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Cell Phones and Cancer Risk

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on May 25, 2020

Cell phones can make life easier in many ways. But you may worry that using a cell phone can raise your risk of cancer. Scientists have been studying this question since more and more people started using cell phones in the 1990s.

More than 400 million people in the U.S. now use cell phones, and more than 5 billion use them worldwide. People are making more calls each day, and these calls last longer. These are some of the reasons people worry that cell phones might be bad for their health.

But are they really? Here's what some expert agencies have to say:

  • The FDA says that neither research results nor public health statistics have clearly shown that normal use of cellphones raises the risk of cancer.
  • The International Agency for Research on Cancer says the radiation from cell phones is "possibly" a cancer-causing substance.
  • The CDC says science hasn't given us a definite answer and more research is needed.

The bottom line is that no one can say for sure right now whether there's a link between cell phones and cancer. Decades of studies have led to conflicting results. And scientists are still studying the issue.

But if you're concerned, there are steps you can take to reduce how much radiation you're exposed to from your cell phone. That radiation is what might link cell phones to cancer.

Radiation From Cell Phones

Cell phones give off small amounts of a type of radiation called radiofrequency radiation, or radio waves. It's called non-ionizing radiation, and it's the same type you find in FM radio waves and microwaves.

It’s different from ionizing radiation, which comes from things like X-rays and ultraviolet light. That kind of radiation can chemically damage your DNA and increase your risk of cancer.

The non-ionizing type from phones doesn’t have enough energy to directly damage the DNA in your cells. Still, parts of your body near your phone's antenna can absorb its radiation.

Because we often hold our phones next to our heads when making calls, scientists have wondered whether this might lead to tumors in the brain, ear, or neck area.

What Does the Research Say?

Many studies on cell phone use and cancer have been done in the last several years. They include:

INTERPHONE study. Researchers from 13 countries looked at cell phone use in more than 5,000 people who got brain tumors and a similar group without brain tumors. Overall, no link was found between the risk of brain tumors and:

  • Cell phone use
  • How often calls were made
  • Longer call times

The researchers did find a small increase in the risk of a certain type of brain tumor in the 10% of people who used their cell phones the most.

2019 analysis. Looking at the results of multiple studies, researchers found no suggestion that mobile phone use led to a higher risk of tumors of the brain or salivary gland (in the jaw). But they weren’t certain whether the risk might go up 15 or more years later. They also weren't sure whether children who use cell phones might have a higher risk of these tumors later on.

50-year review. A review of 22 studies done between 1966 and 2016 suggested that people who'd used cell phones for 10 years or longer had a higher risk of brain tumors.

2018 trend research. Australian researchers compared cell phone use with brain tumor trends over three different decade-long periods. They found no link between brain tumors and cell phones.

Why Studies Can't Always Give Answers

Research can’t tell us everything we need to know. Many studies have built-in weaknesses that can affect how accurate their findings are. They include:

  • The results of studies done in animals or cells may not apply to people.
  • People may not have been regularly using cell phones long enough to tell if they're linked to cancer.
  • Other habits besides cell phone use may affect cancer rates, but these habits weren’t studied.
  • People don’t always remember how much or how long they’ve done something, like use a cell phone. This can make a study's results less accurate.
  • Technology in cell phones keeps changing over time, which can affect study results.
  • Most studies are done in adults, which means their results may not apply to children.

Tips for Safer Cell Phone Use

If you’re worried that your cell phone might raise your risk of cancer, there are ways you might be able to reduce how much radiation it exposes you to. These include:

  • Limit your time on the phone.
  • Use the speaker, a headset, or a hands-free device instead of holding the phone to your head.
  • Text instead of call.
  • Look for a cell phone with a lower SAR, or specific absorption rate. A lower SAR value may mean the phone gives off less radiation. You can find this information in your phone's user manual or on the manufacturer's website. Keep in mind that the SAR is based on the phone operating at its highest power. That might not reflect how you actually use your phone.
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

FDA: “Do Cell Phones Pose a Health Hazard?”

American Cancer Society: “Cellular Phones.”

National Cancer Institute: “Cell Phones and Cancer Risk.”

Mayo Clinic: “Is There Any Link Between Cell Phones and Cancer?”

Annual Review of Public Health: “Brain and Salivary Gland Tumors and Mobile Phone Use: Evaluating the Evidence from Various Epidemiological Study Designs.”

Neurological Sciences: “Mobile Phone Use and Risk of Brain Tumors: A Systematic Review of Association Between Study Quality, Source of Funding, and Research Outcomes.”

BMJ Open: “Mobile Phone Use and Incidence of Brain Tumor Histological Types, Grading or Anatomical Location: A Population-Based Ecological Study.”

CDC: "Frequently Asked Questions About Cell Phones and Your Health."

News release, International Agency for Research on Cancer.

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