WASHINGTON — The new study of cancer risk from cellphones marks a big change in what researchers think they know about the dangers — which is why it’s sure to get an extra close look from scientists, industry, and government regulators.
It’s already giving new ammunition to scientists who never thought the government took the risk seriously enough. But it’s not the final word by any means, especially since other scientists are already finding weaknesses in the design of the study.
Here are the main things to know:
What did the study find?
The study, conducted by the US National Toxicology Program, found a relatively small increase in two types of cancer in rats that were exposed to the kind of radiofrequency radiation that comes from cellphones.
The higher rates of gliomas, a kind of brain cancer, and schwannomas, which affect the heart, were only seen in male rats. The concern, though, is that even a small increased risk could suggest that cellphones are less safe than everyone thought.
Why does it matter?
This $25 million, government-sponsored study does not have the funding biases that some critics say have colored studies sponsored by industry.
Several years ago, University of Washington professor Henry Lai analyzed 326 cellphone radiation studies. He found that 72 percent of industry-funded studies found no biological effect from cellphone radiation exposure — but that of the studies not funded by industry, only 33 percent found no biological effect.
A study published by Environmental Health Perspectives, the journal of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences, also found that research funded by the cellular telephone industry tended to show less harmful effects than independent or government research.
Is this the first study that has suggested a cancer risk?
No. In 2011, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer — considered the global authority on cancer risk — made news by classifying radiofrequency electromagnetic fields, including those emitted from cellphones, as possible human carcinogens.
The agency said that the radiofrequency electromagnetic fields posed an increased risk for gliomas, which it said were associated with wireless phone use.
Dr. Jonathan Samet, a University of Southern California professor who was chairman of the IARC Working Group, said at the time that “the conclusion means that there could be some risk, and, therefore, we need to keep a close watch for a link between cellphones and cancer risk.”
What does it mean for people?
The study “doesn’t necessarily have any relationship to the risk you have when you use a cellphone,” said Kenneth Foster, a bioengineering professor at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied radiation and health. There are a few reasons for this. First, he said, the rats received much more radiation than humans do when they use cellphones. “This is not an exposure that’s at all relevant to the real world,” Foster said.
The National Toxicology Program’s associate director said on a conference call Friday the application of these findings to humans is still up in the air, so to speak. “This may have relevance, it may have no relevance,” John Bucher said.
And second, physicists don’t know any plausible biological reason why radiofrequency radiation might damage human cells. It’s not like radiation from X-rays or radioactive material, which can damage cells’ DNA. The primary known effect of radiofrequencies on tissue is to heat them up.
What are the cellphone standards now?
The Federal Communications Commission currently sets standards for what’s considered a safe level of exposure to radiofrequency radiation from cellphones. But critics have said the agency allows too much, and are using the new study to back up their point.
In her book “Disconnect,” epidemiologist Devra Davis writes that the current FCC standards are unrealistic because they’re based on a model — a creature called Standard Anthropomorphic Man, or SAM — that’s larger than the average person, and, therefore, able to withstand more radiation exposure than most people.
“SAM is not an ordinary guy,” Davis wrote. “He ranked in size and mass at the top 10 percent of all military recruits in 1989, weighing more than 200 pounds, with an 11-pound head, and standing about 6 feet 2 inches tall. SAM was not especially talkative, as he was assumed to use a cellphone for no more than six minutes.”
On Friday, Davis reiterated her call for revised FCC standards that would be based on the average person. She also believes the FDA must develop standards to protect the public, especially children, who are more vulnerable because their brains are still developing. Currently, the FDA does not regulate cellphones, and there are no guidelines at either agency for exposure in kids.
“Every parent who thinks it’s so cute to give their kids a little cellphone should ask themselves if they would give them a glass of whiskey or a gun,” she said.
Will this settle the debate?
Not likely. Scientists are already finding weaknesses in the methodology of the new study. Some have noted, for example, that the rats that were exposed to radiation lived longer than those in the control group — which goes against the idea that their health was harmed overall.
In addition, Rodney Croft, director of the Australian Centre for Electromagnetic Bioeffects Research, noted that “the lack of clear dose-response relationships raises the possibility that the results may merely be ‘false positives,'” or results that at first blush incorrectly indicate cellphone use causes cancer.
“These data will probably raise [the] level of suspicion that there might be a problem. I didn’t see them as strong enough to say that there’s really a problem,” said Foster.
Currently, the FDA does not review the safety of radiation-emitting consumer products, such as cellphones and other wireless devices, as it does with new drugs or medical devices.
But the agency does have the authority to do so, if cellphones are proven to be a hazard. The key word here is proof. Don’t expect the agency to act on the basis of this one study, or recommend that the FCC change its guidelines on radiofrequency exposure.
At the same time, the cellular services industry will call on its friends in Congress to protect it from new safety regulations.
The cellular services industry is a powerful player in Washington, known for generous campaign contributions and a hefty lobbying budget. Federal records show that last year, the cellular services and related companies spent nearly $50 million lobbying Congress and the federal agencies. For the first quarter of this year, they spent more than $12 million.
The industry political action committees have donated more than $2.5 million, so far, to presidential and congressional candidates during the 2015-16 election cycle, giving the majority to Republicans.
Dylan Scott and Ike Swetlitz contributed to this report.