You've probably heard that using a handheld cellphone while driving increases your chances of being in (or causing) an accident—by some calculations four-fold. And you probably know that in many states, driving while talking this way (or texting) is illegal. But what you might not be aware of is that holding that cellphone up against your head could potentially cause cancer, too.
While the chances of cancer probably aren't appreciably higher from occasional (or even regular) hand-held cellphone use, it enough of a worry for one of the leading world health organizations to rank the radiation from phones as a carcinogen. In an official statement released today, the World Health Organization (WHO), in conjunction with one of its affiliates, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), announced that handheld cellphone use has been given a 2B classification—meaning "possibly carcinogenic to humans." Other 2B agents include gasoline, gasoline engine exhaust, marine diesel fuel, and several metals including cobalt, nickel, lead.
According to the WHO, there are about five billion cellphone subscriptions globally. The group especially voices concern about the use of mobile phones by young adults and children, as well as by adults who subject themselves to regular doses by holding handsets next to their ear.
No doubt, the news is a blow to the cellphone industry, which has for years been batting down survey results that suggest heavy hand-held use might be connected to cancer.
Higher risk among heavy users
The decision was made in a conference of 31 scientists from 14 countries, in Lyon, France, called to assess the carcinogenic potential. The group didn't look to quantify risk, but it looked at several studies, including one that showed a 40-percent increased risk of gliomas for the heaviest user group—30 minutes per day, over ten years.
The particular study pointed to, however, began with people who had been diagnosed with cancer and looked back at their habits. But the organizations urged for more data on the health consequences.
"Given the potential consequences for public health of this classification and findings," said IARC Director Christopher Wild, "it is important that additional research be conducted into the long-term, heavy use of mobile phones. Pending the availability of such information, it is important to take pragmatic measures to reduce exposure such as hands-free devices or texting. "
Best bet: go hands-free or hang up
The IARC recommended that cellphone users should take measures to reduce exposure by using hands-free devices or texting.
And that's a good piece of advice whether or not you believe you're increasing your chances of cancer: Use Bluetooth and hands-free devices—or better yet, just hang up and drive.