Cell Phone Use and Brain Cancer Risk

by Kelly Barkman

I unknowingly left my cell phone at home this morning and you’d think it was the end of the world. That is a joke of course, but in all seriousness it did send me into a few moments of panic. As I dumped the contents of my purse out while sitting in the Target parking lot, I wondered to myself: What if my kids need me? How will I know what time it is (I don’t wear a watch)? How will I check my email? Facebook? What if I get into an accident?

After that passed, and without my little five-by-two-inch security blanket, I had some time to sit back and reflect on just how attached we are to our cell phones. By we, I mean the 85% of Americans age 18 and older that own a cell phone. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I haven’t had my cell phone with me in the last twelve years, and I was one of the last of my friends to get one! (Why would I need that with me every day, I thought. I don’t talk to that many people, heck I don’t even like talking on the phone! Well…maybe just in case of an emergency.) And so it began.

Cell phones have become such a common fixture in our society. I doubt many of us take the time to consider the impact they have on our lives. Sure, these devices affect our time, are handy in emergency situations, and when we are lost or running late. But now experts are saying they may impact our health by playing a role in the development of brain cancer.

This isn’t breaking news if you’ve been paying attention. The potential side effects of cell phone use have been speculated about for many years. There have been studies done that are inconclusive but give caution about health impacts. There are other downsides of cell phone use as well, like distracted driving from texting and talking while on the road. Many of us have moved away from holding our phones to our ears for hours on end, to wearing Bluetooth headsets, or even better -- a wired headset. Personally, I have earned the reputation of “headset police” in my household, but often can’t find my own.

So, who do we believe, and where do we look for answers? It can be unnerving to wonder what damage has already been done and if these recommendations are indeed true. Let’s take a look at the recent and current studies about brain cancer and cell phone use:

  • Most recently, a research arm of the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), added radiofrequency fields (RF) to its list of possible carcinogens. This was not based on new research, but serves as one extra level of caution based on the limited studies that have been conducted.
  • We do know that RF waves from cell phone use are somewhere in between a radio and a microwave oven. RF waves are a form of non-ionizing radiation, which at very high levels can heat up body tissues. Cell phone manufacturers are limited in the amount of RF energy absorbed by a person.  Current limits are below the level that would heat up body tissue. 
  • The largest case-control study completed to date looked at 5,000 people that had developed brain tumors, and compared them to a similar demographic without cancer. This INTERPHONE study did not find a connection between brain cancer and cell phone use over a 10-year period.
  • Another survey-based study assessed the habits of 420,000 people, and again did not define a link between cancer development and cell phone use. 
  • Of the studies that have been conducted, not one has drawn a link between cell phone use and brain tumor development. But considering that cell phones are a fairly young, ever-changing technology, there just isn’t a lot of information available yet on long-term usage. 
  • The US National Toxicology Program is currently conducting a large-scale study about daily long-term exposure to RF energy and potential health issues using mice. This study should provide new information for us to consider.

What actions, if any, will you take based on this recent news regarding cell phone safety?