NWPC Blog

Can Cell Phones Cause Cancer?

Cell phones make life exponentially easier. You can search for a restaurant, calculate travel time, or chat with a friend across the globe, all in a matter of seconds. But since the wireless phone’s inception, many have speculated if there’s a link between cell phone usage and cancer. Unfortunately, the answer remains unclear. Below we’ll explore what we know, and what you can do to stay informed and healthy.

What we know about the link between cancer and cell phones:

  • Studies have shown mixed results
  • Recent research may not be applicable to humans
  • All research is limited to recent years

One of the biggest concerns surrounding the relationship between cell phones and cancer is that cell phones emit radio frequency (RF) energy or radio waves. Radiation is typically categorized into two types: ionizing and non-ionizing. While radio waves are a form of radiation, they’re non-ionizing and relatively low-frequency. Exposure to ionizing (or high frequency) radiation, such as X-Rays, have been shown to increase the risk of cancer and can damage DNA, but low frequency waves cannot.

The concern with non-ionizing radiation is any tissue near the source may actually absorb the energy. While no research has explicitly shown a link between the tissue heating and actual tissue damage, that hasn’t stopped speculation.

Studies have shown mixed results

Research around cell phones and cancer is sparse for many reasons. For one, the cellular device is less than 50 years old—and has been mainstream for less than 20 in most countries—which limits the potential for long-term research. Another reason is ethics. It’s inhumane to subject people to radio waves that could potentially be cancerous for the sake of research, so researchers are forced to focus on those who have potentially already been exposed. While several dozen studies have looked at the possible links between cellphones and brain tumors, the studies have had mixed results.

One of the most notable studies, and one of the largest case-control studies to date, is the 13-country INTERPHONE study. The study was based on the cell phone use of 5,000 people who developed brain tumors as well as a similar group with no tumors. While there was “a suggestion of a possible increased risk of glioma” and “a smaller suggestion of an increased risk of meningioma” in the 10% of people who reported using their cell phones most frequently, the study found no link between brain tumor risk and cell phone use for 10 or more years.

The findings of the study were reportedly hard to interpret because participants cited “implausibly high cell phone use”—among other issues—which prevented the researchers from drawing firm conclusions. Another limitation of the study, and many others like it, is that the focus is on adults; nowadays, however, we’re seeing cell phone use widespread in children and young adults as well. This means their lifetime exposure to cell phones is much greater and, according to the ACS, health effects in children may even be more pronounced than in adults because children may be more sensitive to RF energy. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the research to know.

Recent research may not be applicable to humans

While we’ve made some advancements in the research surrounding the potential link between cell phones and cancer, there is still much to be desired. Two recent studies, one performed on rats and the other on mice, show that if there is a risk of cell phones causing cancer, it’s small.

Both studies showed a link between tumors in the heart and exposure to radiation from cell phones in male rats; however, this same link did not appear in female rats or mice. It’s also nearly impossible to apply these findings to humans.

For one, the tissue in rats may react much differently to radio waves than human tissue. In fact, the rodents in these studies were exposed to far more radiation than the average person. According to John Bucher, a senior scientist at the National Toxicology Program, this exposure amounted to nine hours of radiation a day for two years, more than people experience even with frequent cell phone use. In short, the findings are “equivocal.”

All research is limited to recent years

So have we gotten any closer to finding an answer? The best we can do with the little data we have is say cell phones might cause cancer. After all, the UN’s International Agency for Research on Cancer claims cell phone use is “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

According to Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, “A lot of people were really concerned when they heard the United Nations cancer agency has declared that cell phones might cause cancer. But when you realize that lipstick, pickles, and styrofoam are on that list, it puts it into a different perspective.”

When asked if we can finally conclude that cell phones cause cancer, Brawley says no. “None of us can tell you what the 30 or 40 year experience of people using cellphones will be,” he says, “because we haven’t had cell phones that long.” Which is why research, especially long-term, is so important.

So what can you do to lower this potential risk, if it does exist? Spend less time on your cell phone, turn off WiFi and bluetooth when you’re not using it, and use headphones to speak on the phone if needed. At night, powering down devices or putting them in airplane mode is a good best practice. Dr. Bucher also suggests avoiding making phone calls when your signal is weak, as radiation emission can increase as your cell phone is working harder to find a connection. At the end of the day, use your best judgment and maybe don’t sleep with your phone under your pillow.