Do cell phones cause cancer?

Cell phone
A recent Swedish study found that long-term cell phone use may increase a person’s risk of glioma, adding to a growing body of research intended to resolve the issue of whether cell phones can lead to brain cancer. Read more in the Cancer Center 360 blog.

When talking on your cell phone, it may be best to use speakerphone or a hands-free device. Science has not conclusively answered the question of whether use of cell phones can lead to brain cancer, but taking steps to prevent cancer is always advisable.

The majority of studies dating to the late 1990s have shown no connection between cell phone use and brain cancer, but a few suggest a cause-effect relationship. A recent Swedish study found that long-term cell phone use may increase a person’s risk of glioma, adding to a growing body of research intended to resolve the issue.

Why are cell phones even a concern? Cell phones emit radiofrequency energy that’s absorbed by the tissues in your body closest to the phone. The radiofrequency energy of cell phones, microwave ovens and radar is a non-ionizing form of electromagnetic radiation. X-rays and radon, in contrast, are ionizing radiation, which has been shown to increase cancer risk.

The widespread use of cell phones—with more than 300 million subscribers in the U.S. in 2010—has brought more attention to possible health effects of frequently holding your phone to your ear. The recent Swedish study, published in Pathophysiology in October, compared the cell and cordless phone use of 1,380 people with malignant brain tumors to the same number of people without these tumors.

The Swedes who talked for more than 1,486 hours, which is about two months, were twice as likely to develop glioma than those who talked for less than 122 hours, or about five days. Brain cancer risk tripled among Swedes who used cell or wireless phones for more than 25 years and doubled for those who used these phones between 20 and 25 years. Researchers included cordless phones in their study because of concern about emissions from the phones’ base stations.

The study relied on its participants to accurately remember their phone use in the past, which can be considered a shortfall. Study participants with brain tumors may have inflated responses unintentionally because they wanted to identify a cause of their cancer.

The Swedish study is a case-control study, which means it compared cell phone use of those with tumors and those without them. It’s the same study design as the Interphone Study, the largest case-control study looking at cell phone use and cancer. Involving researchers from 13 countries and published in 2010, the study did not find a statistically significant increase in brain or central nervous system cancers

Keep in mind that your individual exposure to the radiofrequency energy from your cell phone varies by the amount of time you’re on the phone, the model of your phone, if you’re using speaker phone or a hands-free device, the distance and path to the nearest cell phone tower, and the amount of cell phone traffic at the time.

To reduce your exposure, keep your cell phone conversations short. Use a hands-free device or your speakerphone. And text instead of talk, when it’s safe to do so.

Learn how brain cancer is treated.