According to the World Health Organization (WHO), maybe.

A WHO panel concluded that cellphones are “possibly carcinogenic,” putting the mobile phones in the same threat level category as certain dry-cleaning chemicals and pesticides.

The finding bolsters concerns among a growing group of experts about the health effects of low levels of radiation emitted by cellphones. The panel led by Dr. Jonathan Samet, of USC and included 31 scientists from 14 countries.

The panel only reviewed numerous existing studies that focused on the health effects of radio frequency magnetic fields, which are emitted by cellphones and no new studies were conducted.

During a news conference, Samet said the panel’s decision to classify cellphones as “possibly carcinogenic” was based largely on epidemiological data showing an increased risk of a glioma among heavy cellphone users. A glioma is a rare type of brain tumor.

The study  began with people who already had cancer and asked them to recall how often they used their cellphones more than a decade ago causing many to be doubtful of the results. Multiple other studies done in Europe, New Zealand and the U.S., patients with brain tumors have not reported using their cellphones more often than unaffected people.

Due to the popularity of cell phones the comparison of  cellphone users who develop brain tumors with people who don’t use the devices may be all but impossible. According to a survey last year, the number of cellphone subscribers worldwide has hit 5 billion, or nearly three-quarters of the global population.

People’s cellphone habits also have changed dramatically since the first studies began years ago and it’s unclear if the results of previous research would still apply today.

Most major medical groups, including the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute, have said the existing data on cellphones and health has been reassuring.

Concerns about the health effects of cellphones have been largely dismissed because the radio frequency waves emitted from the devices are believed by most experts to be benign. Cellphones emit nonionizing radiation, which are too weak to break chemical bonds or to set off the DNA damage known to cause cancers. Scientists have said repeatedly that there is no known biological mechanism to explain how nonionizing radiation might lead to cancer or other health problems.

“This I.A.R.C. classification does not mean cellphones cause cancer,” John Walls, vice president for public affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association, an industry group, said in a statement.

Walls noted that both the Federal Communications Commission and the Food and Drug Administration have concluded that the weight of the scientific evidence does not link cellphones with cancer or other health problems.

This year, The Journal of the American Medical Association reported on research from the National Institutes of Health, which found that less than an hour of cellphone use can speed up brain activity in the area closest to the phone antenna. The study was among the first and largest to document that the weak radio frequency signals from cellphones have a measurable effect on the brain. The research also offers a potential, albeit hypothetical, explanation for how low levels of nonionizing radiation could cause harm without breaking chemical bonds, possibly by triggering the formation of free radicals or an inflammatory response in the brain.

“We looked carefully at the physical phenomena by which exposure to such fields might perturb biological systems and lead to cancers,” Samet said.

But, he said, the result was inconclusive, adding, “We found some threads of evidence about how cancer might occur but have to acknowledge gaps and uncertainties.”

The WHO panel made no comment on how large or small a risk cellphone radiation may pose to human health.

In August 2010, San Francisco became the first city in America to require retailers to post radiation emission information beside every make and model of phone they sell. But the law, which was supposed to go into effect in February, remains on hold. The city’s Board of Supervisors is currently considering an amended version, requiring retailers to simply offer tips on reducing exposure to cellphone radiation by doing things like using a headset.
The panel ruled only that cellphones be classified as Category 2B, meaning they are possibly carcinogenic to humans.

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