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Another doubtful cancer claim

Another doubtful cancer claim
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First Published: Thu, Jun 02 2011. 03 43 PM IST
Updated: Sat, Jul 02 2011. 05 34 PM IST
Beware of your morning shot of coffee; it could be carcinogenic. Something similar could happen—if scientists are to be believed—when cellphones are used for too long.
Earlier this week, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a World Health Organization-appointed team of experts—in the course of reviewing existing scientific literature on the health risks posed by electromagnetic radiation resulting from the use of mobile phones, microwave ovens, and television antennae—said radiation accompanying the use of cellphones was “possibly carcinogenic to humans”.
The IARC uses a four-tier classification system, with group 1 members (tobacco smoke, and vinyl chloride, to give two examples) classified as carcinogenic and group 4 as being “not carcinogenic to humans”. Electromagnetic radiation from mobile phones, coffee and lead are in group 2B, or “possibly carcinogenic to humans”.
They concluded that while more research is needed to estimate risks, the evidence was strong enough to support the conclusion that there was “some risk” from mobile phones and caution ought to be exercised.
Then begin the caveats. The IARC specifies that a group 2B membership results from “limited” and “inadequate” evidence of carcinogenicity. A 2A classification is defined as being “probably carcinogenic”. Then they go on to say that the difference between “possible” and “probable” isn’t “quantitative”.
These experts don’t specify the difference between “some risk” and lot of risk. Risk, ultimately is a matter of how one slices the statistical cake. The chances of surviving an airline crash, as years of data have shown, are close to nil. You’re more likely to survive a car accident, yet more people die from road accidents every year than plane crashes. What’s riskier then, air travel or car driving?
Several standardized protocols exist to evaluate risk to human health—as evident from clinical trial testing process for evaluating drugs and for decades—and authorities do boil down thousands of pages of statistical argument and evidentiary caveats into a “yes” or a “no”. It is quite possible that a concerted, large-scale trial on rodents and primates exposed to the same levels of electromagnetic radiation could easily establish evidence of an increased likelihood of brain cancer. A judgement on the subject must await more empirical work.
Does extended use of cellphones cause cancer? Tell us at views@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Jun 02 2011. 03 43 PM IST
More Topics: Ourviews | Health | Technology | Mobile Phones | IARC |