Could Cell Phone Radiation Cause Cancer?

Wednesday Oct 10 | BY |
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Could using your cell phone often increase your risk of brain cancer?

It may be the question of our age—can cell phone radiation cause cancer? So far, the studies have been confusing. Some say yes, others say no.

Here are the data we have so far, and some tips you can use to lower your risk.

What Type of Radiation Are We Talking About?
Some people have been concerned for years about the potential hazards of cell phones. That’s because they all emit some amount of electromagnetic radiation. Since many people hold the phone close to their head when talking, the concern is that the radiation could cause brain cancer, particularly with long-term use.

There are two basic types of electromagnetic radiation:

  • Ionizing radiation: This type contains enough electromagnetic energy to disrupt the activity of atoms and molecules in the body, and also to alter chemical reactions. Gamma rays and x-rays are two forms of ionizing radiation. They can be harmful, which is why lead vests are used during x-rays.
  • Non-ionizing radiation: This type of radiation causes some heating effect, but usually not enough to damage tissues. This is the “safer” kind of radiation, and is the type emitted by radios, visible light and microwaves. This type of radiation is considered too weak to damage DNA.

Cell phones emit non-ionizing radiation, which is why they are considered safe by most experts to date. According to the FDA, cell phones emit low levels of radiofrequency energy (RF), which has shown in numerous studies to have no link to health problems. Though high levels of RF energy can heat biological tissue and potentially cause burns, cell phones operate at power levels well below the point at which such heating effects would take place.

The FDA also notes that the RF cell phones emit while in use are in the microwave frequency range, while emitting RF at “substantially reduced time intervals when in stand-by mode.” These low levels cause no known adverse health effects.

WHO Pronounces Cell Phones as Possibly Carcinogenic
Concerns about a possible connection between cell phone radiation and cancer resurfaced in 2011 when the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that cell phones were “possible carcinogens.” The statement actually came from the International Agency for Research on Cancer IARC), which brought together 31 international experts in Lyon, France, to sort through data on cell phone safety.

These individuals analyzed existing studies, including two that had not yet been published at the time, and concluded that there could be a possible connection between cell phones and two types of brain tumors—glioma, a type of brain cancer, and acoustic neuroma, a noncancerous tumor of the nerve that runs form the ear to the brain. They said there’s not enough evidence to link cell phones to any other type of cancer, and acknowledged that the evidence for classifying cell phones as possible causes of brain tumors is “limited.”

Both of these tumors are rare, but considering millions of people use cell phones, even a rare risk deserves further investigation.

Controversy Surrounding the 13-Country Study
The conclusion of the IARC may have been based partly on a 13-country study published in 2010 in The International Journal of Epidemiology. This study concluded that overall, there was no link between cell phone use and brain tumors, but that study participants with the highest level of cell phone use had a 40 percent higher risk for a type of brain tumor called a “glioma,” which is a malignant tumor of the glial tissue of the nervous system. The authors of the study discounted this risk in the end, however, because of potential biases and errors.

Why would the scientists simply dismiss data that seemed to show an increased risk? According to the New York Times, the study was funded primarily by the European Commission and the cell phone industry. The fact that cell phone companies actually contributed to this study raises questions of conflict of interest.

Researchers apparently also disagreed on how to present the results, however. Publication was reportedly delayed for four years while they debated their conclusions. Apparently some people in the study reported implausibly high cell phone use. The results also indicated that people who used mobile phones the least seemed to have lower incidences of brain tumors than people who used corded landlines, raising some eyebrows.

There were other issues. For instance a person who used a cell phone for 30 minutes a day for more than 10 years was considered to be a subject with heavy exposure, but today that level of cell phone use is average. Elisabeth Cardis, head author of the study, stated, “In my personal opinion, I think we have a number of elements that suggest a possible increased risk among the heaviest users, and because the heaviest users in our study are now considered the low users today, I think that’s something of concern. Until stronger conclusions can be drawn one way or the other, it may be reasonable to reduce one’s exposure.”

Other errors include the fact that data wasn’t collected in a uniform manner from the 13 countries that participated. Finally, the links between tumors and phone use were all based on individual recollections of how often a cell phone was used, which isn’t always reliable.

In the end, the scientists stated that the data weren’t reliable to conclude that cell phones cause cancer. The IARC, however, took the data from this study and others to conclude that they may. Diana Zuckerman, Ph.D., and president of the National Research Center for Women & Families, stated that cancer can take 20 years or longer to develop, much longer than the 10-15 year period included in this study. “If we wait until there are better data 10 to 15 years from now, we could be very sorry.”

Why No Increase in Brain Cancers, Then?
There’s another set of data adding to the confusion. Data from the National Cancer Institute indicates that the incidence and mortality rate of brain and central nervous system cancers has remained virtually flat since 1987. This casts doubt on the aforementioned study results.

If, after 13 years, the risk of brain tumors increases by 40 percent, wouldn’t we see many more brain cancers today than we did 20 or 30 years ago? After all, the International Telecommunications Union estimates 5 billion cell phone subscriptions worldwide.

Other Studies That Indicate Some Risk
The Journal of the American Medical Association also reported on research from the National Institutes of Health, which found that less than an hour of cell phone use can speed up brain activity in the area closest to the phone antenna. More specifically, the brain tissues on the same side of the head as the phone’s antenna metabolized more glucose (body fuel) than did tissues on the opposite side of the brain.

This was one of the first studies to demonstrate that the weak radio frequency signals from cell phones can have an effect on the brain. The researchers noted that the results were preliminary.

One study from Sweden also found an increased risk of glioma in those participants with the highest use of cell phones with first use before the age of 20, but a second large case-controlled study in the same country did not find an increased risk of brain cancer among people between the ages of 20 and 69.

Most Studies Reveal No Risk
In addition to those studies showing some increased risk, there are others showing the opposite. In July 2011, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute published the first study on cell phone use and risk of brain tumors in children and adolescents. The scientists concluded that the data showed no link between cell phone use and brain tumors.

Another study published in the British Medical Journal analyzed data for more than 350,000 cell phone users over 18 years, and no increased risks of tumors of the central nervous system.

“With few exceptions,” said David A. Savitz, a professor in the departments of epidemiology and obstetrics and gynecology at Brown University and a researcher on environmental exposures and health, “the studies directly addressing the issue indicate the lack of association.”

Most experts concede, however, that so far, we have little long-term evidence of how cell phone use from childhood to the age of 60 or 70 or 80 may affect health.

How to Protect Yourself?
Until we have more research, we still don’t know whether or not cell phone radiation may be able to increase risk of brain cancer. Since there is a possibility of risk, however, it’s best to take precautions. Bioengineering professor Henry Lai from the University of Washington told The Seattle Magazine, “Obviously, we don’t know the answer at all. But then, there is a cause for concern. We need to take some kind of precautionary action.”

These tips can help you reduce your exposure, which is valuable, as it is the cumulative effect of years of exposure to the radiation that is of concern.

On the whole, RF drops off quickly, so moving the phone just a bit away from you can reduce your exposure a hundredfold.

  • Use a hands-free headset during a conversation or when communication via text messaging—it lowers radio frequency exposure on the brain.
  • If you don’t have a hands-free device, use the speakerphone function.
  • At it’s most basic—keep the phone away from your head. Most manufacturers recommend keeping the phone at least about an inch away from the body. The further the phone is from the body, the less radiation absorbed.
  • Keep cell phones away from children—there is some evidence that young, developing brains could be more effected by cell phone radiation. “Children’s skulls and scalps are thinner,” said Dr. Keith Black, chairman of neurology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. “So the radiation can penetrate deeper into the brain of children and young adults. Their cells are at a dividing faster rate, so the impact of radiation can be much larger.”
  • Cell phones emit the most radiation when they are trying to connect to cellular towers. A moving phone or one in an area with a weak signal has to work harder, giving off more radiation. Avoid using the phone in areas of weak signals like in elevators, buildings, and rural areas.
  • Don’t carry the cell phone in a shirt or pants pocket near your body. Put it in a leather or other type of container, and put a few layers of clothing between you and the phone. Carry it in the car, in a jacket pocket, or in your purse.
  • If you have the option, use a landline.
  • Minimize the length of your calls when possible.

Do you take precautions when using a cell phone?

* * *

FDA, “Health Issues: Do Cell Phones Pose a Health Hazard?”

Mary Brophy Marcus and Liz Szabo, “WHO: Cellphones possibly carcinogenic,” USA Today, June 1, 2011,

Tara Parker-Pope,” Questions About Cellphones and Brain Tumors,” NY Times, May 18, 2010,

Danielle Dellorto, “WHO: Cell phone risk can increase possible cancer risk,” CNN, May 31, 2011,

Patrizia Frei, et al., “Use of mobile phones and risk of brain tumours: update of Danish cohort study,” BMJ, October 20, 2011,

Shari Roan and Ellen Gabler, “Study links cellphones to possible cancer risk,” Los Angeles Times, June 1, 2011,

National Cancer Institute, “Cell Phones and Cancer Risk,”

Hardell L., et al., “Pooled analysis of case-control studies on malignant brain tumours and the use of mobile and cordless phones including living and deceased subjects,” Int J Oncol 2011 May; 38(5):1465-74,

Tara Parker-Pope, “Questions About Cellphones and Brain Tumors,” The New York Times, May 18, 2010.

Emily Main, “Mobile Phone Link to Cancer Remains a Concern,” Rodale News,

“UW Scientists Henry Lai Makes Waves in the Cell Phone Industry,” Seattle Magazine, January 2011,

Kevin Gianni

Kevin Gianni is a health author, activist and blogger. He started seriously researching personal and preventative natural health therapies in 2002 when he was struck with the reality that cancer ran deep in his family and if he didn’t change the way he was living — he might go down that same path. Since then, he’s written and edited 6 books on the subject of natural health, diet and fitness. During this time, he’s constantly been humbled by what experts claim they know and what actually is true. This has led him to experiment with many diets and protocols — including vegan, raw food, fasting, medical treatments and more — to find out what is myth and what really works in the real world.

Kevin has also traveled around the world searching for the best protocols, foods, medicines and clinics around and bringing them to the readers of his blog — which is one of the most widely read natural health blogs in the world with hundreds of thousands of visitors a month from over 150 countries around the world.

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