Cell phone use and cancer
Does prolonged cell-phone use cause cancer or other health effects? This is a burning question ; about 30% of Americans believe – without any evidence to support the belief – that prolonged use of cell phones is associated with brain tumors.
Are there other health effects of the non-ionizing radiation associated with mobile phones? People avoid keeping the phone in the upper left pocket of their shirts – too close to the heart!
But what is the scientific evidence on this topic?
I was prompted to do my own reading on this topic when a paper was recently published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity1.
Read on to learn what I found out!
In the initial years when mobile phones first became popular, findings from a few studies suggested that there is an increased risk for brain tumors – specifically for gliomas and meningiomas. But now that we have a decade and a half of follow-up, does that initial impression bear out?
What is the biophysics behind cell phones?
A cell phone works like a radio, with both the portable phone and the ground antennae emitting non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation in a radiofrequency zone from 824–924 megahertz (MHz). Digital phones use frequencies up to 1,900 MHz. In comparison, the average household microwave uses 450 MHz of electromagnetic radiation2.
According to the Bioinitiative Report3, health endpoints reported to be associated with ELF (extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields) and/or RF include childhood leukaemia, brain tumours, genotoxic effects, neurological effects and neurodegenerative diseases, immune system deregulation, allergic and inflammatory responses, breast cancer, miscarriage and some cardiovascular effects.
The BioInitiative Report concluded that “…a reasonable suspicion of risk exists based on clear evidence of bio-effects at environmentally relevant levels, which, with prolonged exposures may reasonably be presumed to result in health impacts”.
Recommendation of the Bioinitiative Report
The Bioinitiative Report recommends a new lower public safety limit for habitable space adjacent to all new or upgraded power lines and for all other new constructions with regards to ELF. This applies especially for children and/or women who are pregnant.
It further states that a precautionary limit should be adopted for outdoor, cumulative RF exposure and for cumulative indoor RF fields with considerably lower limits than existing guidelines.
The current guidelines for the US and European microwave exposure from mobile phones, for the brain are 1.6 W/Kg and 2 W/Kg, respectively.
What are the health hazards with cell phone use?
The primary concern of cell phone use has been the risk of cancer to exposed tissues close to the phone. Meninges, brain, parotid gland, and acoustic nerves all are exposed to non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation. (Auvinen, Tovio, & Tokola4, 2006; Hardell et al.,5 2002)
Jannsens6 (2005)questioned whether radiowaves or electromagnetic radiation in general causes biologic responses with detrimental effects on normal health. The evidence is complex and has to consider the biologic target as well as:
- The length of the wave,
- Spectrum absorption rate, and
The human body can tolerate an electromagnetic field up to 5 milliigauss. An electromagnetic field greater than 5 milliigauss can damage the body and cell constituents; ionizing gamma irradiation destroys DNA and large molecules.
Not all studies have shown negative effect of non-ionizing radiation
Klaeboe, Blaasaas, and Tynes7 (2007) stated that radiofrequency does not have enough energy to break chemical bonds or damage DNA. For non-ionizing radiation in lower frequencies, the health effect appears to be different.
The INTERPHONE STUDY
The Interphone study was launched in 2000 to provide a more powerful and methodologically rigorous investigation of this issue by collecting data in 13 countries. Now, 10 years and ¤19 million later, after much anticipation and a lengthy delay, the key results on brain tumors have been published (Interphone Study Group 2010)8.
Anthony J. Swerdlow, Maria Feychting reviewed the evidence on whether mobile phone use raises the risk of the main types of brain tumor—glioma and meningioma—with a particular focus on the Interphone Study, which is the largest epidemiologic study yet.
The authors state that methodological deficits limit the conclusions that can be drawn from the Interphone study; but its results, along with those from other epidemiologic, biological, and animal studies and brain tumor incidence trends, suggest that within about 10–15 years after first use of mobile phones there is unlikely to be a material increase in the risk of brain tumors in adults. Data for childhood tumors and for periods beyond 15 years are currently lacking.
What do we learn from all this?
So what is the conclusion? The answer is, science is always an ongoing project; the last word is still not out on this topic. Precautionary limits have been set by authorities in the US based on this realization. That is not to say that there is conclusive evidence of brain tumors.
There is no evidence to suggest that the use of cell phone can lead to brain tumors or other detrimental health effects; the studies that have been done so far had their methodological issues, because of which this cannot be considered the final answer. Till such time, exercise the same caution as you do for all electronic devices.
Thus the recommended way to use a cell phone:
- Minimize its use, reserve for shorter conversations or when a landline is not available
- Use a hands-free device (increases the distance between the phone and one’s head)
Probably there is greater effect on health resulting from the life-style change that reflects increasing cell phone use1 – we are all becoming so lazy and laid-back, getting no physical exercise at all – that is a much greater cause for concern than any negative effects of exposure to radiation from cell phone use.
- The relationship between cell phone use, physical and sedentary activity, and cardiorespiratory fitness in a sample of U.S. college students. Andrew Lepp, Jacob E Barkley, Gabriel J Sanders, Michael Rebold, Peter Gates International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 06/2013; 10(1):79. DOI:10.1186/1479-5868-10-79
- Does the Use of Cell Phones Cause Brain Tumors? Sharon O’Keefe, RN, BSN Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing • Volume 12, Number 4 • Oncology Myths and Legends
- THE BIOINITIATIVE REPORT 2012 A Rationale for Biologically-based Public Exposure Standards for Electromagnetic Fields (ELF and RF)
- Epidemiological risk assessment of mobile phones and cancer: where can we improve? Auvinen A, Toivo T, Tokola K.STUK-Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, Helsinki, Finland. email@example.com Eur J Cancer Prev. 2006 Dec;15(6):516-23.
- Long-term use of cellular phones and brain tumours: increased risk associated with use for >10 years Lennart Hardell, Michael Carlberg, Fredrik So¨derqvist, Kjell Hansson Mild, L Lloyd Morgan Occup Environ Med 2007;64:626–632. doi: 10.1136/oem.2006.029751
- Investigation of potential effects of cellular phones on human auditory function by means of distortion product otoacoustic emissions. Janssen T, Boege P, von Mikusch-Buchberg J, Raczek J. J Acoust Soc Am. 2005 Mar;117(3 Pt 1):1241-7.
- Use of mobile phones in Norway and risk of intracranial tumours. Klaeboe L, Blaasaas KG, Tynes T. Eur J Cancer Prev. 2007 Apr;16(2):158-64.
- Mobile Phones, Brain Tumors, and the Interphone Study: Where Are We Now? Anthony J. Swerdlow, Maria Feychting, Adele C. Green, Leeka Kheifets, David A. Savitz, and International Commission for Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection Standing Committee on Epidemiology. Environ Health Perspect. 2011 November; 119(11): 1534–1538.