Over the past two weeks both the World Health Organization and the National Cancer Institute at NIH have announced concerns over the widespread use of mobile phones and the increased risk of brain cancers.  Gulp!  How much time do you spend on your phone with it cradled against your head?!?!?  You might want to rethink that behavior starting today.

What is the Risk?

  • Cell phones emit radiofrequency (RF) energy (radio waves), which is a form of radiation.
    • Radiofrequency electromagnetic fields have been classified as possibly carcinogenic to humans (group 2B) on the basis of an increased risk for glioma that some studies have associated with the use of wireless phones
  • The sheer number of cell phone users has increased dramatically. As of 2009, there were more than 285 million subscribers to cell phone service in the United States, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. This is an increase from 110 million users in 2000 and 208 million users in 2005.

What is RF energy and how can it affect the body?

Smiling Man Talking On Cell Phone 1
RF energy is a form of electromagnetic radiation.

Electromagnetic radiation can be divided into two types: Ionizing (high-frequency) and non-ionizing (low-frequency). RF energy is a type of non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation. Ionizing radiation, such as that produced by x-ray machines, can pose a cancer risk.   Studies suggest that the amount of RF energy produced by cell phones is too low to cause significant tissue heating or an increase in body temperature. However, more research is needed to determine what effects, if any, low-level non-ionizing RF energy has on the body and whether it poses a health danger.

How is a cell phone user exposed to RF energy?

A cell phone’s main source of RF energy is produced through its antenna. The antenna of newer hand-held cell phones is in the handset, which is typically held against the side of the head when the telephone is in use. The closer the antenna is to the head, the greater a person’s expected exposure to RF energy. The amount of RF energy absorbed by a person decreases significantly with increasing distance between the antenna and the user. The intensity of RF energy emitted by a cell phone depends on the level of the signal.

What determines how much RF energy a cell phone user experiences?

A cell phone user’s level of exposure to RF energy depends on several factors, including:

  • The number and duration of calls.
  • The amount of cell phone traffic at a given time.
  • The distance from the nearest cellular base station.
  • The quality of the cellular transmission.
  • The size of the handset.
  • For older phones, how far the antenna is extended.
  • Whether or not a hands-free device is used.

What parts of the body may be affected during cell phone use?

Kid With Cell Phone
There is concern that RF energy produced by cell phones may affect the brain and other tissues in the head because hand-held cell phones are usually held close to the head.

Researchers have focused on whether RF energy can cause:

  • Malignant brain tumors such as gliomas (cancers of the brain)
  • Benign tumors such as acoustic neuromas
  • Meningiomas (tumors that occur in the meninges)
  • Salivary glands masses

What studies have been done, and what do they show?

Numerous studies have investigated the relationship between cell phone use and the risk of developing malignant and benign brain tumors. The most significant study of long-term use is the 13-country Interphone study, which is a multinational consortium of case-control studies. Interphone was coordinated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). The primary objective of the Interphone study was to assess whether RF energy exposure from cell phones is associated with an increased risk of malignant or benign brain tumors and other head and neck tumors. Participating countries included Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

Evidence is Strong Enough For Concern

The National Cancer Institute has stated that although a consistent link has not been established between cell phone use and cancer, “scientists feel that additional research is needed before firm conclusions can be drawn.” In a similar fashion, the American Cancer Society points out that even though the weight of the evidence has shown no association between cell phone use and brain cancer, information on the potential health effects of very long-term use, or use in children, is simply not available.

The WHO established the International Electromagnetic Fields (EMF) Project in 1996, in response to public and governmental concern, with the goal of evaluating the possibility of adverse health effects from electromagnetic fields. In a press release issued last year, the WHO stated that it would conduct a formal health risk assessment of radiofrequency fields exposure by 2012, but in the interim, the IARC would review the carcinogenic potential of mobile phones this year A full report summarizing the main conclusions and evaluations of the IARC Working Group is slated to be published online soon in The Lancet Oncology and in print in its July 1 issue.

So what should you be doing in the meantime?

The key thing is to avoid holding the phone directly against your head. The goal is to keep the antenna, which is the source of RF energy, away from the head and thereby reduce the amount of RF energy exposure to the head.

How can you do this?

  • Reserve the use of cell phones for shorter conversations, or for times when a conventional phone is not available.
  • Switch to a type of cell phone with a hands-free device that will place more distance between the phone and the head of the user.  Whenever possible use a wireless headset or ear buds to keep the mobile device as far away from your head as possible.
  • If you do not have an device that allows for separation between the phone and your head, even holding it a few inches away from your head will help reduce the RF energy exposure to your brain.

In other words, be a smart user of your mobile devices!