New study reignites debate over cell phone use and cancer

The debate over the link between cell phone use and cancer continues to generate mixed signals.

The debate over the link between cell phone use and cancer continues to generate mixed signals, thanks to a new study rekindling concerns about the health effects of a device many Americans feel they can’t live without. The research adds to a volley of conclusions that has confused consumers for years.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is "no scientific evidence" that cell phones cause cancer, but adds that "more research is needed." The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies the radiation emitted by cell phones as "possibly carcinogenic." But the IARC's Interphone study, one of the largest ever conducted, "found no increased risk of glioma or meningioma with mobile phone use of more than 10 years." Meanwhile, in 2014, Swedish scientists said their study on cell phone use and cancer "clearly shows an increased risk," while an Australian study released this year "found no increase in brain cancer."

Another study, more concerns

Enter the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Toxicology Program (NTP), which last month released the partial results of a study that has consumers worrying once again about the safety of their phones. NTP researchers exposed rats in the womb to nine hours of cell phone radiofrequency (RF) waves for a week. When the rats were born, they were divided by sex, divided again into groups and exposed to different levels of radiation. The rats were hit with cell phone waves—10 minutes on, 10 minutes off—for nine hours a day for two years. The results showed that some rats developed malignant gliomas in the brain and schwannomas (benign nerve sheath tumors) in the heart.

Juan Alzate, MD, Neurosurgeon at our hospital near Chicago, says the study’s conditions and preliminary results raised more questions than they answered. Only male rats developed tumors, for example. The rats that were exposed to the higher levels of RF waves also lived longer than the other rats in the study, and all the rats were subjected to RF waves for far longer than the average person would experience in normal use. "I have yet to see a person talk nine hours continuously on a cell phone," Dr. Alzate says.

The study’s results drew widespread media attention, sending more mixed signals to consumers. Some headlines called the research a "game-changing" study with "explosive" results. Others expressed skepticism. A Washington Post headline, for example, urged readers: "Don't believe the hype." 

Many experts agree with that advice. "Studies looking at links between cell phone usage and cancer have been inconclusive and contradictory," says Pamela Crilley, DO, Chair of the Department of Medical Oncology at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) and Chief of Medical Oncology at our hospital in Philadelphia. "Studies have come to conflicting conclusions over the years. More studies will be needed for us to know which have the final word."

During a call, RF waves bounce to and from the phone's antenna to nearby cell towers. RF waves—like visible light, FM radio signals and microwaves—are a form of non-ionizing radiation, meaning they don't produce enough energy to alter the structure of an atom. Ultraviolet light and X-rays are examples of ionizing radiation that can damage human cells.

Dr. Alzate agrees that more study is needed, but he says the prevailing evidence shows there is no connection between cell phones and cancer. "There is more of a chance the sun will produce cancer than the waves of a cell phone," he says. "Time will tell in the end if we are right or wrong. But if there was any direct association between cell phone use and brain tumors, or any tumors, you would have seen a significant increase in cancer. And we don't see it."

What you can do to manage the risk

If you still have concerns about cell phone use, the FDA and other agencies recommend several ways to limit your RF exposure, including:

  • Use your cell's speakerphone or get a hands-free device.
  • Instead of placing a call, send a text message—but text only when it's safe.
  • Cut your cell phone conversations short.
  • Check your phone's specific absorption rate (SAR). The lower the better.
  • Use a landline.

Dr. Crilley also has this tip from a bygone era: "I believe in the old-fashioned face-to-face conversation."

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