Following the World Health Organisation (WHO) warning that cell phone use could increase the risk of brain cancer, Occupational Care South Africa (OCSA) cautions that this change in WHO’s stance needs to be carefully watched by employers. The WHO had previously said there was no established evidence for a link between cell phone use and cancer.

Scientists have classified handsets as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” – and advised people to use hands-free devices or text instead of calling. “Although there is more research to be done, the fact is that under SA legislation, employers have a responsibility to protect employees; this warning could have significant implications if an employee develops glioma – a malignant form of brain disease,” says Dr Terry Berelowitz, OCSA’s Medical Director.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) said there are five billion cell phone subscriptions around the world. Considering many of these subscribers will be part of the working population, this new warning raises broad reaching occupational safety issues which will require employers to apply their minds with the assistance of occupational medicine experts. OCSA, a leading business in workplace health and wellness believes employers will have to inform, educate and screen (using questionnaires) any employees issued with cell phones for company use.

A R 2.7 million lawsuit earlier this year which ruled in favour of a former mineworker who developed lung disease at work is an example of the changing landscape of occupational health and safety in South Africa. Thembekile Mankayi was able to seek damages even after qualifying for certain state benefits for occupational disease. “That ruling had a significant repercussion throughout the South African workplace, and this warning of risk with cell phone use presents a new set of challenges,” says OCSA’s Dr Berelowitz.

IARC director Christopher Wild advised that given the potential consequences for public health of this classification and findings, it is important that additional research be conducted into the long-term, heavy use of mobile phones. “Pending the availability of such information, it is important to take pragmatic measures to reduce exposure, such as hands-free devices or texting,” he said.

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