, lymphoma, and other types of malignancy including uveal melanoma, and cancers of the testis, breast, lung, and skin. The Working Group noted that the studies had methodological limitations and the results were inconsistent. In reviewing studies that addressed the possible association between environmental exposure to RF-EMF and cancer, the Working Group found the available evidence insufficient for any conclusion.

The Working Group concluded that there is “limited evidence in humans” for the carcinogenicity of RF-EMF, based on positive associations between glioma and acoustic neuroma and exposure to RF-EMF from wireless phones. A few members of the Working Group considered the current evidence in humans “inadequate”. In their opinion there was inconsistency between the two case-control studies and a lack of an exposure-response relationship in the INTERPHONE study results; no increase in rates of glioma or acoustic neuroma was seen in the Danish cohort study,4 and up to now, reported time trends in incidence rates of glioma have not shown a parallel to temporal trends in mobile phone use.

The Working Group reviewed more than 40 studies that assessed the carcinogenicity of RF-EMF in rodents, including seven 2-year cancer bioassays. Exposures included 2450 MHz RF-EMF and various RF-EMF that simulated emissions from mobile phones. None of the chronic bioassays showed an increased incidence of any tumour type in tissues or organs of animals exposed to RF-EMF for 2 years. An increased total number of malignant tumours was found in RF-EMF-exposed animals in one of the seven chronic bioassays. Increased cancer incidence in exposed animals was noted in two of 12 studies with tumour-prone animals12, 13 and in one of 18 studies using initiation-promotion protocols.14 Four of six co-carcinogenesis studies showed increased cancer incidence after exposure to RF-EMF in combination with a known carcinogen; however, the predictive value of this type of study for human cancer is unknown. Overall, the Working Group concluded that there is “limited evidence” in experimental animals for the carcinogenicity of RF-EMF.
The Working Group also reviewed many studies with endpoints relevant to mechanisms of carcinogenesis, including genotoxicity, effects on immune function, gene and protein expression, cell signalling, oxidative stress, and apoptosis. Studies of the possible effects of RF-EMF on the blood-brain barrier and on a variety of effects in the brain were also considered. Although there was evidence of an effect of RF-EMF on some of these endpoints, the Working Group reached the overall conclusion that these results provided only weak mechanistic evidence relevant to RF-EMF-induced cancer in humans.
In view of the limited evidence in humans and in experimental animals, the Working Group classified RF-EMF as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2B). This evaluation was supported by a large majority of Working Group members.

The Risk, if Any, Is Not Great Enough

By Larry Junck (Wall St Journal article May 2016)

Each year, about 78,000 Americans are diagnosed with a malignant or benign brain tumor. These lead to about 17,000 deaths—seventh among deaths due to cancer. As a physician kept busy caring for people with brain tumors, I would like nothing more than to see some of these tumors prevented.

Unfortunately, a label warning purchasers of cellphones about an unproven brain-tumor risk would not be a step toward that goal.

Consider that brain tumors have not increased in incidence in correlation with cellphone use. If cellphones were an important cause of brain tumors, we would have seen an increase perhaps starting in the 1990s, when cellphones came into widespread use, or starting several years later, if it took several years of cellphone use to cause a brain tumor. While the number of people diagnosed with brain tumors has risen, the increase has been mainly among the elderly, who use cellphones less than others. The increase started before the 1990s, and the numbers have leveled off. The increase is believed to be largely due to our improved detection of brain tumors using CT scans and MRI.

Also, there is no known scientific mechanism by which mobile phones might cause brain tumors. For carcinogenic chemicals and other environmental causes of cancer, we can generally show that these cause mutations in DNA or changes in other molecules, sufficient to explain the resulting cancers. However, radiofrequency emissions such as those emitted by cellphones generally pass through tissues without causing these effects.

Numerous epidemiologic studies considered together do not conclusively show an increase in risk of brain tumors associated with cellphone use. The majority of studies show no association at all. A number of studies do suggest an increase in risk, but some of these studies depend on patients’ recall of their cellphone usage and thus are susceptible to bias.

One of the largest studies, the Interphone study done in 13 countries and published in 2010, showed no increase in risk in its primary analysis. A widely criticized secondary analysis showed that among the 10% of subjects who recalled the highest usage, incidence of glioma (the most common of serious brain tumors) was increased by 40%—of marginal significance due to the small number of tumors in the secondary analysis. Based largely on this study, WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified radio-frequency electromagnetic fields as “possibly carcinogenic” in humans, a category that includes coffee and pickled vegetables. Many experts have expressed opinions disagreeing with this classification because of the lack of good evidence supporting it.

Other conceivable risks of RF have also been studied. An example is effects on sperm. A meta-analysis of many studies looking for an association of cellphone use with changes in sperm reported that one of three variables studied, sperm motility, shows a small but statistically significant relationship. But the authors do not indicate how sperm development might be affected by RF from cellphones, considering that RF emissions are concentrated near their source and that cellphones are generally held far from the scrotum while in use.

Most scientific organizations that have studied this issue, such as the World Health Organization and the National Cancer Institute, find no convincing evidence of risk of brain tumors or other harms. The Food and Drug Administration states, “The weight of scientific evidence has not linked cellphones with any health problems.”

Meanwhile, supporters of stronger warnings point to reports in the insurance industry citing the possibility of increased liability to claims of health damage from cellphones, but such conclusions appear to be based on ` arising from public concerns that are not based on evidence of harm. I submit that public policy should be based on actual risk, not on popular perceptions that aren’t supported by evidence.

Do risks of cellphones require more study? Yes, especially looking for any long-term risk to children who use them extensively over many years. Meanwhile, there is not much basis for modifying our use of mobile phones because of the risk of brain tumors or other risks from RF emissions.

If a risk exists at all, it is not high enough to justify a warning label for consumers. Warning labels are best reserved for risks that are both more clear-cut and larger. Perhaps use of cellphones while driving is an example.

Dr. Junck is professor of neurology at the University of Michigan Health System. He can be reached at