WHO updated mobile phone health factsheet

5 October 2011

The World Health Organization (WHO) has  released an updated fact sheet on electromagnetic fields, public health and mobile phones following the recent International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classification of radiofrequency fields as a possible carcinogen.

The WHO factsheet says:

“A large number of studies have been performed over the last two decades to assess whether mobile phones pose a potential health risk. To date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use.”

The WHO will conduct a formal risk assessment of all studied health outcomes from exposure to radiofrequency fields by 2012.

On May 31, IARC, which is a specialised agency of the World Health Organization, classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields emitted from mobile phones, wireless devices, radio, television and radar as Group 2B or possibly carcinogenic to humans.

The WHO fact sheet says that people using a mobile phone 30-40 cm away from their body – for example when text messaging – would have a much lower exposure to radiofrequency fields than someone hold the handset against their heads.

“In addition to using hands-free devices, which keep mobile phones away from the head and body during phone calls, exposure is reduced by limiting the number of length of calls. Using phones in areas of good reception also decreases exposure and it allows the phone to transmit at reduced power. The use of commercial devices for reducing radiofrequency field exposure has not been shown to be effective,” says the WHO.

IARC yesterday published the summary of the classification decision on May 31 in The Lancet Oncology.

The paper says of a study that used computer models of heads of children aged three to 11 years : “When used by children, the average RF energy deposition is two times higher in the brain and up to 10 times higher in the bone marrow of the skull, compared to mobile phone use by adults.”

AMTA Chief Executive Officer, Chris Althaus, said it would be understandable that some parents might be concerned about potential health impacts on their children.

If parents are concerned there are some simple steps they can take to reduce their child’s exposure, including the following advice from the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA):

  • Limiting call times
  • Preferring use of land-line phones  
  • Using hands-free or speaker options and texting instead of making voice calls  
  • Using the phone in good signal areas will also usually let the phone communicate with lower power levels and further reduce exposures.

Mr Althaus said the IARC paper refers to a single study which uses computer models of young children’s heads and should be considered along with the weight of scientific evidence.

“Concerns have been raised about the possibility of greater vulnerability of children because of a susceptibility to health risks during developmental stages. However, a number of independent reviews of all available science by international health authorities and governments have carefully considered this concern and found no evidence of any additional risk to children from mobile phones,” he said.

The most recent independent review to consider this issue was conducted in 2009 by seven internationally-recognised experts, who found:

“Overall, the review of the existing scientific literature does not support the assumption that children’s health is affected by RF EMF exposure from mobile phones or base stations.”

International safety standards have large safety margins and protect all mobile phone users, including children.

The Chairman of the International Commission on Non-ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), which developed the international mobile phone safety standards, said:

“The protection system using basic restrictions and reference levels makes the ICNIRP guidelines flexible and applicable to virtually any exposure condition, and any group of population. Therefore, there is no need, or justification, for a special approach to the protection of children.”

Mr Althaus said parents rely on mobile phones for their children to enhance their safety and contact them in an emergency.

“Parents will no doubt balance the proven safety benefits of mobiles for children against IARC’s identification of a potential hazard - this is a choice only parents can make,” he said.