Scientists see strong link between waves from cellphones, cancer in rats

Do cell phones cause brain cancer?

Scientists and researchers continue to search for a link between cell phones and cancer.
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Scientists and researchers continue to search for a link between cell phones and cancer.

Cellphone radio-frequency waves can be decisively linked to cancer in rats, according to a national science panel meeting in Research Triangle Park on Wednesday. The scientists’ finding establishes the clearest connection of cellphone risk to humans in a major U.S. study to date.

The scientists made their announcement at the end of a three-day meeting to review a $25 million rodent experiment conducted by the National Toxicology Center in RTP for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The draft of the study, issued in early February, had established a weak link in some cases, but the scientific advisory panel on Wednesday said the data is more compelling and indicates greater risk.

Wednesday’s decision is expected to change the debate over cellphone safety, and public health activists predict the results will increase pressure on federal agencies to issue safety warnings and tighten safety standards of the ubiquitous electronic device.

“It should most likely lead to a reduction in exposure limits,” said Ronald Melnick, a retired toxicologist from the National Toxicology Program who designed the study before he retired nine years ago.

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

The original draft report was deemed inconclusive by the FDA and the American Cancer Society last month, 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. He believes that cellphones are comparable to asbestos and tobacco and should carry health warning labels.

But the scientists began asking for motions to upgrade the findings to say that prolonged radio-frequency exposure can be clearly linked to heart tissue cancer in male rats. The study had previously said there was some link but not clear evidence.

The panelists also voted that the study shows some link between cellphone radiation and brain cancer in rats. The study previously said that link was equivocal, or dubious.

The FDA’s director of the office of science and engineering, Edward Margerrison, attended the meeting and warned against rash conclusions.

“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 risks, and the Federal Communications Commission will decide whether to set lower emissions standards for U.S. cellphones.

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

“It’s massively higher levels of radio-frequency than people typically get,” Margerrison said.

The science panel’s decision is only advisory and will need to be adopted by the agency, but senior scientist John 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 digital devices are harmless, but some public health activists claim that long exposure to radio-frequency waves cause biological damage to humans.

The proceedings of the peer review committee were widely attended this week by scientists and activists from all over the country.