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.