Is the cell phone industry making itself a sitting duck?

The telecom industry should rethink how a reliable review of science is generated Photo: author

HELSINKI, Finland, October 17, 2013 — The French cell phone safety watchdog - The National Agency for Health, Food and Environmental Safety (ANSES) – published its new report on cell phones and health on October 15th, 2013.

The report concludes that the panel of scientists, led by Elisabeth Cardis, was unable to find causality between the observed biological effects induced by exposures to cell phone radiation and possible health effects in humans (as stated on the page 45 of the report: “For personal reasons, Dr Cardis was not able to participate in the deliberations of the working group in 2013, in the evaluation of the data and the preparation of the report and is therefore not in a position to endorse its conclusions”).


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However, considering the omnipresence and rapid development and deployment of new wireless technologies, ANSES’ report recommends limiting exposures for children and for avid users, defined as persons talking on the phone for at least 40 min/day.

ANSES’ report is yet another review of science where scientists conclude that there are no proven health effects and, at the same time, they cover their backs by recommending limitations on cell phone use. The panel also did not see any need to change current safety standards for radiation emissions from cell phones.

As usual, depending on who is writing about this report, different headlines appear.

The British ‘The Telegraph’ wrote a story headlined “Children’s ‘exposure to mobile phones should be limited’“. The telecom industry’s organization, the GSMA, wrote on its website “French government finds mobile phones have no proven health effect and keeps existing safety standards“.


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Both headlines are correct quotes from the ANSES’ report, but their authors consider different aspects of the report’s conclusions as important.

In 2011, a scientific panel at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified cell phone radiation as a ‘possible carcinogen’. The GSMA wrote then: “The IARC classification suggests that a hazard is possible but not likely” and “present safety standards remain valid and the result should be understood as indicating the need for further research”.

Whatever results of different evaluations of scientific evidence are, the firm position of the cell phone industry is that the current safety standards are valid and protect everyone – no matter how young or old, no matter how sick or healthy.

If the current safety standards are such a good protection then why do scientists in review panels continuously recommend to protect children and advise adults to limit exposure?

By recommending limited exposure to children and avid adult users, scientists are covering themselves from the possibility of future “surprises”. It is fully understandable and acceptable in the current situation of scientific uncertainty concerning cell phone radiation and health.

The telecom industry, on the other hand, seems to be “blindly” following safety standards recommendations given by International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) and extracts from the scientific review reports only the information that recommends no changes in safety standards.

This is not very wise behavior by the telecom industry for two reasons. First, ICNIRP is responsible only before “God and History”. Second, IARC classification of cell phone radiation as possible carcinogen proves that the current safety standards are insufficiently protective for avid users.

Business is done for profit. Industry applies all safety standards imposed on their products by committees that set safety standards. Industry thinks that they are safe because they outsourced product safety issues to scientific committees, especially ICNIRP.

ICNIRP is like a “private club”. Current ICNIRP members select and invite new members. It is clear from their choices that the new members are selected based not only on their scientific merit and stature but also on their opinion on risk. In this way, ICNIRP always consists of scientists with similar opinions. This prevents real scientific debate; when nobody has an opposing view then all agree and debate is not needed.

Industry relies very much on ICNIRP’s opinion, but what will happen if ICNIRP is wrong? What if ICNIRP provides opinions that please industry but are wrong or misleading? What if ICNIRP is not sufficiently inquisitive? Who will be responsible for health problems if ICNIRP is wrong? Surely scientists will not be legally responsible. It will be the telecom industry paying the bill, monetary and reputation.

The possibility that the ICNIRP might be wrong was shown in 2011 when WHO classified cell phone radiation as a possible carcinogen. ICNIRP’s opinion was the opposite – it stated there was no carcinogenic risk at all.

But here comes a twist: many members of the IARC expert group voted overwhelmingly for the possible carcinogen classification of cell phone radiation (28 votes out of 30) and many who voted for this classification were scientists working currently or in past for ICNIRP.

It means that in the open scientific debate, when diverse scientific opinions are presented, even some ICNIRP members agree that there is a reason for concern.

It might be a good advice for the telecom industry to revise the strategy of what the industry considers as a “reliable scientific advice”.

The other advice for the telecom industry is to reconsider what are the safe limits on exposures from cell phones.

The main reason for IARC classifying cell phone radiation a possible carcinogen were results of case-control epidemiological studies showing increased risk of brain cancer among the avid users (30minutes/day for over 10 years).

In these epidemiological studies people were using regular off the shelf cell phones that meet all current safety standards. However, epidemiological studies indicated that using these ‘safe cell phones’ people may increase the risk of getting brain cancer. The logical conclusion is that the current safety standards are insufficient and should be changed.

The telecom industry should stop blindly following what the ICNIRP says and being satisfied that different committees say that safety standards are correct. The scientific evidence indicates that the safety standards are inadequate to protect adult avid cell phone users. There is, however, no science available on protectiveness of the safety standards for vulnerable users, such as children, pregnant women, old persons or persons with disease.

The telecom industry should wake up, before someone shouts “the king is naked”.

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Read more from Dariusz Leszczynski in his science blogs “BRHP - Between a Rock and a Hard Place“ and “The Round-Table Initiative.“

Follow Dariusz on twitter: @blogBRHP

Disclaimer: the opinions presented in this column are author’s own and should not be automatically considered as opinions of his employer or this website


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Dariusz Leszczynski

Dariusz Leszczynski is an expert in the biological and health effects of cell phone radiation.

Since 2009 he publishes a science blog dealing with the issue of cell phone radiation and health: http://betweenrockandhardplace.wordpress.com  

Disclaimer: the opinions presented in this column are authors' own and SHOULD NOT be considered as opinions of any of his employers.

Contact Dariusz Leszczynski

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