IARC Classifications Explained – L1


IARC is the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an agency of the World Health Organization (WHO).

IARC's mission is to co-ordinate and conduct research on the causes of human cancer and to develop scientific strategies for cancer prevention and control.

IARC classifies agents that humans may be exposed to based on the strength of evidence of their potential as human cancer hazards.  The agents include chemicals, complex mixtures, processes, occupational or environmental exposures, cultural or behavioural practices, biological organisms, and physical substances.

IARC does not consider ‘risk’ or likelihood of harm to humans. It only considers the strength of the scientific evidence for a cancer association. Importantly, risk may not be present at everyday levels of exposure to the agent being assessed.

To do this IARC establishes Working Groups of specialist scientists to review the evidence for any cancer hazard associated with the selected agents.

The IARC Working Group meets to consider the evidence as a whole. They aim to achieve a consensus among Working Group members regarding the adequacy of the evidence and how to classify the agent(s) under consideration as to the strength of evidence for a cancer hazard. 

In the case of Non-Ionizing Radiation, IARC conducted an evaluation of the evidence in May 2011 of Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields which includes mobile telephones.

Click here to see the overview of IARC’s work
Click here to see the objective and scope of IARC’s work

What are the IARC Classifications?

For each agent reviewed, the IARC uses five classifications for the strength of the scientific evidence that an exposure may be a cancer hazard.

 What has IARC already classified?

Since 1971, IARC has evaluated more than 900 agents.  This includes alcoholic beverages, asbestos, benzene, formaldehyde, drinking coffee, hair colouring products, paracetamol, powerline electromagnetic fields, and shiftwork that involves disruption to normal sleep patterns.

Click here for the IARC classifications

What is the IARC classification for radio frequency fields (RF) ?

On 31st May 2011, IARC classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B), based on an increased risk for glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer, associated with wireless phone use.
IARC state in the summary of results:

“The evidence was reviewed critically, and overall evaluated as being limited among users of wireless telephones for glioma and acoustic neuroma, and inadequate to draw conclusions for other types of cancers. The evidence from the occupational and environmental exposures mentioned above was similarly judged inadequate”

Source: http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2011/pdfs/pr208_E.pdf

IARC published a news article (Carcinogenicity of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields) providing further details of the classification in the Journal - Lancet Oncology (online 22nd June 2011).

On the 19th April 2013, IARC published Monograph Vol. 102 on ‘Non-Ionizing Radiation, Part 2: Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields‘.

The WHO has updated the fact sheet on electromagnetic fields and public health : mobile phones to refer to the IARC classification.   

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