Is Your Cell Phone Killing You?

People have worried about a possible link between cell phones and brain tumors since the first boxy phone debuted back in the 1980s. It’s certainly reasonable to worry about the effects of holding what is effectively a powerful radio transmitter to the side of one’s head, and no more than a few centimeters from one’s brain.

Radio waves are a form of electromagnetic radiation. They occupy a different part of the same spectrum that includes microwaves, X-rays, gamma rays, and other forms of radiation that have undeniably negative effects on living tissues.

As such, is it fair to say that using a cell phone regularly is akin to getting a CT scan every few minutes for the rest of your life? Not exactly. But there is evidence that it is not great for you. Here is a look at where the science stands and what, if anything, you should do about it.

Landmark Cell Phone Cancer Studies: An Overview

The Mayo Clinic has put together a helpful list of some of the key studies exploring the link between cell phones and cancer. The most notable include:

  • A massive, long-term study that followed about 420,000 regular cell phone users for 20 years. It found no measurable increase in cancer rates relative to the population of non-users.
  • A smaller study that found a small but statistically significant increase in salivary gland tumors among habitual cell phone users. Few tumors were malignant, leaving the implications open to interpretation.
  • A study that showed a possible link between heavy cell phone use and glioma, a brain malignancy. The same study showed no increased risk for lighter cell phone users.

What Does the WHO Say?

The World Health Organization is a well-respected non-governmental entity that makes reasoned, evidence-based pronouncements on a wide variety of hot-button medical topics. The WHO was recently in the news for announcing, after years of study and meta-study, that processed meats are likely carcinogenic.

In fact, the WHO keeps a detailed classification scheme for known carcinogens. Processed meats make the cut, as do “usual suspects” like tobacco and alcohol. And so do “radiofrequency electromagnetic fields”, or radio waves. Your home WiFi system, in-car Bluetooth speakers, and cellphones all generate radiofrequency electromagnetic fields that the WHO believes (or at least strongly suspects) to be carcinogenic.

Listen to the Numbers

On the other hand, the virulence of known carcinogens varies widely. It is worth noting that while the evidence for classifying processed meats as carcinogens is statistically significant (and that processed meats cause other health problems, strengthening the argument against consuming them in large quantities), the actual figures behind the link are rather unimpressive. Out of many thousands of people surveyed, only a handful developed tumors that could conclusively be linked to processed meat consumption. In other words, there hardly appears to be a public health emergency here on the scale of, say, tobacco consumption.

As more long-term studies about the link between cell phones and cancer come out, the medical community may well strengthen its conviction that holding a phone an inch or two from your brain is a risk factor for certain tumors. It may also turn out that this causative link, while real, is not particularly jarring.

If it turns out that heavy cell phone use does elevate tumor risk over years or decades, but only very slightly, policymakers are unlikely to clamor for the abolition of cell phones or the mandatory use of radiation-blocking devices, and most people are likely to continue using cell phones as before.

Can We Tune Out Statistical Noise?

The organizations we are fortunate enough to work with, including Northside Hospiyal and Neurosurgery Answer, are ironclad proponents of evidence-based medicine. We are aware that every study is vulnerable to confounding variables that obscure causative links and make definitive conclusions more difficult to reach. In some cases, such variables are relatively easy to brush aside. In other cases, the variables present serious challenges that demand the utmost caution.

Unfortunately, it is likely that the link between cell phones and cancer won’t be established with crystal clarity for many years, if ever. This is due to a number of factors, including:


  • The apparent weakness of the causative link, if any: It took years to establish a convincing causative link between tobacco use and cancer risk — a link that we all take for granted today. The relationship between cell phone use and cancer risk appears, at present, to be significantly weaker. Science moves slowly in the best of circumstances, so lay people shouldn’t expect swift answers.
  • The relatively short period of time during which cell phones have been in use: Though they first appeared a decade earlier, cell phones and wireless indoor telephones have only been in widespread use since the early 1990s. That’s probably long enough to draw convincing conclusions about heavy use from the population of early-adopting, heavy users, but it’s not quite sufficient for a population-wide look at the situation. Truly convincing work may have to wait until the first crop of digital natives — people who have used transmitting electronics for their entire lives — approaches retirement age.
  • The most sensational reports don’t directly measure tumor incidence: Some of the most sensational reports about the possible link between cell phone use and cancer don’t directly measure tumor incidence. Instead, they extrapolate about potential “downstream” risks (i.e., tumor growth) based on observed biological changes attributable to cell phone radiation. While it is reasonable to make such assumptions in a general sense, it is dangerous to do so in scientific studies, particularly when the processes by which the observed changes encourage tumor growth aren’t fully understood.


Cell Phones Aren’t Going Away

Whatever your opinion on the dangers of cell phones (or the science of the interaction with the human brain), one thing is clear: cell phones aren’t going away, at least not anytime soon. It is possible that, decades from now, portable handheld communication devices will be rendered obsolete by the relentless pace of technological change. But there is no sense in speculating about a day that’s not even close. For now, we are at the mercy of the radio-transmitting computers in our pockets — for better or worse.

The Science of Cell Phones and Brain Tumors

The first cell phones hit the U.S. market in the 1980s. Almost immediately, consumer advocates raised questions about their potential to adversely affect users’ health over long periods of time. During the 1990s, as cell phones became cheaper and more reliable, the pitch and intensity of this questioning gained steam.

Now that cell phones and their powerful smartphone successors — which resemble the first bulky, functionally limited mobile phones about as much as 18th-century surgery, performed without antibiotics or reliable anesthesia, resembles modern neurosurgery — have become an integral part of our modern economic and social fabric, it’s hard to imagine turning back the clock and returning to a time without mobile technology. (You certainly wouldn’t be willing to undergo major surgery without antibiotics or anesthesia, and no ethical surgeon would agree to such a procedure anyway.)

But the questions continue — and they’re worth addressing. Here’s a look at the science behind the oft-repeated claim that cell phones cause brain tumors.

A Long-Term Rise in Tumor Incidence

According to the Mayo Clinic, providers have documented a small but statistically significant (and steady) rise in the incidence of benign and malignant head tumors since the 1970s. While this at first blush appears to correlate with the adoption of cellphones and other radiation-emitting electronics, it’s more likely that the correlation is incidental. The more likely explanation for the increase is a dramatic improvement in imaging technologies and diagnostic techniques.

However, there is enough uncertainty in the data to prompt legitimate questions and necessitate further investigation.

What Can Landmark Studies Tell Us?

During the more than three decades that cell phones have been in use — including the second half of that period, when cell phone use became commonplace — several highly regarded studies have shed some light on the correlation between radio-transmitting electronics and head/neck tumors. The most noteworthy include:

  • A small but statistically significant correlation between cell phone use and salivary gland tumors, though a small sample size and other complicating factors cast some doubt on the results’ applicability
  • A statistically weak correlation between heavy cell phone use and a specific type of brain tumor (glioma), but no general correlation between phone use and overall tumor incidence
  • A two-decade mega-survey of more than 400,000 cell phone users that found no statistically significant correlation between phone use and brain tumors

Benefits of Common Safety Devices and Regulations

It’s also worth noting that some authorities aren’t waiting for a consensus to emerge. The city of Berkeley, California, recently made headlines ( CNN) for enacting a strict law requiring cell phone vendors to inform consumers of existing federal regulations regarding cell phone emissions and provide detailed guidance on safe use (including safety equipment, such as hands-free devices and ear protection) — either by handing out a special pamphlet or displaying a sign in-store. While it’s unclear how or if this new local rule will change consumer behavior, there’s no denying that consumers remain suspicious of the ever-present cell phone.