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.