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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!