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13 Countries To Study Cellphones And Cancer
Canadian Press
December 11, 2002

Can cellphones cause cancer? To date, most research says no. But with the growing use of cellphones, particularly among children, concerns persist.

The World Health Organization wants to get to the bottom of the issue. "Because of the level of public concern and because of the high use of cellphones and the increasing use of cellphones worldwide ... the World Health Organization -- I think rightly -- feels that we need to do a larger, more definitive study," said Mary McBride, one of the key Canadian researchers involved in the 13-country international study announced Tuesday.

McBride, an epidemiologist at the B.C. Cancer Agency, is one of three principal investigators for the Canadian arm of the study, which is expected to recruit 700 adults with brain, head or neck tumours. About 1,800 randomly selected Canadians who haven't been diagnosed with cancer will also be recruited.

The other Canadian researchers are located at the University of Ottawa, the Institut Armand-Frappier of the University of Quebec, and the University of Montreal.

Internationally, it's hoped a total of 9,300 people with the selected cancers and 12,000 people without cancer will participate in the study.

Those kinds of large numbers are crucial when any increased risk may be slight, explained Dr. Remi Quirion, who heads the Canadian Institutes of Health Research's Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction.

"I think if it increases the risk, it's probably a small increase," said Quirion, who is not involved in the cellphone study.

"So to be able really to say 'Yes, if you use that you have a likelihood of an increase of brain tumours of 15 per cent,' we need a very, very large sample size, in different kinds of populations."

The researchers will interview all subjects about their cellphone use. As well, the Canadians are planning to piggyback additional research onto the WHO study and interview subjects with brain cancer about their exposure to things like solvents, petrochemical substances and X-rays.

The international study was designed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a division of the World Health Organization. Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Japan are among the other countries involved.

The idea is to look at enough people for a long enough period to see if there is even a slight increase in risk associated with cellphone use. Findings of the study aren't expected to be available for five years.

Most previous studies have suggested that health-related fears associated with cellphone use are unfounded. But the authors of those studies have acknowledged that the data they looked at covered too short a period of time to be considered conclusive.

That's because most cancers initially develop very slowly. And the cellphone - at least as a device used by the masses -- is still a relatively new technology.

"That's the problem," McBride said. "The average years of use for those earlier studies have been 1.5 to two years, certainly for the U.S. studies."

As well, most of the earlier studies looked only at analogue cellphones. The WHO study will look at both analogue and digital phones.

The researchers will not be studying children. McBride admitted that might draw criticism, since many people concerned about a possible link have been questioning why the scientific community hasn't addressed the question. But she said to study the impact of cellphone use on children just wouldn't make sense.

"We know cancer takes many years to develop and tends not to manifest itself until middle age," she said. "So we would be having to follow children for a long time, and we can get the same answer faster this way.

"We expect that what we learn from the adults will also apply to children."

The Canadian portion of the research is being funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research with support from the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association.

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