A group of concerned scientists is cautioning that a World Health Organisation (WHO) body may be about to make a potentially dangerous cover-up in relation to the dangers of mobile phones.

Next week, a special meeting of WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) will decide on the carcinogenicity of cell phones and wireless technologies based on a review of all published epidemiological and experimental evidence.

This highly significant occasion will result in a Monograph that will determine the nature of global policy and research in the area in the next five years.

But scientists from Europe, North America, Australia and Israel have sent an open letter to Dr. Christopher Wild, IARC's Director, calling for the meeting to be postponed pending the publication of full results of research concluded in 2004 and still not made public seven years later.

They are also accusing some members of the committee of a conflict of interest and of being unduly influenced by the mobile phone industry.

One of the signatories, Alasdair Philips, quotes research conducted in England showing that the incidence of malignant temporal and frontal lobe tumours, the areas of the brain near the ear where mobile phones are held, has increased from 3.9 to 5.1 incidences per 100,000 members of the population between 1998 and 2007.

He says: "A number of case-control studies and meta-analyses have reported rises in brain tumour incidence associated with more than ten years mobile phone use".

He says the picture is confusing because, "overall brain tumour incidence is fairly static - in many countries tumours in regions of the brain away from temporal and frontal lobes are decreasing whilst temporal and frontal lobe tumours are increasing”.

The delayed Interphone report

IARC conducted an international study called Interphone between 2000 and 2004 focusing on four types of tumours in tissues that most absorb RF energy emitted by mobile phones: tumours of the brain (glioma and meningioma), of the acoustic nerve (schwannoma), and of the parotid gland.

After much delay, half of the results were finally published last year. These appeared to provide reassurance. It was concluded that there was no danger from mobile phone use.

At the time, Dr Christopher Wild, director of IARC said: "An increased risk of brain cancer is not established from the data from Interphone. However, observations at the highest level of cumulative call time and the changing patterns of mobile phone use since the period studied by Interphone, particularly in young people, mean that further investigation of mobile phone use and brain cancer risk is merited."

In fact, even the published Interphone results give cause for concern. In Appendix II to the study, not published in the printed journal but online, a doubling of glioma incidences is actually recorded.

The signatories to the open letter say that "the overall analysis of the risk of acoustic neuroma, parotid gland tumours and tumours in the regions of the brain most highly exposed to cellphone radiation has yet to be published". Why hasn't it been published? They ask.

Conflicts of interest

Could it be due to industry pressure? The question is important because mobile phone use is a huge source of revenue to governments throughout the world. In the UK revenue levels are now almost equivalent to those from vehicle taxation - about £20 billion per year.

Telecom industry observers are permitted to be present at IARC meetings, and the group of scientists express call for them to be excluded.

Particularly, they name Joe Elder, representing the Mobile Manufactures Forum (previously a long-term Motorola Employee); Jack Rowley, representing the GSM Association (a previously long-term Telstra employee); and Mays Swicord representing the Cellular Telecommunication Industry Association (previously a long-term Motorola employee).

They also question the suitability of Professor Anders Ahlbom of the Karolinksa Institute in Sweden to chair the IARC expert group on epidemiology, which will judge on the carcinogenicity of RF/MW, because of "his extreme conflicts of interest and intellectual bias favouring the telecommunications industry."

WHO bodies are supposed to be independent and transparent.

The funding for the Interphone study came partly from the European Union and partly from the International Union against Cancer (UICC). But the UICC received funds for this purpose from the Mobile Manufacturers' Forum and GSM Association.

This funding allegedly guaranteed the study's complete scientific independence. WHO says the funders of the Interphone study do not have access to any of its results before their publication. However, they may be informed a maximum of seven days before the publication of the results, under strict terms of confidentiality.

Could this mean then that they can then interfere with the publication date, should they choose to?

International EMF Alliance co-founder, Don Maisch, PhD, has documented the conflicts of interest at IARC in some detail.

There have also been reports of disagreements within the committee. The study's former chief, Elizabeth Cardis, has since left IARC to work at another institution, CREAL.

She has since distanced herself from the Interphone report, and said "We have a number of elements in the study which suggest that there might actually be a risk, and particularly we have seen an increased risk of glioma, which is one type of malignant brain tumour, in the heaviest users in the study—in particular on the side of the head where the tumour developed and in particular in the temporal lobe which is the part of the brain closest to the ear so closest to where the phone is held, so that’s the part of the brain that has most of the exposure from the phone."

Interestingly, she has two children herself; she says in a interview that she does not let them use a cellphone, and minimises her own use of mobile calls.

As a result of her subsequent work, the British Medical Journal earlier this year issued the following advice: 

Simple and low-cost measures, such as the use of text messages, hands-free kits and/or the loudspeaker mode of the phone could substantially reduce exposure to the brain from mobile phones. Therefore, until definitive scientific answers are available, the adoption of such precautions, particularly among young people, is advisable.

Young people especially vulnerable

That the UK government is aware of the potential danger of mobile phone use, especially to young people, is evident because it has recently reiterated its guidance that children severely limit their mobile phone use to emergencies and necessary calls only.

And yet it is estimated that over 50% of 5 to 7 year-olds now have their own handset and this rises to about 75% by age ten.

A new UK charity, MobileWise, has just been launched to do what the Stewart Report into mobile phone use amongst young people recommended the government to do, but which it hasn't, namely to properly inform young people, their parents and teachers about the possible health hazards from mobile phone use and how to use them more safely.

Amongst its trustees is a consultant neurosurgeon at Charing Cross Hospital and chairman of Brain Tumour Research Campaign, Kevin O'Neill.

Concern has also led to another European Union-funded study, Mobi-kids, exclusively focusing on the effects of mobile phone use on children. It began work two years ago but is not expected to report for some time.

A new Council of Europe Committee Resolution has this week also called for a dramatic reduction in human exposure to EMFs and microwave radiation from mobile phones and other wireless devices.

The Resolution calls on member governments to impose a ban on mobile phones, DECT cordless phones, WiFi or wLAN systems in classrooms and schools.

It also requires that we take all reasonable measures to reduce exposure to electromagnetic fields on "as low as reasonably achievable" (ALARA) principles, especially to radio frequencies from mobile phones, and particularly the exposure to children and young people who seem to be at most long-term risk from head tumours.

The potential dangers of electromagnetic fields and their effect on the environment will be a central focus of a meeting of the Standing Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in Kyiv on 27 May, during IARC's meeting.

As mobile phone use is increasing rapidly around the world, it is vital that we get objective, scientifically-based certainty on the issue, and that the WHO conducts itself impeccably to maintain its reputation.