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April 16, 2010, last updated October 10, 2015
By Rory McClenaghnan, Contributing Columnist and Editorial Staff of MangoBoss
The cell phone has become so essential that it's like an extension of our
arms. We use them so much that sometimes it feels odd not to have
one in our hands. But ever since their introduction some 20 years ago,
the heat that cell phones generate -- and indeed the very wireless
technology that makes them possible -- have raised fears. Do cell
phones cause brain cancer? Do cell phones emit harmful radiation? Do
the wireless rays that make cell phones work also radiate our brains?
Should you limit the amount of time you use cell phones?
First, some facts. According to a March 2009 Marist poll, over 87% of
all adult Americans (and 92% of all those who have jobs) own a cell
phone. But, deep down, we human beings very often doubt and fear
what we cannot see. As technology moves further and further away
from appliances with visible working parts, it is little surprise that
people are suspicious of just how these things operate.
Cell phones have also been implicated because of a number of high
profile deaths from brain cancer of habitual cell phone users. More on
But is there any scientific link between the use of cell phones and brain
cancer? Are cell phones dangerous to your health? Let's look at the
Cell Phones Emit ElectroMagnetic Radiation
When people talk about cell phones causing brain cancer, they mean
that electromagnetic fields (EMFs), also known as electromagnetic
radiation, are to blame.
Plenty of everyday applicances emit electromagnetic fields –
microwaves, radios, power lines and of course, cell phones. An EMF is
an area that energy produced by electrically charged particles passes
The amount of this radiation that actually passes through our bodies is
measured by the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR). Using the SAR
measurement, a cell phone exposes us to more radiation than a
So, how much do cell phones "cook" our brains? Very little, it turns out.
According to the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health, the SAR level
when you are standing 30cm away from a microwave is as low as
0.0056 W/kg. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has
reported that the maximum SAR level found in a laptop was 0.55 W/kg.
But the limit set on cell phones by the FCC is 1.6 W/kg. So cell phone
radiation effects us far more than that from a microwave oven or a
laptop, another reason for people's fears.
According to a 2006 study by University Hospital, Orebro, Sweden,
there is a link between EMFs and cancer. The research team found an
increased risk of brain cancer in frequent cell phone users. There are
however limitations to the study. Firstly, it was a relatively small study
(10,652 people), and most importantly, it relied heavily on the
participants filling in questionnaires detailing their exposure to
radiation. This leaves plenty of room for human error and weakens the
In the same year a far more extensive Danish study contradicted these
results. Researchers from the Danish Institute of Cancer Epidemiology
in Copenhagan tested over 420,000 cell phone users. Of that number,
over 56,000 had been cell phone users for at least a decade. The study
found no link between cell phone usage and the risk of getting brain
cancer. The results were commended as being reliable by Professor
Tricia McKinney, of the Centre for Epidemiology and Biostatistics,
University of Leeds.
"The results of this Danish cohort study are important as they have
analyzed data from mobile phone company records and do not rely on
users remembering for up to ten years in the past how often they used
their phone,” said Professor McKinney. "The large numbers of
subscribers in the study mean we can have some confidence in the
results that have not linked mobile phone use to a risk of any cancer,
including brain tumors."
Much of the weight behind stories linking cell phones and brain cancer
comes from anecdotal evidence. World-famous lawyer Johnny Cochran
died of a brain tumor in 2005 and his physician, Dr. Keith Black,
believed cell phone use played a part, as the tumor was found on the
same side of the brain as Cochran held his cell phone.
"We do know that there is a significant correlation between the side
that one uses their cell phone on and the side that you develop the
brain tumor on," Dr. Black told CNN. This evidence was disputed and
when pressed Dr. Black revealed he was only reporting what he had
seen in his own patients, rather than evidence from a wide-ranging
study. Celebrated businessman Reginald Lewis, former CEO of TLC
Beatrice, also died from brain cancer, and many attributed his early
death to his constant cell phone use, although without strong evidence.
The last word on EMFs and cancer should go to the most authoritative
work carried out in this area, a report by the National Research Council
in 1996. A committee of 16 scientists looked into over 500 studies on
the health effects of EMFs and found no conclusive link between a
standard level of EMF exposure and cancer.
Chairman of the panel, Dr Charles F Stevens, a neurobiologist,
concluded: “Research has not shown in any convincing way that
electromagnetic fields common in homes can cause health problems,
and extensive laboratory tests have not shown that EMFs can damage
the cell in a way that is harmful to human health."
BUt EMFs are not the Whole Story
All this is not to say that you should not be careful. A study for the UK
government in the late 1990s led by William Stewart also found no link
between cell phones and brain cancer but (along with many experts)
advised that young people should not use cell phones often as their
heads and central nervous systems may still be in a developmental
The 2010 Interphone Study --What About Radio Frequency Waves
All of the above studies looked at electromagnetic energy. But there is
another type of energy emitted by cell phones which does not produce
heat. This non-thermal energy is called "radio frequency (RF)" energy.
Does radio frequency energy emitted by cell phones cauise brain
cancer? The results of studies are mixed.
In the largest study of its kind, the International Agency for Research
on Cancer examined the links between cancer rates and cell phone
usage in 13 countries. The countries were Australia, Canada, Denmark,
Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Norway,
Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The research team, led by Dr.
Elisabeth Cardis of Spain, examined 2708 cases of brain cancer called
glioma and another 2409 cases of a type of brain cancer called
meningioma. The participants in the study ranged in age from 30 to 59.
The primary objective of the Interphone study was to determine if
radio frequency (RF) energy exposure from cell phones is associated
with an increased risk of brain tumors (malignant or benign) or any
other head and neck tumors.
What they found is that, overall, cell phone usage has no statistically
significant link to brain cancer. But, digging deeper into the study, you
see something else. If you look at the segment of cell phone users who
spend the most time on their cell phones, these users have a 40%
higher rate of brain cancers called gliomas. This is the type of cancer
that killed Ted Kennedy. How much time did these “heavy users” spend
on their cell phones?
The heaviest users reported spending more than 12 hours per day on
their cell phones. The second heaviest users reported spending more
than 5 hours per day on their cells phones.
The researchers doubted whether some of the participants were
recalling the amount of their cell phone usage accurately, speculating
that perhaps the brain tumors had affected their memory and thus their
ability to recall just how long they had been using the cell phones. As
the report stated “Some subjects reported very high daily average call
times and this was more common among cases than controls. Thirty-
eight cases and 22 controls reported >5 h use/day and 10 cases and
no controls reported ≥12 h/day. There is reasonable doubt about the
credibility of such reports”.
If we believe the participants,--and we choose to believe them—then
super-heavy cell phone use did in fact contribute their risk for getting
brain cancer. It’s also significant that the Interphone study found that
gliomas tended to occur on the same side of the brain where the heavy
users reported they held their cell phones.
[ Editors Note: This article has been updated to include the May 31, 2011 WHO
(World Health Organization) report on the link between cell phones and cancer ]
On May 31, 2011, the World Health Organization's International Agency
for Research on Cancer issued a report from 31 researchers which
concluded that cell phone usage may cause cancer. The report did not
advance the body of knowledge on the linkage between cell phones
and cancer, however tenuous that connection is.
The bottom line here is that cell phone use, especially very heavy cell
phone use, has in been linked to a 40% increased risk for a particular
kind of brain cancer called gliomas. Therefore, it just makes sense to
The UK government has published "guidelines for safe use of mobile
phones" for those who have concerns about exposure to radio waves.
These guidelines are
•Only make short calls on your mobile phone, and do not use it more
•Children should only use mobile phones for essential purposes and
keep all calls short.
•Keep your mobile phone away from your body when it is in standby
•Only use your phone when the reception is strong (this is often
indicated by bars of energy on your phone screen). Weak reception
causes the phone to use more energy to communicate with the base
•Use a hands-free kit to keep your phone as far away from your head
In October 2012, The Supreme Court of Italy based in Romes ruled
that a "causal link" existed between a man's brain tumor and his cell
The man, Innocente Marcolini, is a 60 year old businessman, who
developed a benign brain tumor after reportedly using a mobile phone
for up to six hours a day for 12 years.
At his trial, Mr. Marcolini's doctor, respected oncologist Dr. Angelo
Levis, testified that the tumor appeared in the trigeminal nerve at
exactly the site where the cell phone touched his head.
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