ARPANSA Response

6 June 2011

The radiofrequency electromagnetic fields emitted by mobile phones and other communication devices may be carcinogenic to humans, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) announced on 31st May following an 8-day meeting to assess the scientific evidence.

After reviewing the large body of peer-reviewed scientific research on the subject, the 31 member working group, made up of expert scientists from 14 countries, classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as a Group 2B carcinogen – “possibly carcinogenic to humans”.

IARC’s classification was based primarily on epidemiological studies of glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer, which some studies have shown to occur more frequently in heavy users of mobile phones. These studies could not rule out other possibilities for the apparent increase in risk but indicated that radiofrequency electromagnetic fields were credible as a cause.

ARPANSA welcomes the report and considers that the classification by IARC corresponds to the current ARPANSA advice, including its advice on practical ways in which people can reduce their exposure to the electromagnetic fields produced by wireless telephones. These include : limiting call time, preferring use of land-line phones, using hands-free or speaker options and texting instead of making voice calls. Use of the phone in good signal areas will also usually let the phone communicate with lower power levels and further reduce exposures. ARPANSA has also recommended parents encourage their children to use these methods of reducing exposure.

ARPANSA does not consider that the new classification should give rise to any alarm.

IARC, a World Health Organization (WHO) agency, classifies chemicals, biological agents, physical agents and lifestyle and work practices according to the evidence that they cause or accelerate cancer. When the evidence is strong the classification is Group 1 – Carcinogenic to humans. When the evidence is less convincing the classification is Group 2A – Probably carcinogenic to humans. When the evidence is limited but a role in causing cancer still possible, the 2B classification – possibly carcinogenic to humans - is given as in the case of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields.

IARC’s assessment does not discuss what level of risk might be associated with a particular level of exposure. The WHO will commence an overall health risk assessment for radiofrequency electromagnetic fields taking into account the IARC classification.

Exposures to the radiofrequency electromagnetic fields from mobile phones and base stations are regulated by the Australian Communications and Media Authority to levels set by ARPANSA in its Radiation Protection Standard for Maximum Exposure Levels to Radiofrequency Fields - 3 kHz to 300 GHz (2002) (link: http://www.arpansa.gov.au/Publications/codes/rps3.cfm ). This Standard includes a precautionary requirement to minimise unnecessary public exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation. Typical exposures to the public from mobile phone base stations are well below international and Australian exposure limits and very far below the localised exposures from mobile phone handsets.

ARPANSA will consider the implications of the IARC decision and the underlying scientific evidence and, if necessary, review the current standard and other means of protecting the public.

The press statement from IARC is available here. 

An audio file of the media briefing is available here.