Cell Phones and Cancer Risk (Fact Sheet)

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Cell Phones and Cancer Risk (Fact Sheet)
Cell Phones and Cancer Risk (Fact Sheet)

Why is there concern that cell phones may cause cancer or other health problems?

There are three main reasons why people are concerned that cell phones (also known as “wireless” or “mobile” telephones) might have the potential to cause certain types of cancer or other health problems:

• Cell phones emit radiofrequency energy (radio waves), a form of non-ionizing radiation. Tissues nearest to where the phone is held can absorb this energy.

• The number of cell phone users has increased rapidly. As of 2010, there were more than 303 million subscribers to cell phone service in the United States, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. This is a nearly threefold increase from the 110 million users in 2000. Globally, the number of cell phone subscriptions is estimated by the International Telecommunications Union to be 5 billion.

• Over time, the number of cell phone calls per day, the length of each call, and the amount of time people use cell phones have increased. Cell phone technology has also undergone substantial changes.

What is radiofrequency energy and how does it affect the body?

Radiofrequency energy is a form of electromagnetic radiation. Electromagnetic radiation can be categorized into two types: ionizing (e.g., x-rays, radon, and cosmic rays) and non-ionizing (e.g., radiofrequency and extremely low-frequency or power frequency).

Exposure to ionizing radiation, such as from radiation therapy, is known to increase the risk of cancer. However, although many studies have examined the potential health effects of non-ionizing radiation from radar, microwave ovens, and other sources, there is currently no consistent evidence that non-ionizing radiation increases cancer risk (1).

The only known biological effect of radiofrequency energy is heating. The ability of microwave ovens to heat food is one example of this effect of radiofrequency energy. Radiofrequency exposure from cell phone use does cause heating; however, it is not sufficient to measurably increase body temperature.

A recent study showed that when people used a cell phone for 50 minutes, brain tissues on the same side of the head as the phone's antenna metabolized more glucose than did tissues on the opposite side of the brain (2). The researchers noted that the results are preliminary, and possible health outcomes from this increase in glucose metabolism are still unknown.

How is radiofrequency energy exposure measured in epidemiologic studies?

Levels of radiofrequency exposure are indirectly estimated using information from interviews or questionnaires. These measures include the following:

  • How “regularly” study participants use cell phones (the minimum number of calls per week or month)
  • The age and the year when study participants first used a cell phone and the age and the year of last use (allows calculation of the duration of use and time since the start of use)
  • The average number of cell phone calls per day, week, or month (frequency)
  • The average length of a typical cell phone call
  • The total hours of lifetime use, calculated from the length of typical call times, the frequency of use, and the duration of use

What has research shown about the possible cancer-causing effects of radiofrequency energy?

Although there have been some concerns that radiofrequency energy from cell phones held closely to the head may affect the brain and other tissues, to date there is no evidence from studies of cells, animals, or humans that radiofrequency energy can cause cancer.

It is generally accepted that damage to DNA is necessary for cancer to develop. However, radiofrequency energy, unlike ionizing radiation, does not cause DNA damage in cells, and it has not been found to cause cancer in animals or to enhance the cancer-causing effects of known chemical carcinogens in animals (3–5).

Researchers have carried out several types of epidemiologic studies to investigate the possibility of a relationship between cell phone use and the risk of malignant (cancerous) brain tumors, such as gliomas, as well as benign (noncancerous) tumors, such as acoustic neuromas (tumors in the cells of the nerve responsible for hearing), most meningiomas (tumors in the meninges, membranes that cover and protect the brain and spinal cord), and parotid gland tumors (tumors in the salivary glands) (6).

In one type of study, called a case-control study, cell phone use is compared between people with these types of tumors and people without them. In another type of study, called a cohort study, a large group of people is followed over time and the rate of these tumors in people who did and didn't use cell phones is compared. Cancer incidence data can also be analyzed over time to see if the rates of cancer changed in large populations during the time that cell phone use increased dramatically. The results of these studies have generally not provided clear evidence of a relationship between cell phone use and cancer, but there have been some statistically significant findings in certain subgroups of people.

Findings from specific research studies are summarized below:

• The Interphone Study, conducted by a consortium of researchers from 13 countries, is the largest health-related case-control study of use of cell phones and head and neck tumors. Most published analyses from this study have shown no statistically significant increases in brain or central nervous system cancers related to higher amounts of cell phone use. One recent analysis showed a statistically significant, albeit modest, increase in the risk of glioma among the small proportion of study participants who spent the most total time on cell phone calls. However, the researchers considered this finding inconclusive because they felt that the amount of use reported by some respondents was unlikely and because the participants who reported lower levels of use appeared to have a slightly reduced risk of brain cancer compared with people who did not use cell phones regularly (7–9). Another recent study from the group found no relationship between brain tumor locations and regions of the brain that were exposed to the highest level of radiofrequency energy from cell phones (10).

• A cohort study in Denmark linked billing information from more than 358,000 cell phone subscribers with brain tumor incidence data from the Danish Cancer Registry. The analyses found no association between cell phone use and the incidence of glioma, meningioma, or acoustic neuroma, even among people who had been cell phone subscribers for 13 or more years (11–13).

• The prospective Million Women Study in the United Kingdom found that self-reported cell phone use was not associated with an increased risk of glioma, meningioma, or non-central nervous system tumors. The researchers did find that the use of cell phones for more than 5 years was associated with an increased risk of acoustic neuroma, and that the risk of acoustic neuroma increased with increasing duration of cell phone use (14). However, the incidence of these tumors among men and women in the United Kingdom did not increase during 1998 to 2008, even though cell phone use increased dramatically over that decade (14).

• An early case-control study in the United States was unable to demonstrate a relationship between cell phone use and glioma or meningioma (15).

• Some case-control studies in Sweden found statistically significant trends of increasing brain cancer risk for the total amount of cell phone use and the years of use among people who began using cell phones before age 20 (16). However, another large, case-control study in Sweden did not find an increased risk of brain cancer among people between the ages of 20 and 69 (17). In addition, the international CEFALO study, which compared children who were diagnosed with brain cancer between ages 7 and 19 with similar children who were not, found no relationship between their cell phone use and risk for brain cancer (18).

• NCI's Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program, which tracks cancer incidence in the United States over time, found no increase in the incidence of brain or other central nervous system cancers between 1987 and 2007, despite the dramatic increase in cell phone use in this country during that time (19, 20). Similarly, incidence data from Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden for the period 1974–2008 revealed no increase in age-adjusted incidence of brain tumors (21, 22). A 2012 study by NCI researchers, which compared observed glioma incidence rates in SEER with projected rates based on risks observed in the Interphone study (8), found that the projected rates were consistent with observed U.S. rates. The researchers also compared the SEER rates with projected rates based on a Swedish study published in 2011 (16). They determined that the projected rates were at least 40 percent higher than, and incompatible with, the actual U.S. rates.

• Studies of workers exposed to radiofrequency energy have shown no evidence of increased risk of brain tumors among U.S. Navy electronics technicians, aviation technicians, or fire control technicians, those working in an electromagnetic pulse test program, plastic-ware workers, cellular phone manufacturing workers, or Navy personnel with a high probability of exposure to radar (6). 

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