Meditations of an oncology geek

Can cell phones cause brain cancer?

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From Colin Ng in San Jose, California: “Can cell phones really give you cancer?”

I knew this topic would come up eventually. In addition to searching the scientific literature, I had some fun consulting the University of Google on the topic. I found many, many obscure claims about radiation and shearing molecules and jumbling cells, but what I most consistently found was a consistent conflation of scientific terms to make the appearance of an argument.

Something is not scientific (or real) by merely sounding scientific with complex words and math equations with exotic symbols. What we as scientists rely on is hard data. Currently, the general consensus among cancer researchers is that there is no link between non-UV, non-ionizing radiation exposure and cancer risk. Furthermore, there is a lot of negative data to support the notion that cell phones DO NOT contribute to the development of brain tumors.

A great example of this is the Interphone study that recently came out in March 2010, which is:

“An interview-based case–control study with 2708 glioma and 2409 meningioma cases and matched controls was conducted in 13 countries using a common protocol.”

I was thoroughly impressed at the number of patients involved in the study. Gliomas and meningiomas are extremely rare types of cancer. The authors concluded that:

“Overall, no increase in risk of glioma or meningioma was observed with use of mobile phones. There were suggestions of an increased risk of glioma at the highest exposure levels, but biases and error prevent a causal interpretation. The possible effects of long-term heavy use of mobile phones require further investigation.”

Please, allow me to translate:

“After thousands of cases of already rare brain cancer, we do not have any statistical significant links between brain cancer and cell phone use, despite multiple rounds of generous statistical re-organization.”

Granted, some cancers have a latency period of a decade or more, and cell phones have not been around that long… But for now, this is the best in vivo human data out there. Unfortunately, these robust, long-term, thoughtful, multi-national, multi-discipline studies are often drowned out by sensational anecdotes, or journalists mis-representing researchers’ conclusions about their studies.

I would like to begin by explaining a little about radiation. The term “radiation” used in common speech is often different from the actual definition used in science. The definition of electromagnetic radiation from wikipedia:

Electromagnetic radiation (often abbreviated E-M radiation or EMR) is a form of energy exhibiting wave-like behavior as it travels through space.

As you can see, there are many different types of radiation that exist along a spectrum, defined by wavelength. The shorter the wavelength, the higher the energy. Radio waves are very long waves that have low energy, and X-rays are very short waves that have a high frequency and high energy.

Radio waves and X-rays are radiation, as are microwaves. Visible light is also radiation. On the lower end of the visible spectrum is red and the highest end of the visible spectrum is violet. Infrared rays and ultraviolet rays are also radiation (get it… “infra-red” “below-red” and “ultra-violet” “above violet”). It’s all radiation, and it all exists along a continuum.

There are two types of radiation that are dangerous to humans:

1) High-energy radiation

2) Ultraviolet radiation

Why? Because they damage DNA. There are other types of radiation that can damage proteins and cell membranes, but all other parts of a cell can regenerate themselves with no lasting effect, except for DNA.

High-energy radiation causes electrons to break free from their orbit around a given nucleus, and they become a free radical, which wreaks havoc on DNA. This type of radiation is called “ionizing radiation.”

Ultraviolet radiation is much lower energy than ionizing radiation, but can occur at the very narrow range that happens to be the resonance frequency of DNA, which can cause DNA to heat up and break into pieces. In that way, both UV radiation and ionizing radiation are carcinogens.

The frequencies that cellular phones operate on are not within those ranges. Nor are microwaves. And both are not high-enough energy to cause ionization.

So, that does not mean that other types of radiation could not contribute to your cancer risk (just like there could still be little green men on Mars that cleverly disguise their civilization and are very, very, very good at escaping the nosey eye of their earthling neighbors). If cell phones and non-ionizing, non-UV radiation do contribute to cancer risk, it would have to occur via a completely novel biological mechanism that would likely be worthy of a Nobel prize.

In summary, there is no known mechanism for HOW cell phones could cause cancer. And, there are large-scale studies whose data suggests NO LINK between cell phone use and cancer. So stop worrying about it!


Written by Ryon

March 12th, 2011 at 3:30 pm

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4 Responses to 'Can cell phones cause brain cancer?'

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  1. Ryon,
    What do you think of WHO releasing this warning?

    It sounds like they’re basing it on the same 2010 study you referenced above…I’m confused…

    Tom Anhalt

    31 May 11 at 10:54 am

  2. The only study to show ANY possible link between cell phone usage and brain cancer incidence is the Interphone study in 2010, which could only do so with generous statistical re-organization, and the authors even made that very clear. Never mind the 30+ studies that have failed to establish a link. Of all the hysteria and nearly identical-sounding articles coming out in the news today, I feel that the AP at least discussed some of the nuances in the ruling as well:

    Using the same logic as the WHO, I could classify breathing as a carcinogen as well. I’m not holding my breath.


    31 May 11 at 11:08 am

  3. I wonder what WHO’s incentive is to take this step?…

    I agree with you though, it sounds as if some sort of new mechanism for this type of radiation to cause cell damage needs to be identified for the purported link to be real, no?

    Tom Anhalt

    1 Jun 11 at 10:41 am

  4. Some yet-to-be-discovered mechanism for DNA damage or tumor formation would definitely make the link between cell phone use and brain cancer incidence more plausible. Such a mechanism could establish causation and not just correlation. If there was a strong link between cell phone use and brain cancer incidence (which there is not) one could not distinguish whether cell phone use causes cancer, or whether people who get brain cancer merely tend to use their cell phones more.

    As for the WHO’s incentive… that delves into the realm of politics that are outside of the scope of this blog.

    However, I think follow-up article would be appropriate…


    1 Jun 11 at 11:24 am

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