Is cell phone radiation actually dangerous? We asked an expert

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How much could smartphones increase your risk of brain cancer?

“It has been understood since 1975 that very low intensity exposure to microwave radiation can open the blood/brain barrier. It evolved to keep larger molecules out of the brain tissue,” explains Moskowitz. “Most people nowadays have around 100 toxins in their blood system at any point in time. Some of those toxins may be able to penetrate brain tissue in the presence of low intensity exposure like Wi-Fi, cell phones, cell towers, wireless baby monitors, and wireless smart meters.”

Still, it’s difficult to put the risks into context.

It’s worth mentioning that radiofrequency electromagentic fields aren’t just the product of cell phones. Straif explained that Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are in the same category, but most of the evidence they were able to draw on for the IARC classification of “possibly carcinogenic” came from cell phone studies.

“If you think in terms of levels of exposure from Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, these are orders of magnitude lower,” Straif said. “Even if there is a risk, it would be much lower.”

Swedish oncologist Dr. Lennart Hardell is convinced of the carcinogenic effect and is one of the few researchers to have conducted long-term independent studies. He suggests that the risk of developing brain cancer is three times higher after 25 years of cell phone use. But what does that actually mean?

According to the National Cancer Institute, 5 out of 100,000 Americans under the age of 65 were diagnosed with brain cancer between 2006 and 2010, which puts your chances at about 0.005 percent. If this rate tripled, it would make it 15 out of every 100,000, bumping your chance up to 0.015 percent.

“The risk of brain cancer after 10 years is roughly doubled,” says Moskowitz. “Studies have shown that the risk of tumor development is on the side of the head where the phone is predominantly used.”

The American Brain Tumor Association put us in touch with Dr. Barnholtz-Sloan at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. He downplayed a causal link between brain cancer and cell phones.

Dr. Lennart Hardell suggests that the risk of developing brain cancer is three times higher after 25 years of cell phone use.

“I would love it if we found a risk factor for brain tumors like smoking for lung cancer, so we could advise patients and their families,” says Dr. Barnholtz-Sloan. “But we haven’t found one yet.”

The IARC puts incidences of lung cancer at around 40 out of 100,000 for Northern America. The latest data from the Central Brain Tumor Registry of the United States puts the incidence rate for newly diagnosed malignant brain tumors in the U.S. at 7.25 per 100,000. The official definition of a rare cancer in the U.S. is anything that affects fewer than 15 out of 100,000 people each year.

“The current evidence about the association between using cell phones and brain tumor risk is inconclusive,” Barnholtz-Sloan told us. “Some studies have shown positive associations and some have shown negative results. The studies with positive associations show a risk of 1.5 to 2.0, which is small in comparison to the relationship between smoking and lung cancer, hence multiple other factors must be involved to explain the risk of a brain tumor. With the uptake of cell phones over the last 20 years, if cell phones were truly a major risk factor for brain tumors we would have expected an increase in brain tumor diagnoses, but the diagnosis rates are relatively stable.”

Dr. Barnholtz-Sloan
Dr. Barnholtz-Sloan at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine believes the current evidence on cell phones increasing the risk of cancer is inconclusive.

It’s hard to know how worried we should be about these risks. We aren’t seeing the kind of obvious correlation that there is between smoking and lung cancer, for example, where the CDC estimates smokers are 15 to 30 times more likely to get lung cancer than non-smokers. But we also don’t have as much research to draw on for cell phone exposure, and we know that usage is climbing dramatically. Many of us plan to use cell phones for the next 50 years or longer. It would be nice to know that they’re safe.

“I think the results are inconclusive,” says Dr. Barnholtz-Sloan. “Which, in my view, mean’s that the jury’s still out.”

The official position

Despite years of research, it seems we still don’t really know for sure whether cell phones cause cancer. Many official agencies make it clear that no link has been proven, but they go out of their way not to rule it out.

  • FCC: The FCC says “there is no scientific evidence that proves that wireless phone usage can lead to cancer or a variety of other problems, including headaches, dizziness, or memory loss. However, organizations in the United States and overseas are sponsoring research and investigating claims of possible health effects related to the use of wireless telephones.”
  • CDC: The CDC claims “there is no scientific evidence that provides a definite answer to that question [Can using a cell phone cause cancer?]. Some organizations recommend caution in cell phone use. More research is needed before we know if using cell phones causes health effects.”
  • National Cancer Institute: The National Cancer Institute says that “studies thus far have not shown a consistent link between cell phone use and cancers of the brain, nerves, or other tissues of the head or neck. More research is needed because cell phone technology and how people use cell phones have been changing rapidly.”

More health dangers from phones

“This is a snapshot of what we know now,” says Straif, adding “what we know now is not necessarily the full picture.” With tobacco, the only clear evidence early on linked it to lung cancer, but every time it was reassessed, additional cancer sites were added. This won’t necessarily be the case for cell phones, but it’s possible.

Brain cancer is not the only risk that has been associated with prolonged cell phone use. There have been studies linking it with tumors in salivary glands and thyroid glands. There’s increasing evidence of a link with neurological disorders and neurodegenerative effects, and it may negatively affect fertility. Some scientists have even suggested that the increase in cases of ADHD and autism could be related to the rise in cell phone use.

A growing number of people are also self-diagnosing electromagnetic hypersensitivity, which is associated with a long list of symptoms and supposedly triggered by proximity to cell phones and other electromagnetic fields. It’s not a recognized medical condition, and there have been double blind studies with positive and negative results.

Whether it’s a real condition or not, sufferers certainly believe it is real. Popular Science just ran an interesting piece on the town of Green Bank, West Virginia where there’s a growing electrosensitive community who’ve moved there because the town is in the heart of the National Radio Quiet Zone.

Next page: Is the tech getting safer? How to protect yourself


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