CTIA – The Wireless Association, the global trade group for mobile phone carriers, is downplaying Tuesday’s widely covered World Health Organization report that classified cellphones as a possible cancer risk.

John Walls, VP of public affairs for the D.C.-based group, said the study by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer did not conduct new research and based its findings on reviewed published studies. He noted the IARC has given the same “score” to pickled vegetables and coffee.

The WHO announced the finding on May 31 that it now lists mobile phone use as a “carcinogenic hazard” in line with lead. [PDF of study backgrounder]

Although the organization said no adverse health effects have been established, the report re-opened a topic that has loomed over the wireless sector for years, despite no direct links between cancer and the devices. The IARC estimates there are five billion mobile phone subscriptions globally.

The study specifically pointed to the radiofrequency electromagnetic fields produced by mobile phones as a potential increased risk for the brain cancer glioma.

Walls, a former TV anchor who is the top spokesman for CTIA, stressed that the Federal Communications Commission found no evidence of a cancer connection while the Food and Drug Administration said scientific evidence has not provided a link between cellphones and health problems.

“This IARC classification does not mean cellphones cause cancer,” he said.

The Brussels-based Mobile Manufacturers Forum, a trade group of mobile radio equipment makers like Samsung, Panasonic and Alcatel, stressed Tuesday that it is “significant” that the IARC study did not find mobile phones to be a “definite nor a probable carcinogen.”

Michael Milligan, secretary general of the MMF, said if consumers are concerned they can limit exposure by using “hands-free” devices and by making sure they use mobile phones in areas of good reception.