Cross talk: Agen­cies clash on cell­phone can­cer risk

FDA down­plays con­cerns raised by na­tional pro­gram; sci­en­tist wor­ried by rise in tu­mor rates of rats

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - HEALTH | SCIENCE - By Lau­ran Neer­gaard and Seth Boren­stein

Two U.S. gov­ern­ment agen­cies are giv­ing con­flict­ing in­ter­pre­ta­tions of a safety study on cell­phone ra­di­a­tion: One says it causes can­cer in rats. The other says there’s no rea­son for peo­ple to worry.

No new re­search was is­sued Thurs­day. In­stead, the Na­tional Tox­i­col­ogy Pro­gram di­aled up its con­cerns about a link to heart and brain can­cer from a study of male rats that was made pub­lic last win­ter.

The Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion, which over­sees cell­phone safety, dis­agreed with the up­graded warn­ing. And “these find­ings should not be ap­plied to hu­man cell­phone us­age,” said Dr. Jef­frey Shuren, FDA’s chief of ra­di­o­log­i­cal health.

What’s most im­por­tant is what hap­pens in hu­mans, not rats, said Dr. Otis Braw­ley, chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer of the Amer­i­can Can­cer So­ci­ety.

“The in­ci­dence of brain tu­mors in hu­man be­ings has been flat for the last 40 years,” Braw­ley said. “That is the ab­so­lute most im­por­tant sci­en­tific fact.”

The orig­i­nal study

In a $30 mil­lion study, sci­en­tists put rats and mice into spe­cial cham­bers and bom­barded them with ra­diofre­quency waves, like those emit­ted by older 2G and 3G phones, for nine hours a day for up to two years, most of their nat­u­ral lives.

The lev­els the ro­dents ex­pe­ri­enced were far higher than peo­ple are typ­i­cally ex­posed to.

Last Feb­ru­ary, the Na­tional Tox­i­col­ogy Pro­gram said there was a small in­crease in an un­usual type of heart tu­mor in male rats, but not in mice or fe­male rats. The agency con­cluded there was “some ev­i­dence” of a link.

Also, the Feb­ru­ary re­port cited “equiv­o­cal ev­i­dence” of brain tu­mors in the male rats.

Thurs­day, the agency up­graded its de­scrip­tion of those find­ings. The heart tu­mor in­crease marked “clear ev­i­dence” of can­cer in male rats, it an­nounced. There is “some ev­i­dence” of brain can­cer.

The change came af­ter the agency asked out­side ex­perts to an­a­lyze the find­ings.

“We be­lieve that the link be­tween ra­diofre­quency ra­di­a­tion and tu­mors in male rats is real, and the ex­ter­nal ex­perts agreed,” said John Bucher, the tox­i­col­ogy agency’s se­nior sci­en­tist.

While his agency said the risks to rats don’t di­rectly ap­ply to peo­ple, the study raises safety ques­tions.

The dis­agree­ment

The FDA im­me­di­ately dis­agreed, fir­ing off a press re­lease as­sur­ing Amer­i­cans that “decades of re­search and hun­dreds of stud­ies” has made the health agency con­fi­dent that the cur­rent safety lim­its for cell­phone ra­di­a­tion pro­tect the pub­lic health.

Plus, FDA pointed out con­fus­ing find­ings from the ro­dent study — such as that the ra­di­ated rats lived longer than com­par­i­son rats that weren’t ex­posed to the rays. The tox­i­col­ogy agency said it ap­peared that the ra­diofre­quency en­ergy helped older rats’ kid­neys.

There’s a rea­son two dif­fer­ent gov­ern­ment agen­cies are clash­ing — they’re ask­ing dif­fer­ent ques­tions, said Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­sity pub­lic health pro­fes­sor Ge­orge Gray.

A for­mer science chief for the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, Gray said the tox­i­col­ogy pro­gram ex­am­ined how cell­phone ra­di­a­tion af­fected an­i­mals. By look­ing at what it means for hu­mans, the FDA “brings in more sources of in­for­ma­tion and data than just these re­cent tests in rats and mice,” he said in an email. Are cell­phones safe?

“I’m call­ing you from my cell­phone,” noted the can­cer so­ci­ety’s Braw­ley.

He pointed out one well­known risk from cell­phones: Car crashes when driv­ers are dis­tracted by them.

As for can­cer, if peo­ple are con­cerned, they could use ear­phones or speak­ers, he said.

Those who study risk aren’t hang­ing up.

“My fam­ily and I won’t change our mo­bile phone habits based on this news,” said Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton’s Gray.

Getty Im­ages file photo

Two U.S. gov­ern­ment agen­cies are giv­ing con­flict­ing in­ter­pre­ta­tions of a safety study on cell­phone ra­di­a­tion. One says it causes can­cer in rats; the other says there’s no rea­son to worry.

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