Senators Want Research on Cell Phones, Cancer

Lawmakers Seek Answers to Possible Health Hazards for Cell Phone Users

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on September 15, 2009
From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 15, 2009 -- Lawmakers say they will seek more federally funded research into the possible connection between cell phone use and cancer.

The announcement comes several days after a review released by the Environmental Working Group found potential safety hazards connected to cell phone use.

"It is something that is worth taking a look at," says Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., a member of the Senate health appropriations subcommittee.

At issue is the radio-frequency radiation that cell phones use to communicate with towers. The radiation causes heat energy and may also be able to induce cancers in animals at high doses.

Most available studies have been performed in animals. Human studies are relatively few and tend to be small in size, making them less reliable. Most of those studies come from Europe and Israel, where cell phones have been in wide use longer than in the U.S.

"Many other countries are doing studies involving humans," says Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the subcommittee's chairman.

Several studies have found an association between long-term cell phone use and malignancies. Meanwhile, other studies have found no connection.

Cell Phone Radiation

In humans, the issue remains clouded by several factors. Few people have the kind of persistent, decade-long exposure to cell phones held close to the ear that researchers suspect may carry a risk for disease. Phones can vary widely in how much energy they emit. And geography may play a role, since poor tower signals cause cell phones to emit more energy as they search for a connection.

Cell phone manufacturers have maintained that the available science shows no proof that long periods of exposure to cell phone radiation lead to cancer. "The current evidence does not demonstrate that phones cause cancer or other adverse health effects," says Linda S. Erdreich, PhD, a researcher with Exponent, a consulting firm that performs research on behalf of cell phone makers.

Other researchers agreed that studies are inconclusive. But most urge caution, warning that even tiny increases in cancer risk would have major public health implications given the millions of cell phone users.

"There are both studies showing effect and studies showing no effect," says Dariusz Keszcynski, PhD, a researcher with the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority in Helsinki, Finland. "The statement that the use of mobile phones is safe is premature."

In the meantime, researchers urge consumers to take steps to minimize the potential health risks of using cell phones. Here's what they advise:

  • Use a hands-free earpiece and microphone or speakerphone setting as often as possible
  • Try to curb the overall time spent talking with the phone up to your ear
  • Bluetooth devices also emit radio-frequency radiation, though at lower levels than most phones. When using a Bluetooth, turn it off or remove it between calls.
  • Men should avoid carrying their phones in their front pockets. Some evidence suggests radio-frequency radiation could affect sperm counts.
  • Avoid talking in elevators, tunnels, or other places with weak signals. Phones emit more energy as they search for a tower in these places.

Advocates also ask lawmakers to consider new regulations that would force cell phone makers to disclose radiation levels on phone packaging. Cell phone makers oppose such regulations.

"Until we know more, it's smart for consumers to buy cell phones with the lowest emissions," says Olga V. Naidenko, PhD, senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group. "The public has a right to know what radiation levels they may be exposed to."

Show Sources


Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

Linda S. Erdreich, PhD, senior managing scientist, Exponent Health Sciences Center.

Dariusz Keszcynski, PhD, Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, Helsinki, Finland.

Olga V. Naidenko, PhD, senior scientist, Environmental Working Group.

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