Do cell phones cause cancer?

Does the radiation emitted by cell phones increase your risk of brain cancer? We look at this controversial question.

29 May 2015
by Ruth Rehbock

It’s not a new question and has given rise to much debate, research and controversy in the scientific community: As cell phones send and receive signals via cell towers using RF waves, a type of radiation, does this mean that cell phones increase the risk for brain cancer?

The renowned Mayo Clinic, a US medical care and research group, states that currently there's no real agreement among experts on this issue, even though they have been studying cell phone users and their health for more than 20 years.

Here we take a look into a few of the latest studies for an insight into this debate.

The interphone study

This important study was launched in 2000 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and included thousands of study participants from 13 countries. This study, which was published in the International Journal of Epidemiology (2010), looked at cell phone use in more than 5 000 people, including a group that developed tumours, and a group that had no tumours.

By the end of their study, researchers reported no link between the risk of tumours and how long people spent on calls, or how often they made cell phone calls, or whether they had used cell phones for 10 years or longer.

However, the researchers stated that the problem with the study, including people who reported implausibly high cellphone use, meant that more research was needed before any reliable conclusions could be drawn.

The million women study

In this study, researchers from Oxford University in the UK looked at around 800 000 women to see whether cell phone use increased the risk of getting brain tumours.

Women in the study reported they had used cell phones from 1999 to 2005, and their 2009 usage was looked at too. In the seven-year follow-up, the researchers found that mobile phone use was not responsible for an increase in the number of glioma, meningioma or non-CNS (central nervous system) cancers.

Results of this study were published in the International Journal of Epidemiology (2013).

The Danish cohort study

This study was a large, long-term study in which researchers compared people in Denmark who had cell phone contracts between 1982 and 1995, which amounted to around 400 000 people, and those without a contract. They wanted to see whether there had been a possible rise in the number of brain tumours in people in the first group.

The study was most recently updated in 2007, however, researchers discovered that even cell phone use for well over 10 years was not linked to an increased risk of brain tumours, tumours in the salivary glands, or for cancer overall.

Results for this study were first published in 2000 in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

Minimise your risk

One of the major problems with clearing up the question of whether cell phone use causes brain cancer is that scientists haven’t been able to follow subjects for long enough periods of time. Another limitation is that cell phones are constantly being redesigned and older ones may give off more radiation energy than others. Also, people are using cell phones more now than they did in the past.

In addition, researchers have had to use somewhat unreliable methods of collecting data. Most of the research has relied on people to remember how much they used their cell phones.

The Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) offers the following advice for minimising your potential risk:

  • Limit the number and duration of calls
  • Use text messages when possible
  • Switch sides of the head when the call is long
  • Use hands-free kits or speaker phone mode to keep the phone at a distance from the head
  • Instruct children and teenagers to limit calls to emergencies only as they are more vulnerable to electro-magnetic radiation.

For more info

Read More: Cancer Super Section