Cell Phones and Cancer

cell phones and cancerThey are called international experts. They work for the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization (WHO), and are highly respected in their field. Their recent statement about cell phones and their relationship to cancer has drawn a ho-hum reaction from the garrulous public. This august body has reviewed possible connections between the kind of electromagnetic radiation in cell phones and irregularities in body tissues that might cause brain tumors, both cancerous and non-cancerous, and tumors of the auditory nerves and salivary glands.

Oddly, last year’s studies on the same topic found no direct link of cell phone use to tumor formation anywhere in the body. But there are groups that recoil at the hint of the slightest relationship. Studies conducted in Europe, the United States and New Zealand found that brain tumor patients had not used their cell phones any more often than unaffected persons. Most of the studies fail to show a dose-response relationship, such as would be sought in drug trials. What has been shown in Swedish studies is an increased risk for tumors on the side of the head where the cell phone was held, especially with ten or more years of use. Nonetheless, the WHO team grouped cell phones with category 2B carcinogens that include internal combustion exhausts and DDT, as well as postmenopausal estrogen-progesterone therapy, potassium bromate (a bread additive banned in Europe, Canada, the UK and Brazil, but not in the U.S.), and fiberglass, all of these being modified by the term, “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

Some of the verifiable dangers of cell phone use include crashing into your garage door, misjudging the arc of a left-hand turn, and getting a ticket in a venue that outlaws the use of such a device while driving.  None of these, however, is 100% predictable.  There are too many “ifs” to allow a definitive answer.

When they became widely available in the early 1990’s, cell phones were suddenly de rigueur.  From the outset they emanated radio waves, the frequencies of which fall between microwaves and FM radio waves.  This might make you feel as though you were caught between a rock and a hard place, being forced to make a decision between your jazz station and the TV dinner.

Your cell phone is more a glorified walkie-talkie defined by a geographical grid in which it will work.  Inside the myriad grids are cells that cover smaller areas.  Each cell uses a set of frequencies to provide service in its specific zone.  Because the power of these frequencies is controlled according to distance from the tower, thus limiting range, the same frequencies may be used in neighboring cells.  Modern antennas are wireless, so they may be set up almost anywhere:  church steeples, trees, atop flagpoles and on tall buildings.  They can even be blocked by trees and topography, just like radio waves.  Your cell message may be routed through the air to a landline, and then through the air again to the person you are calling.  Other times the message goes from your phone to the transmission tower, and then to your recipient.

If you happen to be moving while conversing, the signal weakens as you leave your cell.  At that point your call is handed over to an antenna with a stronger signal.  As long as wireless providers get along with each other, your signal may be relayed to a different provider than yours, who then keeps you in touch.  This is called roaming.

Cell phones cannot cause cancer by directly affecting DNA.  These radio frequency waves are not nearly so strong as x-rays or ultra-violet light.  They are non-ionizing, like visible light waves, heat waves, and FM radio waves.  However, what they do is to heat up the body’s tissues, just as the microwave does to your Idaho potato.  Heating from the inside out, a microwave causes molecules to vibrate and to rub against each other—friction.  This creates the heat that cooks your dinner.  In this cooking technique, a medium-rare piece of meat would be cooked on the inside and pink on the outside, exactly the opposite of what happens inside a broiler, oven, or sauté pan.  Purportedly, the same action occurs when you use a cell phone.  You get hot in the head, if only by a fraction of a degree.  It is speculated that this affects only the cornea of the eye (which, because of lack of vascularization, has no blood vessels to keep it cooled down) more than the rest of the head.  Yet, no cataracts or other pathologies have been noticed.

There is no definitive answer to this poser other than an increase in glucose metabolic activity at the site of cell phone-head contact.   The significance of that is unknown.  People with pacemakers have no special warnings to follow, even if the garage door opens when they cough.  Nonetheless, it is advised that they keep their cell phones out of breast pockets, which is the equivalent of staying indoors to avoid being hit by a meteor or Mary Poppins.

If you have concerns about this issue, you might want to limit cell phone usage.  If you’re a teenager reading this, forget it. You won’t listen, anyway.  You could opt to move the antenna away from your head, which means you either have to yell with all your might and listen really, really hard, or use some kind of hands-free device.  Another option is to buy a phone that gives off very low levels of electromagnetic waves.  What about cordless phones in the house, you know, the kind with a base set and a wireless handset that is lost somewhere in the sofa cushions?  Not a problem, since their power is only .17% (that’s 17/100 percent) of a cell phone.  The last alternative is two tin cans and a string, a very long string.  Except for chemistry, physics and mathematics, most sciences are not as exact as we would like them to be, and reports of their research are sometimes confusing, contradictory, or both.  In some circles these sciences are called practices.


International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (April 1998).
Guidelines For Limiting Exposure To Time-Varying Electric, Magnetic, And Electromagnetic Fields (up to 300 GHz) (PDF).
Health Physics 74 (4): 494–505.

Schüz, J; Jacobsen, R; Olsen, JH; Boice, JD; McLaughlin, JK; Johansen, C (December 2006). Cellular Telephone Use and Cancer Risk: Update of a Nationwide Danish Cohort.
Journal of the National Cancer Institute 98 (23): 1707–1713.

Interphone Study Group (2010).
Brain tumour risk in relation to mobile telephone use: Results of the INTERPHONE international case-control study.
International Journal of Epidemiology 39 (3): 675–694.

Volkow, Nora D.; Tomasi, Dardo; Wang, Gene-Jack; Vaska, Paul; Fowler, Joanna S.; Telang, Frank; Alexoff, Dave; Logan, Jean et al. (2011).
Effects of Cell Phone Radiofrequency Signal Exposure on Brain Glucose Metabolism.
JAMA 305 (8): 808–13.

Comments on the Danish cohort study on mobile phones (in German).
Bundesamt für Strahlenschutz [Federal Office for Radiation Protection].
2007-02-22. Retrieved 2010-09-23.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.
These products are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease.

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