IARC Monograph Vol. 102, for Non-Ionizing Radiation

From May 24-31, 2011, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), met in Lyon, France “to assess the potential carcinogenic hazards from exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields.”  The conclusion of the IARC Working Group was to classify “radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B) … A positive association has been observed between exposure to the agent and cancer for which a causal interpretation is considered by the Working Group to be credible,…”

According to the press statement made on May 31, 2011:

“Over the last few years, there has been mounting concern about the possibility of adverse health effects resulting from exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields, such as those emitted by wireless communication devices.”

“The IARC Monograph Working Group discussed the possibility that these exposures might induce long‐term health effects, in particular an increased risk for cancer.  This has relevance for public health, particularly for users of mobile phones, as the number of users is large and growing, particularly among young adults and children.”

“Dr Jonathan Samet (University of Southern California, USA), overall Chairman of the Working Group, indicated that ‘the evidence, while still accumulating, is strong enough to support a conclusion and the 2B classification.’”

Reference:  World Health Organization Press Release, N-208, May 31, 2011.

Although the press release for the IARC declaration was made in May 2011, the full Monograph was not published until April 19, 2013, when IARC Monograph, Volume 102, for non-ionizing radiation (and radiofrequency electromagnetic fields) became available at the IARC website.

The entire Monograph is nearly 500 pages in length.  A few excerpts are provided below.  A more detailed synopsis of the Monograph has been created for this website and is available as a submenu item for this webpage.

General Remarks

“The topic of this Monograph is the evaluation of the carcinogenicity of radiation in the radiofrequency (RF) range (30 kHz to 300 GHz) of the electromagnetic spectrum.”

“… it should be emphasized that the evaluations in this volume address the general question of whether RF radiation causes cancer in humans or in experimental animals:  it does not specifically or exclusively consider mobile phones, but rather the type of radiation emitted by mobile phones and various other sources.  Furthermore, this Monograph is focused on the potential for an increased risk of cancer among those exposed to RF radiation, but does not provide a quantitative assessment of any cancer risk, nor does it discuss or evaluate any other potential health effects of RF radiation.”

“The Working Group agreed to consider three categories of human exposure to RF radiation:  (a) environmental sources such as mobile-phone base stations, broadcast antennae, smart meters, and medical applications; (b) occupational sources such as high-frequency dielectric and induction heaters, and high-power pulsed radars; and (c) the use of personal devices such as mobile phones, cordless phones, Bluetooth devices, and amateur radios.”

Personal Exposure

“The general community can come into contact with several potentially important sources of RF radiation as part of their personal life, involving some degree of choice, including use of a mobile phone, other communication technologies, or household devices.”

Exposure from Mobile Phones

“With continuing changes in technology, use of mobile phones has become widespread over the last two decades.  …  Over these two decades, there has been rising concern regarding the potential health risks associated with use of mobile phones, particularly the possibility of increased risk of cancer of the brain.”

“Three types of study design have been applied to address the question whether an increased risk of cancer is associated with RF emitted by mobile phones.  These are ecological studies (in particular, observations of time trends in disease rates), case–control studies, and cohort studies.”

DECT Phones

“Another important source of personal RF exposure is the home use of DECT phones, which have been replacing traditional handsets in the home.”

Wireless Networks

“Wireless networking has developed rapidly since about 2000 and is becoming the method of choice for connecting mobile devices such as laptop computers and mobile phones to other electronic systems and to the Internet.  The networks are found in homes, schools, public places such as cafes and transport hubs, and in the workplace.”

Domestic Sources

“There are few powerful sources of RF in the home; however, among these, induction cooking hobs and microwave ovens are of note.  Less powerful sources include remote-controlled toys, baby monitors, and the mobile/cordless phones and the Wi-Fi systems described earlier.”

“A new source of RF that is currently being introduced and that seems set to enter many homes is the transmitter associated with “smart” metering of electricity consumption and potentially metering for other services such as water and gas.  There is no global approach to gathering information from smart meters and relaying it back to the utility companies, but it is clear that radio communications will be involved.  Some systems may use mobile-phone networks for this purpose, while others may use dedicated radio infrastructures. Some systems may also involve a home area network (HAN) within which individual electrical devices in the home can relay information about usage to a central collection point, allowing residents to examine the information and make decisions about their energy consumption.  Two recent investigations commissioned by the Electric Power Research Institute (available on the EPRI webpage) suggest that the power level of radio transmissions will be similar to that of mobile phones, but that the duty factors will be low (on average, such devices will transmit for a small proportion of time only).  Low duty factors, combined with the greater distances of these devices from people compared with mobile phones, imply that exposures will be low when compared with exposure guidelines.”

Exposure Data

“Tissue heating is the most firmly established mechanism for effects of RF radiation in biological systems.  Although it has been argued that RF radiation cannot induce physiological effects at exposure intensities that do not cause a detectable increase in tissue temperature, except for reactions mediated by free radical pairs, it is likely that not all mechanisms of interaction between weak RF fields, with the various signal modulations used in wireless communications, and biological structures have yet been discovered or fully characterized.”

Human Carcinogenicity Data

“The epidemiological evidence on possible associations of exposure to RF radiation with cancer comes from studies of diverse design that have assessed a range of sources of exposure:  the populations included people exposed in occupational settings, people exposed through sources in the general environment, e.g. transmission towers, and people exposed through use of wireless (mobile and cordless) telephones.  The most robust evidence is for mobile phones, the most extensively investigated exposure source.”

Animal Carcinogenicity Data

“Although the value of two [] studies was weakened by their unknown relevance to cancer in humans, the Working Group concluded that they did provide some additional evidence supporting the carcinogenicity of RF radiation in experimental animals.”

Cancer in Humans

“There is limited evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of radiofrequency radiation.  Positive associations have been observed between exposure to radiofrequency radiation from wireless phones and glioma, and acoustic neuroma.”

Cancer in Experimental Animals

“There is limited evidence in experimental animals for the carcinogenicity of radiofrequency radiation.”

Overall Evaluation

“Radiofrequency electromagnetic fields are possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B).



For those individuals who have concerns regarding with RF emissions from wireless devices, the published Monograph offers a “mixed bag” of information.  On the positive side, the Monograph makes quite clear that applicability for the IARC declaration for a Group 2B carcinogen does indeed apply to all RF emissions in the range of 30 kHz to 300 GHz from all sorts of wireless devices, including wireless smart meters.  Some smart grid advocates had tried to interpret the IARC declaration and the associated press release in May 2011 for applicability to mobile phone emissions only.

One portion of the Monograph quotation provided above, on the other hand, is somewhat perplexing.  Why would the IARC Working Group reference an organization dedicated to promoting the electric power industry’s interests in an attempt to somehow compare potential smart meter RF exposures to mobile phone RF exposures, essentially trusting that organization to provide reliable information on “duty factors*”?  Furthermore, IARC then “implies” that smart meter exposures would be low in comparison to “exposure guidelines,” … guidelines that are not relevant for the non-thermal exposure mechanisms being considered in this Monograph.  In this area, it is evident that the Monograph provides an unwarranted commentary (which is borderline speculation) rather than providing a factual presentation of data and analysis conducted by the Working Group itself.

It is also important to acknowledge that the IARC Monograph only addresses the possible carcinogenic nature of RF radiation emissions.  It does not address possible adverse health effects such as EHS or other medical conditions caused by non-thermal exposure mechanisms.

* The term “duty factor”, or normally called “duty cycle,” is a measure of the percentage or fraction of time that an RF device is in operation.  A duty cycle of 1.0 or 100%, corresponds to continuous operation.  There is considerable controversy over the concept of duty cycle for a wireless smart meter.  Electric utilities will many times advertise duty cycles in marketing materials where smart meters transmit less than 0.1% of the time.  Then, for purposes of testing they will assume a different number, maybe 1 to 5%, and then in the field, a different number may actually be measured which can be much higher.  The duty cycle varies based upon the make and model of smart meter, the nature of the meter network, and a number of other factors.

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