What are the findings from experimental studies?

In 2011, two small studies were published that examined brain glucose metabolism in people after they had used cell phones. The results were inconsistent; whereas one study showed increased glucose metabolism in the region of the brain close to the antenna compared with tissues on the opposite side of the brain,26 the other study27 found reduced glucose metabolism on the side of the brain where the phone was used.

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The authors of these studies noted that the results were preliminary and that possible health outcomes from changes in glucose metabolism in humans were unknown. Such inconsistent findings are not uncommon in experimental studies of the biological effects of radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation in people.4 Some factors that can contribute to inconsistencies across such studies include assumptions used to estimate doses, failure to consider temperature effects, and lack of blinding of investigators to exposure status.

Another study investigated the flow of blood in the brain of people exposed to the radiofrequency radiation from cell phones and found no evidence of an effect on blood flow in the brain.28

Early studies involving laboratory animals showed no evidence that radiofrequency radiation increased cancer risk or enhanced the cancer-causing effects of known chemical carcinogens.29–32

Because of inconsistent findings from epidemiologic studies in humans and the lack of clear data from previous experimental studies in animals, in 1999 the Food and Drug Administration nominated radiofrequency radiation exposure associated with cell phone exposures for study in animal models by the U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP), an interagency program that coordinates toxicology research and testing across the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and is headquartered at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, part of NIH.

The NTP studied radiofrequency radiation (2G and 3G frequencies) in rats and mice.33,34 This large project was conducted in highly specialized labs that specified and controlled sources of radiation and measured their effects. The rodents experienced whole-body exposures of 3, 6, or 9 watts per kilogram of body weight for 5 or 7 days per week for 18 hours per day in cycles of 10 minutes on, 10 minutes off. A research overview of the rodent studies, with links to the peer-review summary, is available on NTP website. The primary outcomes observed were a small number of cancers of Schwann cells in the heart and non-cancerous changes (hyperplasia) in the same tissues for male rats, but not female rats, nor in mice overall.

These experimental findings raise new questions as to the potential for radiofrequency radiation to result in cellular changes and offer potential avenues for further laboratory studies. Cancers in the heart are extremely rare in humans, where the primary outcomes of potential concern with respect to radiofrequency radiation exposure from cell phones are tumors in the brain and central nervous system. Schwann cells of the heart in rodents are similar to the kind of cells in humans that give rise to acoustic neuromas (also known as vestibularschwannomas), which some studies have suggested are increased in people who reported the heaviest use of cell phones. The NTP has stated that they will continue to study this exposure in animal models to further advance our understanding of the biological underpinnings of the effects reported above.

Another animal study, in which rats were exposed 7 days per week for 19 hours per day to radiofrequency radiation at 0.001, 0.03, and 0.1 watts per kilogram of body weight was reported by investigators at the Italian Ramazzini Institute.35 Among the rats with the highest exposure levels, the researchers noted an increase in heart schwannomas in male rats and non-malignant Schwann cell growth in the heart in male and female rats. However, key details necessary for interpretation of the results were missing: exposure methods, other standard operating procedures, and nutritional/feeding aspects. The gaps in the report from the study raise questions that have not been resolved.

Why are the findings from different studies of cell phone use and cancer risk inconsistent?

A few studies have shown some evidence of statistical association of cell phone use and brain tumor risks in humans, but most studies have found no association. Reasons for these discrepancies include the following:

Recall bias, which can occur when data about prior habits and exposures are collected from study participants using questionnaires administered after diagnosis of a disease in some of the participants. It is possible that study participants who have brain tumors may remember their cell phone use differently from individuals without brain tumors. Many epidemiologic studies of cell phone use and brain cancer risk lack verifiable data about the total amount of cell phone use over time. In addition, people who develop a brain tumor may have a tendency to recall cell phone use mostly on the same side of the head where their tumor was found, regardless of whether they actually used their phone on that side of the head a lot or only a little.

Inaccurate reporting, which can happen when people say that something has happened more or less often than it actually did. People may not remember how much they used cell phones in a given time period.

Morbidity and mortality among study participants who have brain cancer. Gliomas are particularly difficult to study, for example, because of their high death rate and the short survival of people who develop these tumors. Patients who survive initial treatment are often impaired, which may affect their responses to questions. Furthermore, for people who have died, next-of-kin are often less familiar with the cell phone use patterns of their deceased family member and may not accurately describe their patterns of use to an interviewer.

Participation bias, which can happen when people who are diagnosed with brain tumors are more likely than healthy people (known as controls) to enroll in a research study. Also, controls who did not or rarely used cell phones were less likely to participate in the Interphone study than controls who used cell phones regularly. For example, the Interphone study reported participation rates of 78% for meningioma patients (range among the individual studies 56–92%), 64% for glioma patients (range 36–92%), and 53% for control subjects (range 42–74%).6

Changing technology and methods of use. Older studies evaluated radiofrequency radiation exposure from analog cell phones. Today, cell phones use digital technology, which operates at a different frequency and a lower power level than analog phones. Digital cell phones have been in use for more than two decades in the United States, and cellular technology continues to change.3 Texting and other applications, for example, are common uses of cell phones that do not require bringing the phone close to the head. Furthermore, the use of hands-free technology, such as wired and wireless headsets, is increasing and may reduce exposure by distancing the phone from the body.36,37