By Jody McCutcheon
Mobile phones have become part of the fabric of our daily lives: they keep us in touch with friends and family, whilst also serving as mini-computers, calendars, cameras and even video recorders. Apart from debates about whether mobile phones are actually ruining the way we interact with friends, family and the world, and aside from the obvious dangers of increasing numbers of people driving and checking cell phones, mounting evidence points to even more disturbing news that skeptics have long suspected: for all their convenience and comfort, cell phones may well be a source of radiation. But can mobile phones cause cancer? The answer seems to be ‘yes.’
Two big reasons for growing cellphone concerns are increases in their use and, simultaneously, their operating power. According to CTIA The Wireless Association, an organization that represents mobile phone manufacturers, between 2000 and 2010, cellphone use tripled among the US population. This proliferation makes mobile communication devices the biggest, most chronic source of non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation for humans. And according to a recent Institute of Science in Society report, newer mobile phone technology makes them more powerful and possibly more harmful, with cancer risks rising as much as fourfold, with and possibly a shorter latency period of cancer onset of five to ten years, compared to twenty-five or more years for earlier models.
How Mobile Phones Work
Cellphones are like transmitters, passing signals to and from nearby cellular towers using radiofrequency (RF) waves. Falling somewhere in size between FM radio waves and microwaves, RF waves are a form of non-ionizing radiation. Unlike stronger (or ionizing) types of radiation (such as x-rays, gamma rays or UV light), non-ionizing radiation isn’t powerful enough to destroy chemical bonds in DNA, a process that can lead to the growth of cancer cells. Many experts have thus said that cellphone RF energy doesn’t cause cancer in humans.
While you speak on your phone, RF energy is absorbed by tissue in the body area closest to where the phone is held. Factors that affect the amount of RF energy absorbed by you, the cellphone user, include how long you use the phone, whether you use hands-free or speaker mode, the distance and path between cellphone and nearest tower, how much mobile phone traffic is in the area at the time of use, and the model of phone you’re using.
Some people report feeling the side of their head where the phone is ‘getting hot’, whilst others say using their phone gives them headaches: there are reasons for this: contrary to the aforementioned prevailing belief in phone safety, several relatively recent studies, including this one, suggest that radiofrequency radiation (RFR) acts as a powerful oxidative stressor on living cells, thus making it a potential hazard to human health. Some of the touchstone studies are outlined below.
Investigations Of Mobile Phones And Radiation: A Recent History
Perhaps the gold standard of investigations supporting the harmlessness of cellphones is the 2010 Interphone study. The largest to date, the Interphone study indicated no relationship between cellphones and brain tumours.
The next year, a report from the Institute for Cancer Research also suggested no definitive link, yet introduced the disturbing spectre of the possibility of long-term health damage. That same year, a National Institute of Health study said cellphone use may change human brain activity, and that these changes may be exacerbated after less than an hour of phone use. Finally, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer declared that RF electromagnetic fields emitted by mobile phones might increase the risk of glioma (brain tumour). The proverbial ball had begun to roll.
Adding to the discussion in 2012, a notable study saw a significant increase in California of cases of malignant tumours in brain areas nearest to where people hold their phones, while the number of diagnosed cases of glioma throughout the brain otherwise decreased. Although causation can’t be confirmed from such findings, the results beg the question of whether there’s a link between cellphone use and tumour location.
Jumping forward to 2014, two studies are worth a mention. First, an investigation compared cellphone habits of 1,380 Swedish patients with malignant brain tumours to those of people without brain tumours. While the study was limited by its data-gathering methods, relying as it did on participants and their memories of cellphone usage, the investigators nonetheless gathered significant information.
Those who’d used cellphones for twenty to twenty-five years were almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with glioma as those who reported using cellphones for less than a year, and those who’d use them more than twenty-five years were three times as likely. People who claimed to have talked on cellphones the most (more than 1,486 hours) had double the risk of developing glioma versus those who claimed to have used their phone fewer than 122 hours. The study linked no other types of brain tumour to cellphone usage. Nor did it address reasons why mobile phone use might produce increases in glioma rates.
The takeaway here is that the more hours and years spent with cellphones pressed to your head, the higher your risk of developing brain cancer. The good news is that the absolute risk remains relatively low. Some baseline numbers were established in 2012, suggesting that only 5 in 100,000 adults in Europe, and 6.4 in 100,000 in the US, were diagnosed with any kind of malignant brain tumour. That’s a 0.005–0.0064% chance of developing brain cancer, while tripling that risk raises the number to about 0.015%.
More Bad News
The second significant 2014 study, conducted by French scientists, appeared in Occupational And Environmental Medicine. In it, 253 cases of glioma and 194 cases of meningioma were examined and compared to a control group of healthy people with regards to mobile phone use. Investigators found that fifteen hours a month—or roughly thirty minutes a day—of cellphone use over five years increases the risk of both glioma and meningioma, especially among people who work “phone-heavy jobs” such as sales. Oddly, this French study found that tumours that did develop occurred on the opposite side of the head from where the phone was held, contrary to findings from the earlier-mentioned 2012 study.
Finally, there was a controversial meta-study done recently (2015) that assesses several smaller investigations, many of which obtained their data from people who had used cellphones as adults for up to ten years. Most of these studies suggest a correlation between cellphones and DNA damage. This damage can add up over time, resulting in health problems ranging from cancer to headaches to fatigue and even skin problems. One example of the many findings is that using a cellphone for twenty minutes a day for five years causes a threefold increases in the risk of developing one particular brain tumour. Raising cellphone use to an hour a day elevates the risk of developing various tumours fivefold.
What You Can Do
The search for truth in the matter of a relationship between cellphone use and cancer has produced many interesting results but no agreed-upon answers. One prudent response to this uncertainty is to identify and implement precautionary measures.
First, be aware that your children are at greater risk than you are, for several reasons. Due to their smaller heads, thinner skulls and higher amounts of brain activity, it’s best to prohibit them from using cellphones, except in emergencies. Especially, tell kids to stop putting their phones under their pillows or beside their beds at night! The earlier that kids start using cellphones, the longer they will have used them, and the more radiation their heads will have absorbed. Alarmingly, it’s been reported that those who use cellphones before age twenty are up to five times more likely than those with minimal exposure to develop glioma within ten to twenty years.
Additional protective measures you can take include:
- Keep cellphone use to a minimum.
- Whenever possible, text, don’t talk.
- Don’t carry your phone on your body. Put it in a purse or knapsack.
- Use hands-free to keep the frequency away from your head.
- Only use cellphones in areas with excellent reception. The weaker the reception, the more power the cellphone uses, and thus the more radiation emitted.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, choose a phone with a low Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) value. SAR measures the energy absorbed from phone into body. Different phones have different SAR levels. The maximum allowable SAR in the US is 1.6watts per kilogram of body weight.
Given the technology is relatively new, it’s still difficult to establish a definite, consistent link between cellphone use and cancer, but the evidence that does exist so far indicates that it is imperative to keep learning the real risks. The proliferation of cellphones and their rapidly improving technology has produced an urgent need for answers. Further research is definitely required. In the meantime, hold the phone–but please hold it far from your ear.
All images: Wikicommons