Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer?

Updated February 21, 2017 | Factmonster Staff

Recent studies provide conflicting results and leave cell phone users hanging

By Jennie Wood

Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer?

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Do cell phones cause cancer? The answer is that no one knows for sure. Mobile devices have only been in wide use for 10 years, with the very first ones introduced 20 years ago. Research on long term use is impossible at this point. It's simply too soon to tell just how harmful cell phones are or if they're harmful at all.

Conflicting Reports

In February 2011, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association documented changes in brain glucose metabolism during cell phone use. The study became the first to prove that cell phone use does alter brain activity by monitoring 47 healthy volunteers seated and on the phone for 50 minutes. The volunteers' brains were monitored by positron emission tomography (PET scans) to measure glucose metabolism. Then in May 2011, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) added radiation from cell phones to its list of substances that are possibly carcinogenic to humans. The IARC's research determined that most cell phone use did not lead to an increased risk of glioma, a dangerous type of brain cancer or meningioma, a more common, but typically benign cancer. However, the study did find enough evidence to suggest that using cell phones over long periods of time on the same side of the head could lead to an increased risk of glioma.

In a contrasting report released in July 2011, a British Institute of Cancer Research study found little evidence of cancer risk in mobile devices after using one for 10 – 15 years. The study showed that there were no increases in brain tumors in several countries over the last 20 years since cell phones have been introduced or even in the last 10 years since their use has become widespread. The study also used animal experiments which showed no evidence for cancer causation.

How to Avoid Cell Phone Radiation

With conflicting reports and no long term research available yet, limiting exposure to cell phone radiation is recommended. The Environmental Working Group released these recommendations on how to limit cell phone use:

    1. Use a headset
    2. Put the phone on speaker
    3. Text more, talk less
    4. Buy a low radiation phone. See a list here: Top 10 Lowest Radiation Cell Phones
    5. Stay off the phone when you have a weak signal (Weak signals = more emissions to contact the tower)
    6. Limit phone use for children because their brains absorb twice as much cell phone radiation as adults

What is Cell Phone Radiation

Just the phrase "exposure to radiation" is scary and can conjure up unsettling images like scenes from the film Silkwood when Meryl Streep's character sets off the alarm and is scrubbed down in the shower. A simple definition of radiation is energy moving from one place to another in the form of waves or particles. There are two types of Radiation. One type, ionizing radiation, comes from radioactive substances or nuclear reactions. It can cause mutations and cancer.

The other type, and the kind that cell phones emit, is non-ionizing radiation, which has less energy than ionizing and is, therefore, less harmful. However, scientists have long believed that non-ionizing radiation can enter the body and cause harm to sensitive tissue. With the lack of long term evidence about the effects of cell phone radiation, the best thing to do is following usage suggestions and limit exposure whenever possible.

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