As the world becomes more and more dependent on cell phones, you might find yourself pausing to wonder if that’s a good thing. Sure, we all spend too much time staring at our smartphone screens. But could our cell phones be causing more damage than just interfering with our circadian rhythms?
Some health experts warn that cell phones could be causing deeper health issues than we think. Could all those radio waves be so innocent? Or should we worry about their effects on our bodies? Could cell phones cause cancer?
Let’s dive in to learn more about how cell phones work and if we should be concerned about using them so regularly.
How Do Cell Phones Work?
Cell phones work very similarly to how walkie-talkies function. They use radio waves to send and receive signals. Your phone contains a transmitter and a receiver so that it can send out radio waves and then receive them. This allows your calls to be transported through an electrical signal, received by your friend’s cell phone device, then turned back into sound waves that can be understood. All instantaneously.
Cell phones contain copper antennas to send and receive calls. We used to be able to see these antennas on older phones, but now they’re typically carefully included in the body of the phone so we don’t have to hassle with them.
These antennas communicate with cell towers located nearby, sending out radiofrequency waves and receiving them back again. Your proximity to a tower, and whether or not something is obstructing your access to it, can make or break the strength of your signal.
Modern smartphones also contain other types of antennas for Wi-Fi, GPS, data, and other kinds of signals. Our devices are powerful communication tools!
Why Are People Concerned that Cell Phones May Cause Cancer?
As cell phones are a relatively new invention, there’s a lot about them that we don’t yet understand. They first became popular in the 1990s, but their use has exploded in the past 20 years. These days, just about everyone on the planet has a cell phone or has access to one.
This causes many individuals who are concerned about modern technology to worry about the effects of cell phones on human health. Even back in the 90s, people were concerned that cell phone radiation might be causing their friends’ and family members’ brain tumors. These worries led to an international discussion about cell phone usage and safety, from both a philosophical perspective and a scientific research perspective.
Since then, scientists have conducted studies to determine whether cell phones are a cause for concern or not. Research is an ongoing process, as it takes many studies to find evidence and make conclusions.
What is Radiofrequency Radiation and How Does it Affect the Human Body?
Radiofrequency radiation is a low-energy radio wave that is quickly transmitted through the air to receivers and transmitters. The strength of its signal is between an FM radio wave and a microwave. In other words, it’s pretty mild on the scale of radiation waves.
In addition, it’s a non-ionizing radiation type of wave that’s part of the electromagnetic field. Radiation waves in this category include heat, light, FM radio, and microwave ovens. This simply means that the strength of their signal isn’t powerful enough to affect DNA in cells.
For comparison, ionizing waves are powerful enough to harm a cell’s DNA structure. These types of electromagnetic radiation waves include x-rays, ultraviolet light, and gamma rays. This is why it’s important to be careful with these types of waves and to use them sparingly or not at all.
When a cell’s DNA is damaged, it’s more likely to become cancerous. Luckily, since cell phones run on non-ionizing waves, they are far less likely to cause cancer in cells.
How Are People Exposed?
The antenna of the cell phone is the most powerful part of the phone. As it’s sending out a signal, several things can affect its strength. This can cause someone to be exposed to higher or lower radiofrequency energy, depending on how they’re using the phone.
If you put the phone up to your head while talking to someone, you’ll be putting the antenna right next to your body. This means that your head will absorb a significant amount of the radio waves, which can decrease the number of them that are getting to the cell tower.
Other factors that can influence greater or fewer radio waves you’re exposed to include:
- How close you are to a cell tower. If you’re farther away or something is obstructing the waves, the cell phone will increase its level of radio waves in an attempt to try to connect.
- If you’re sharing the signal with lots of other people. The more people trying to connect to a cell tower, the harder your phone will have to work to connect.
- How much time you’re talking on the phone. As a call is happening, your head is being constantly exposed to RF waves. The longer you’re on there, the more waves your body has to deal with.
- If you’re holding the phone to your ear or using it hands-free. By talking to someone via speaker or with headphones, you are limiting your head’s contact with the antenna signal.
- What type of phone you have. Different companies and models of phones have different strengths of signals. You’ll have to check with your cell phone maker to find out more about your phone.
What is the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) of a Cell Phone?
The United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC), uses the term specific absorption rate (SAR) to describe how much of a radio wave ends up being absorbed by the human body during cell phone use. It also lists safety limits for these rates and for cell phone radiation limits.
Cell phone manufacturers have to test and label their products with the maximum SAR level per product. They also have to report this number to the FCC, allowing for transparency into the health risks of their cell phone products.
The SAR number isn’t necessarily what you might encounter during regular cell phone usage. It’s, instead, the maximum rate your body might absorb in strong signal situations. You can find your phone’s SAR rate on the manufacturer’s website, the phone’s packaging, and in the user manual.
Your actual SAR exposure also depends on how you tend to use your phone, where you live, and individual phone factors.
Do Cell Phones Cause Tumors?
From a public health perspective, individuals are concerned that mobile phones might cause tumors simply because we hold our devices up to our heads. The biggest concern is whether radio waves could cause brain cancer. There are also concerns that the constant exposure to these waves could cause risk of cancer rates in other areas of the body, such as testicular and skin cancer.
Researchers have analyzed several types of cancers for association with cell phone usage. These include: cancerous and non-cancerous brain tumors (for example, gliomas and meningiomas), and non-cancerous tumors of the nerve that connects the brain to the ear (schwannomas) as well as salivary gland tumors.
How is Radiofrequency Radiation Measured in Studies?
Since there isn’t a consistently accurate way to measure RF waves outside of the laboratory, scientists use estimates to determine how much study participants are or have been exposed to the waves.
While calculating a number, they take into consideration:
- What cell phone companies estimate RF amounts are likely to be
- How long someone has been using cell phones
- The age they were when they started talking on cell phones
- How often a participant talks on the phone per week and per call
- An accurate-as-possible account of their total hours of lifetime use of cell phones
What Do Lab Studies Suggest?
A laboratory study is useful because scientists can control for all factors that might otherwise influence an outcome. That means that they can directly look at whether radio waves could be responsible for cancer incidence in otherwise healthy cells.
These studies are often performed on animals, as well as exposing healthy cells in a petri dish to direct RF waves.
Generally, radio waves don’t heat up cells or cause obvious damage to a cell. Most of the lab studies don’t show that radio waves cause damage to healthy human cells or animal cells.
There are scientists who are concerned about the effects that mobile phones might have on general health and so studies continue to be carried out to try to determine whether we should be concerned or not.
One study conducted by the US National Toxicology Program (NTP) subjected male and female rats and mice to RF waves from birth to old age, or approximately 2 years. Their whole bodies were exposed to the radio waves and the strength of the waves were higher than what humans are typically exposed to.
Strangely enough, the male rats all had higher rates of heart, brain, and adrenal gland tumors. They also lived longer than the other animals in the study. Female rats, as well as male and female mice didn’t show any signs of these effects.
A human study in the lab involved analyzing participants’ brains after talking on their cell phones. They noted that the side of the brain that was next to the cell phone had an increased amount of glucose immediately after the phone call ended. Since glucose is present in the brain when extra energy is needed, this causes scientists to ask more questions than it offers any answers.
So while these studies don’t show that radio waves are a carcinogen, they do cause scientists to wonder about the variety of health risks that cell phones could be causing.
What Do Studies in Humans Suggest?
Several studies have been conducted on humans directly, though it’s nearly impossible to do a thorough study in the lab. People must go about their everyday lives, which means there are several factors that could mess with the results of a study. That said, scientists can get some information from these types of studies.
Here are a few that have been done in the past few years.
The INTERPHONE Study:
This study spanned 13 countries, comparing 5,000 people who had developed brain tumors (gliomas or meningiomas) with another similar group that did not have tumors. They also compared a group of 1,000 people with tumors of the brain nerve that connects to the ear (acoustic neuroma) with a similar group without this tumor.
The results were generally inconclusive and did not show an increased risk of tumors with cell phone use. That said, there was a confusing set of people who reported impossibly high rates of cell phone usage who did have tumors. So, while this study can’t conclude that mobile phones cause tumors, there were results that could be concerning. These results are something that need to be tested further.
The Danish Cohort Study:
A study in Denmark followed approximately 400,000 people from 1982 through 1995, tracking their subscription to cell phone service or not. They then compared these subscription rates to incidence of tumors in study participants. Results didn’t show any increased incidences of tumors in people who used cell phones over those who did not.
This type of study is better constructed because it tracks people as they engage in behaviors instead of relying on self-reporting. However, this study didn’t actually look at specific mobile phone use and it’s possible that many participants were using others’ phones even if they didn’t have a subscription themselves. It also didn’t take into account the fact that cell phones during this period had much higher rates of RF waves, but individuals also used their phones less at this time.
The Million Woman Study:
A study in the UK of 800,000 women over a 7-year period found little to no risk of developing brain tumors, though it did find a possible correlation with developing acoustic neuromas (tumors of the ear-brain nerve). After following up with those who were at risk for this type of tumor, researchers found that the risk was eliminated.
This study relied on self-reporting from participants in order to analyze the connection between high rates of cellphone users and tumors. Self-reporting isn’t 100% accurate, so there are some limitations with this type of study.
What Do Expert Agencies Say?
Several expert organizations have weighed in on this issue, including:
- The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization (WHO)
- United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
- FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health (CDRH)
- Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS)
- National Cancer Institute (NCI)
- American Cancer Society (ACS)
- National Institute for Health (NIH)
- National Toxicology Program (NTP)
- European Commission Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks
These groups each carefully analyzed available research on the health risks and health effects of cell phone usage, then reported a statement on their findings. The consensus between the groups is that cell phones pose a very minimal risk to the human body, if any at all.
They also agreed that better and further research needs to be done to analyze some of the confusing results of some of the studies. Overall, though, they all state that it seems as though radio waves don’t directly cause tumors in the human body. More research needs to be done to determine if they irritate already existing tumors or previously existing tumorous cells in the body.
Jeffrey Shuren, M.D., J.D., Director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health issued a statement in which he explains:
“The Food and Drug Administration is charged with ensuring cell phones— and any radiation-emitting electronic product—are safe for the public to use. Our scientific expertise and input, along with other health agencies, are used by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to set the standards for exposure limits of radiation from cell phones, called radiofrequency energy.”
Many governmental agencies are watching out for our health, keeping a close eye on studies to ensure products’ safety.
The bottom line is that we can all reduce our cell phone usage, either by using headsets for talking or to just decrease use altogether. But there’s no reason to conclusively believe that radio waves cause cancer directly.
All Studies Done So Far Have Limitations
Every study has its limitations simply because of human error and bias. It’s nearly impossible to control for every factor under the sun when conducting a study. Tracking human behavior is really tricky when it can’t be done inside a laboratory with its controlled environment. It’s important to realize that just because a study has a particular conclusion, it doesn’t mean that this conclusion is then fact or irrefutable evidence.
These studies are no different, as they all have strengths and weaknesses. Here are a few reasons why some studies contradict others, leading to inconsistent findings and conclusions.
Reasons for Inconsistent Findings
- Inaccurate self-reporting. Studies show that our memories are not always accurate and often change based on our present day experiences and beliefs. Therefore, when study participants are required to report their cell phone usage in the past, their information is likely to be slightly or wildly different than what actually happened.
- Disease and death. People with aggressive brain tumors often don’t live very long, so it’s hard to get a long-term reading on their habits in such a short period of time. Their family members aren’t likely to have an accurate reading on their habits either, depending on how close they were to the participant and their own biases. Additionally, if someone does survive a brain tumor, often the treatments given can cause damage to their brain tissue, which causes memory issues and other mental inaccuracies.
- Recall bias. When someone has been diagnosed with a brain tumor, their perception of the world and their life can drastically change. This can color their past recollection of their cell phone usage, especially when compared with participants who don’t have a tumor or health condition.
- Changing technology. The old-fashioned, analog cell phones used in the 80s and 90s were using far different technology than the digital cell phones we use today do. They required higher powered waves of RF in order to work. The way people used those phones was different than today, as well. They mostly used them to talk, whereas we now use our phones for many purposes, including texting and accessing the internet.
- Participation bias. It’s a well documented fact that people who have a particular issue or disease are more likely to sign up for a study than are those who do not have these illnesses. This can skew data and results.
Are Any New Studies in Progress?
A longitudinal study began in Europe in 2010 and is called the COSMOS study.
Strengths of this study include:
- The group being studied is quite large at 290,000 people
- It doesn’t only rely on recall, as the study aims to analyze cell phone usage through bills, data, and health records
- It’s a longitudinal study, meaning that it will follow these people for 20 to 30 years, which allows researchers to get a more accurate picture of participants behaviors over time
Weaknesses of this study include:
- Tracking that many people over several decades
- Drop-out rates can be a problem with studies that last this long, as participants get tired of being involved
- Figuring out if only one person is using a cell phone or if other family members are also using the phone (would skew data in significant ways)
- Determining whether people who drop out of the study are different from those who stay in the study
It will be interesting to see what results this study comes up with and how much better it is at capturing the situation with health and cell phones. It could also demonstrate how difficult it is to truly track this kind of data and make associations. Keep an eye on it as it develops over the years!
Are There Any Associated Cancer Risks in Children From Cell Phones?
It’s reasonable to be concerned about cell phone usage in children. They are a vulnerable populations because of factors including:
- Their still-developing nervous systems
- They’re more susceptible to cancer risks because of their immature bodies
- They have small head masses, yet are being exposed to the same level of RFs as adults
- They’re beginning use of cell phones at an earlier age, so have a longer lifetime accumulation of use than adults do
That said, no studies thus far have found any clear evidence for a correlation between childhood brain tumors and cell phone radiation exposure. One study, named CEFALO, was carried out in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Switzerland between 2004 and 2008 to analyze this very issue. Researchers studied children with brain tumors who were between the ages of 7 and 19 years old. Scientists didn’t find any reason to believe that cell phones caused or increased the tumor risk in these children.
Currently, researchers are conducting another international study on this issue in Spain at the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology, called Mobi-Expo. They’re comparing 2,000 children and young adults who have been diagnosed with brain tumors with 4,000 children and young adults who do not have brain tumors. The age group they’re studying includes participants who range from ages 10 to 24 years old. Keep an eye on this study, as well!
Do Cell Phones Cause Any Other Health Problems?
Several theories have been proposed about other biological effects and their relationship with cell phones. For the most part, the evidence for these theories is minimal to nonexistent. Studies have looked at issues such as neurologic disorders among children, but the conclusions of the studies contradict and leave researchers with more questions than answers.
There has been some concern about radio waves interrupting pacemakers in the heart, but research isn’t conclusive on whether this is an issue or not. In the meantime, it’s probably safest to not keep cell phones right near the heart (such as in a shirt pocket) to avoid any potential risk.
The issue that has been conclusively researched is that cell phones do lead to distracted driving and a higher rate of car accidents. Some people think that using a hands free setup to still talk while driving without actually holding the cell phone improves this accident rate. However, research still doesn’t offer us that reassurance. The safest way to reduce risk while driving is to avoid cell phone usage entirely.
Can I Lower My Exposure to RF Waves From Cell Phones?
If you’re concerned about RF waves, the FDA has some recommendations for how to go about reducing your exposure.
- Always use your cell phone hands free by using a wired headset with an earpiece to talk on the phone
- Use your cell phone sparingly and use a landline phone when possible
- Use the speakerphone setting or video calls to keep the phone away from your head
- Text instead of talk (though never do this while driving!)
- Reduce use of your cell phone in general, including children’s usage
- Choose a phone with a low SAR rating, which can be found on the FCC’s website and in details about your phone
In general, research doesn’t prove that radiofrequency waves are dangerous. But there are other health benefits of reducing phone use, so it’s not a bad idea to consider overall reduction of phone use.
What About Cordless Phones?
Luckily, cordless phones are simply landline phones with a low-powered antenna. Since they’re wired into the landline system, they use far less power and run at about 1/600th of the power of cell phones. Their antenna simply exists to connect them to the base that plugs into the wall. They aren’t considered “cell” phones and so aren’t considered to carry any of the same potential health risks or effects.
What About Alternative Perspectives? Wifi, 5G, and Emerging Technologies
While many in the science community think that cell phones, WiFi, and 5G are likely safe for human health, there are plenty of individuals speaking out against these tools of modern life. Some of these apparent whistleblowers are members of the medical and scientific community, though their perspectives aren’t always widely accepted in the mainstream.
When deciding how to approach your own health, it’s useful to take multiple perspectives into consideration. We’re including information about these perspectives here so you can do your own research and come to your own conclusions.
Alternative thought leaders, such as Dr. Mercola, are sharing research and interviews about the dangers of EMFs, cell phones, WiFi, and 5G. While 5G has yet to reach the mainstream and rural markets, it is being rolled out in some very large cities throughout the world (as of mid-2020). We won’t yet know the effects of these changes for some time. But predictions from alternative health practitioners say that these technologies will have very serious health effects.
As Wifi signals, cell phone radio waves, and other types of waves are soaring through the air around us constantly, it’s not a stretch for many to wonder how these waves are truly impacting our health. Also, since we are electrical beings, there is cause for concern.
It’s important to balance the fear of something with a mindful approach to limiting its negative effects on your life. Fear and stress cause harmful hormones to flood your body, causing further health issues. But be aware of potential issues, make choices that give you peace of mind, and stay as balanced as you can in your approach.
As cell phone use is on the rise and over 7 billion cell phones are in regular use worldwide, people are concerned about the possible health risks that cell phones carry. While scientific evidence is confusing and different studies offer conflicting results, it seems that the type of cell phone radio waves shouldn’t cause tumors under normal circumstances. We can’t definitively say that a cell phone causes cancer.
That said, tech use in general isn’t good for us at high usage rates and it’s better for our mental and physical health to reduce how much we’re on our devices. So, while the jury is still out on actual health issues caused by cell phones, it’s a good idea to curb your tech usage as much as is reasonable.
When thinking about your health, it’s helpful to consider it from a holistic perspective. At the IAWP, we call this idea Wellness 360. This whole-life perspective allows you to work on your wellness from many different angles, causing a sense of well-being in all areas of your life. You can easily consider cell phone use using this framework.
You can work on your relationship with your cell phone by taking regular breaks, closing your eyes to rest them, practicing mindfulness through your day, taking long walks in nature, and connecting with friends and family in person. Minimize your fear of these devices to reduce stress hormones in your body. Then take preventative measures by engaging in healthy behaviors and being empowered in your lifestyle and well-being.