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Cell phone-cancer link remains unclear, but some scientists urge caution

U.S. cell phone use has quadrupled over the last decade to about 280 million customers.

Meanwhile, brain cancer remains as rare as ever. A city the size of St. Petersburg can expect only about 20 new cases a year.

Nevertheless, nagging worries that cell phones cause brain cancer continue to gain traction.

Just this month, two sources of popular health wisdom — Prevention magazine and Dr. Mehmet Oz on his new TV show — warned against cell phones and other devices that emit electromagnetic radiation.

We plaster cell phones right next to our skulls, they noted. Kids who text friends at night hide activated Nokias or LG's under their pillows, just inches from their developing brains.

Not to mention the doomsday scenario: What if symptoms don't appear for 20 or 30 years, as with smoking and lung cancer? Might a lethal invader already have its beachhead?

The Interphone study, a World Health Organization compilation of studies from 13 nations, is due out any day. Different countries found conflicting results, so authors struggled to craft a joint conclusion. But many observers predict that — at the very least — the report will include cautionary language about phones.

"In light of a number of studies which, though limited, suggest a possible effect of radio frequency radiation, precautions are important,'' then-study coordinator Elisabeth Cardis told the London Daily Telegraph last year. "I am therefore globally in agreement with the idea of restricting the use by children.''

Reputable authorities — like the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — have largely discounted a cell phone-cancer link. And most of the 13 country studies found little connection — at least not to the "statistically significant'' level that is academia's gold standard.

On the other hand, Israel's Health Ministry urged parents last year to restrict children's cell phone use after the study there indicated a rise in salivary gland tumors among heavy cell phone users — particularly in rural areas where phones must pump out more energy to reach far-flung cell towers.

So need we worry about disease every time we dial?

Or is the only real cell phone hazard that yahoo texting as he barrels down the highway?

Mixed results

Some of the earliest worries about cell phones blossomed in Pinellas County, when Madeira Beach resident David Reynard sued NEC and GTE in 1992 over his wife's brain cancer. Industry stocks nose-dived after he appeared on Larry King Live.

Electromagnetic energy from cell phones dissipates within a few inches, but that's enough if the antenna sits right next to your head, Reynard figured.

Radiation of extremely high frequency — like X-rays and gamma rays — is a known carcinogen, he noted. Why not low-frequency cell phone radiation that bombards the brain for years and years?

A judge called Reynard's suit "junk science" and threw it out, but the brouhaha forced the cell phone industry to commit $25 million for safety studies.

Since then, scientists all over the world have looked closer. Usually, they asked people with brain tumors about their cell phone use. Results varied.

• A 2006 German study indicated that the risk of glioma, a vicious cancer, rose 120 percent for people who used phones for at least 10 years.

• A 2006 Swedish study suggested that 10 or more years of use raises high-grade glioma risk by 210 percent — and way more often than not, people recalled holding their phones on the side of the head where the tumor showed up.

A 210 percent rise in brain cancers would mean that about 20 Americans out of 100,000 would get them — not devastating compared with other diseases, but a disturbing trend that presumably would accelerate over time if cell phones do cause cancer.

• On the other hand, Interphone studies by Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden and the United Kingdom indicated no particular rise in glioma after 10 years of use.

A lot of uncertainties

Many studies, both pro and con, were not "statistically significant'' by academic standards, which meant there was at least a 5 percent likelihood that random chance caused the result.

For starters, brain cancer is so rare that some study groups included only a few dozen people, making it difficult to arrive at solid conclusions.

And none of the studies included detailed data about frequency of exposure. A "regular user'' in Interphone studies might talk on the phone just once a week, but could get the same weight as real estate agents glued to their Motorolas.

Several studies focused on which side of the head people held their phones. But quirky results made it clear that some people with cancer had skewed the data with faulty memory — subconsciously aligning their phones near where they knew the tumor had occurred.

A huge Danish study in 2006 was widely trumpeted as putting the cell phone debate to rest.

Instead of relying on small samples, the Danes found phone company records of 420,000 citizens who started using cell phones between 1982 and 1995.

They cross-checked those names against the national cancer registry through 2002 and found no rise in tumors associated with phone use. The study included 58,000 people with at least 10 years of exposure.

But the study had flaws.

Cancer risk for 10 years or more of phone use appeared to drop by one-third, an unlikely event. And the study mislabeled about 200,000 long-term users because their phones were owned by businesses that had doled them out to employees. Unable to identify who actually used each phone, the Danes simply eliminated those subscribers as long-term users.

That meant that 200,000 longtime users were classified as nonusers. If cell phones do cause cancer, that artificially raised the disease rate of "nonusers" and dampened the appearance of any cell phone-cancer link.

Reassuring rates

One fact should reassure cell phone users: Brain cancer does not appear to be rising — not in the United States and not in Scandinavia, the wireless generation's Garden of Eden.

For 2006, the National Cancer Institute counted (PDF) 6.1 brain cancer cases for every 100,000 Americans, the lowest rate in 25 years.

Those numbers — the latest available — are now three years old. But by 2006, about 40 million Americans had used cell phones for at least 10 years. If cell phones were indeed risky, cancer rates probably should have nudged up by now, said senior NCI investigator Peter Inskip.

"In the past, you could have said you are looking too soon — it takes a long time for tumors to appear,'' Inskip said, "but it's getting increasingly difficult to assert that.''

David Carpenter, professor of environmental health sciences at Albany University, says there is "clear evidence" linking brain cancer and cell phone use. He speculated that declining exposure to toxic substances might be counter-balancing an increased risk from cell phones — hence no rise in overall brain cancer.

It probably would not relate to declining cigarette use, Carpenter said. Smoking and brain cancer have no apparent link. But it might relate to toxic pesticides and industrial chemicals, he said. Some known to cause brain cancer were phased out over the last few decades.

Vanderbilt University epidemiologist John Boice said "there's not a glimmer of evidence'' that brain cancer is on the rise.

High-frequency radiation, as from X-rays, does cause cancer because it is "ionizing," Boice said. Electromagnetic energy breaks down DNA bonds.

But "non-ionizing," low-frequency radiation has no cancer-causing mechanism, he said.

Consider radar, a low-frequency radiation that emits more energy than cell phones. Navy sailors from the Korean War were exposed to so much radar they could feel the heat, Boice says. Yet a study of 10,000 sailors showed no cancer increase.

Ditto microwave ovens. They create enough power and frequency to heat food but do not cause cancer, he says.

Still, studies suggesting a possible phone-cancer link are leading some scientists to maintain a middle-of-the road approach.

Absent definitive answers, "human exposure to mobile phone frequency electromagnetic radiation should be kept as low as is reasonably achievable, especially among children,'' Bruce Armstrong, director of Australia's Interphone study, wrote last year.

Meanwhile, five European countries have kicked off a study to end all studies. It will follow 250,000 subjects for 20 to 30 years to see who gets cancer. Records from cell phone providers will pinpoint exposure, down to the last minute.

In 30 years, teenagers probably will have shifted to the next new thing — but at least we should have answers about cell phones.

Contact Stephen Nohlgren at

fast facts

Reducing exposure

Concerned about cell phone use? Here's how to reduce exposure to electromagnetic energy from cell phones.

• Text instead of talk.

• Use a wired headset. (Bluetooth or other wireless earpieces emit low power radiation to the phone.)

• Use landlines. (Cordless landline phones transmit electromagnetic radiation to their base.)

• Use the speaker phone option to distance the phone from your head.

• Keep your cell phone off most of the time. Let people leave messages, then call them back from a landline.

• Limit use in rural areas, while driving, in elevators and in steel buildings. (All these conditions boost the phone's power while it tries to maintain connection with towers.)

• Restrict phone use in the young. If there is a problem, some evidence suggests that developing brains may be more vulnerable, even through the teens and into the 20s.

Cell phone-cancer link remains unclear, but some scientists urge caution 12/20/09 [Last modified: Monday, December 21, 2009 3:42pm]
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