Sorting Out the Science: Can Cell Phones Give You Cancer?

Posted by Leah Li on

FDA officials say cell phone radiation causes brain tumors in rats but not humans. Here’s what other experts think.

There are certain conspiracy theories out there that have become pervasive in society.

They’re usually spurred by research that either overstated its findings, were exaggerated in headlines, rested its head on faulty data or research, or a combination of all three. The theories include linking vaccines and autism, “chemtrails” from planes releasing mind-control drugs on the general population, and that cell phones cause brain tumors.

Hoping to dispel at least one of those theories, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently stated that new research shows cell phones do not cause cancer.

But the researchers say their research found “clear evidence” of cell phone radiation causing tumors in rats.

“Our ubiquitous use of cell phones inevitably means that we must continue to review and ensure their safety,” Dr. Jeffrey Shuren, director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, said in a statementTrusted Source.

The FDA’s statements came after a decades-long study Trusted Sourceinvolving more than 3,000 rodents.

Researchers with the National Toxicology Program (NTP) said, after hundreds of experiments, that there was a link between cell phone radiation and brain tumors in male rats.

But it relied on old technology used in early era cell phones. While the NTP initially reported “clear evidence” between the radiation and tumors in rats, later drafts of the report included less direct language.

“After reviewing the study, we disagree, however, with the conclusions of their final report regarding ‘clear evidence’ of carcinogenic activity in rodents exposed to radio frequency energy,” Shuren said.

Experts at the FDA and the NTP agree that “these findings should not be directly extrapolated to human cell phone usage.”

Medical experts not associated with the research say that, yes, there are dangers to human health from the repeated and routine use of cell phones and other mobile devices.

However, they say, the new research isn’t clear enough to conclude that cell phones cause brain tumors and other types of cancers.


The experts weigh in

Dr. Jennifer Simmons, a board-certified breast surgeon and the chief of breast surgery at Einstein Medical Center Montgomery in the Philadelphia area, said the FDA study was based on second-generation technology from the 1990s, and modern mobile devices deliver much less radio frequency energy to the user.

“I’m not certain that we can extrapolate the results of the study and apply it to humans,” she told Healthline. “The exposure level, duration, and exposed area for the rodents in this case far exceeds that of human cell phone use.”

Still, Simmons has her reservations about the study.

She doesn’t think we should “blindly” accept that cell phones are safe, especially because government agencies such as the FDA are “highly influenced by industry, and therefore information is often manipulated in favor of industry.”

“Without question, cell phones emit radiation,” Simmons said. “Even low-level radiation builds over time. There is conclusive evidence that radiation is associated with an increased risk of cancers.”

Dr. Santosh Kesari, a neuro-oncologist and chair of the Department of Translational Neurosciences and Neurotherapeutics at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, says the research is somewhat murky.

“There have been many studies over the decades in animal models that show some effect on cancer incidence. However, all the studies slightly differ and, again, the dose exposure is more than humans are exposed to so the relevance to the human situation remains unclear,” Kesari told Healthline.

Alex Berezow, a microbiologist and senior fellow of biomedical science at the American Council on Science and Health, says cell phones operate by using a single watt of microwave radiation and your microwave oven at home operates at 1,000 watts.

“It is physically impossible for cell phones, Wi-Fi, and other similar devices to cause cancer,” he told Healthline. “There isn’t enough energy there to do anything to the human body.”


For those worried that the scientific community has yet to find a smoking gun linking cell phones to cancer, there are some practical things you can do to limit your exposure to radiation and frequencies from your mobile devices.

Simmons and other experts say despite the findings of research, it’s best to keep as much distance from sources of radiation as we can.

That includes telling her patients not to carry their phones against one area of their body, like a pocket.

She also recommends using traditional plug-in headphones because Bluetooth headphones also use radio frequency waves.

Kesari says while cell phones have positives for modern life, reducing their potential negative health effects can be relatively simple.

This includes not sleeping with your cell phone under your pillow and limiting kids’ exposure to mobile devices because they’re smaller and more sensitive.

“Proximity of the cell phone to the body is inversely related to the dose exposed by the body tissues,” Kesari said. “So, using a headset, speaker phone, or Bluetooth will dramatically reduce the radiation exposure to the body.”

But, besides worries of cancer, there are greater risks associated with cell phone use, namely using them while driving.

“Pay attention to people around you, as life is passing by while you are focused on the limited world of the cell phone screen,” Kesari said.

Dr. Alexis Demopoulos, director of neuro-oncology at Northwell Health in New York, said there’s currently nothing anyone can do to reduce their risk for most brain tumors.

Age is an important factor, and since a greater percentage of the population is now over 65, an even larger number of people are at risk of brain cancer.

“But your cell phone doesn’t cause brain tumors,” he told Healthline. “It causes car accidents and a pernicious lack of sleep.”

While the National Toxicology Program research on cell phone use and cancer was a long-term study, it was done on rats and used outdated technology.

Still, the organization’s initial report said there was a clear link and, only after outside consultation, did they back away from their boldest of claims.

The experts questioned for this story almost all agree there isn’t enough juice in your cell phone to cause a tumor in your brain, but that doesn’t mean you should permanently strap it to your face.

Most importantly, avoid unwanted health risks related to cell phones and don’t use one when you’re driving.


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