Mobile Phone Use and Cancer: Searching for Answers

The HWN Team | Heads or Tails
Mobile Phone Use and Cancer: Searching for Answers

image by: Karolina Grabowska

It is perhaps the most controversial scientific question of the last two decades. Does mobile phone use cause cancer?

We are constantly being bombarded by EMF (electromagnetic fields} from the notorious power lines and microwave towers to the wireless router and the latest EMF emitter, smart meters. Yet we persist in carrying EMF with us wherever we go - the ubiquitous cell phone.

There are two types of EMF, namely (1) radiofrequency radiation (RF) which comes from wireless devices such as cell and cordless phones, base stations, antennas, and broadcast transmission towers and (2) extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields (ELF) which come from electronic appliances and power lines.

Most people would agree that EMF is hazardous to your health, especially when it comes to microwaves and power lines. But, what about the mobile phone?

Several independent studies have been performed but most of the research on RF exposure was conducted in the framework of the INTERPHONE study, a multi-country series of case-controlled studies. The studies looked at the associations between mobile phone use and the incidence of brain tumors such as glioma, meningioma, acoustic neuroma and cancer of the parotid gland.1

Interphone was funded and supported by several international and governmental agencies as well as industry groups like the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA) and the Mobile Manufacturers Forum (MMF). The countries involved were Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the UK. Uhmmm...Where's the United States?

You would think that with all the research studies performed on this topic this question would have answered by now. But the answer is not a simple yes or no.

Those who support the contention that there is no sufficient scientific evidence to prove that prolonged RF exposure from mobile phones can cause cancer are government entities, cancer organizations and of course the industry itself. Primarily because the majority of articles published during the last two decades report that there is no association between mobile phone use and increased cancer risk.

On the other hand, many consumer groups are wary of the results of the INTERPHONE studies because of the phone industry’s strong role in the funding. The involvement of GSMA and MMF is not unusual. Industry-funded research is quite common in biomedical science. Unfortunately, there have been recent controversies regarding “conflicts of interest” on the part of scientists who obtain funding from the pharmaceutical industry. These incidents sadly put a question mark on the integrity of many scientific studies that are valid and bona fide, regardless of sources of funding.

There are also groups and individuals who are convinced of the hazards of EMF. Contrary to popular belief that only lay people and consumer groups believe in the mobile phone-cancer link, many scientists are actually taking a second look at the evidence at hand. Let’s take a look at the two sides of the coin.

Those who say “no”

According to the Institute of Cancer Epidemiology the largest published study so far on the health effects of mobile phone use involving 420,000 Danish mobile phone users did not identify an increased risk for cancer. And their followup study released in 2011 continues to confirm the finding that "there were no increased risks of tumours of the central nervous system, providing little evidence for a causal association".3,4

The U.S. National Cancer Institute says "studies thus far have not shown a consistent link between cell phone use and cancers of the brain, nerves, or other tissues of the head or neck." However, "more research is needed because cell phone technology and how people use cell phones have been changing rapidly". 5

The World Health Organization (WHO) says that “current scientific evidence indicates that exposure to RF fields, such as those emitted by mobile phones and their base stations, is unlikely to induce or promote cancers.”6

Cancer Research UK says that radiation coming from phone handsets and base stations are too low to cause damage to human DNA and cause cancer.7

In laboratory studies involving rats and mice (in vivo studies), exposure to wireless communication signals did not significantly increase the incidence of tumors and in vitro studies showed no induction of cell transformation by low-level RF radiation.8

The French INTERPHONE study did not find significant increased risk for meningioma or neuroma in mobile phone users. Neither did the German and the British studies.10

In a large U.S. study  involving 12,000 participants, no overall increased risk for brain tumors were found about mobile phone users.11

Those who say “yes”

An international working group of scientists formed the BioInitiative Working Group and prepared a report that “raises serious concerns about the safety of existing public limits that regulate how much EMF is allowable from power lines, cell phones, and many other sources of EMF exposure in daily life.”2

The BioInitiative Report looked at evidence from published and unpublished data on the links between EMF exposure and immune disorders, stress response, neurological and behavioural problems and even studies on childhood cancers (e.g. leukaemia) and breast cancer. One of their conclusions is that “there is little doubt that exposure to ELF causes childhood leukemia.”

In addition, the report also found that the current “safety” standards for exposure to EMF from cell phones and other handsets are not safe at all. As supporting evidence, they cited studies reporting long-term brain tumor and acoustic neuroma risks.

The BioInitaive Report also found ELF exposure to be a risk factor for breast cancer and possibly other cancers as well. The Working Group is clearly demanding a re-examination of the safety standards of the telecommunications industry. However, the report does not clearly define the group’s stand about RF and cancer.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies ELF as a possible human carcinogen.9

In the case of RF, Swedish researchers led by L. Hardell found increased risk for brain tumors among 2,162 users of cordless handsets and cellular phones. These researchers were the only ones who found these associations in analysing data from the INTERPHONE studies. They also looked at associations with risks for other kinds of cancer such as testicular cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma with inconclusive results.12

Another group of Swedish researchers looked at the incidence of acoustic neuroma in a group of 752 people. Their findings did not show a link between short-term mobile phone use and increased risk for acoustic neuroma. However, a link was observed when taking long-term phone use (e.g. at least 10 years) into consideration.13

In 2000, a class action suit was filed against Verizon, Motorola and other wireless companies led by former employees who developed brain tumors. So far, no damages have been awarded.14

In early 2008, Israeli researchers found a “positive dose-response trend” between cell phone use and parotid gland tumors in a study that looked at 1,266 individuals.15

The head of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, Dr. Ronald Herberman issued a memo in July 2008 warning the institute’s staff against their children’s use of mobile phone. He based his concerns on unpublished data and the fact that “it takes too long to get answers from science…[people] should take action now.”16

A study by Finnish researchers published in 2008 showed that RF-EMF can alter protein expression in human skin cells. This is the first study to report that RF-EMF can cause changes at the molecular level.17

This was followed by another study providing "evidence that the human brain is sensitive to the effects of RF-EMFs from acute cell phone exposures".18

And, although hidden in the details the landmark Danish followup study of 2011 suggests that male mobile phone users, if they get brain cancer, may have an increased risk of glioma, the more virulent type of brain cancer.

Why a clear-cut answer remains elusive

  • Sample size. Studies with small sample sizes lack statistical power. Many studies published have too small sample sizes to have convincing results.
  • Study designs. Study designs are difficult to standardize, making pooling of study results also difficult.
  • Data collection. Data on exposure is mostly based on self-reports of phone use. Unfortunately, these recalls are frequently inaccurate. It has been observed, for example, that people tend to underestimate the number of calls but overestimate the duration of calls they make.
  • Exposure. It is extremely difficult to find “unexposed” study participants which can be used as study controls. One of the main reasons is because there are many sources of EMF around us. Radiation may come from cellular phones, hand-held phones, cordless handsets, base stations, and telecom masts. Other household appliances including microwave ovens also emit radiation.
  • Time. Studying the health effects of phone use takes time. Prospective studies are still more reliable that retrospective studies but they take longer to complete. Although the current landmark Danish study suggests that there is no definite link between mobile phone use and cancer, critics are quick to say that cancer takes at least 10 years to develop and that their study cohort needs to continue to be followed. As an example a Swedish study found an increased risk of acoustic neuroma only after at least 10 years of phone use. Most short-term studies came up with negative results.
  • Lack of data. Most RF exposure data available are for adult phone users. Very limited RF exposure data is available for children. The hypothesis that children and adolescents as developing organisms with developing organs are especially vulnerable cannot be tested at this point in time.

So, what is the industry doing about it?

In cases such as this when there is “a high degree of scientific uncertainty”, the World Health Organization recommends following the policies of precautionary principle, prudent avoidance, and ALARA (As Low As Reasonably Achievable). These cautionary policies were released in March 2000. It’s been more than 10 years and the policies remain the same.19

Demands from consumer groups that phone makers install radiation blocking devices on their handsets remain unheeded. However, the recommended use of hands-free technology is a step in the right direction although it works more for road safety and does not really address the RF exposure issue.20,21

The Bottom Line

Let’s hope that science comes up with the answer soon. In the meantime, it’s up to us to make the decisions concerning mobile phone use for ourselves and our families.

Published October 15, 2008, updated May 25, 2012


  1. The Interphone Study, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, WHO, 3 October 2011
  2. The BioInitiative Report: A Rationale for a Biologically-based Public Exposure Standard for Electromagnetic Fields (ELF and RF)
  3. Schüz J, Cellular Telephone Use and Cancer Risk: Update of a Nationwide Danish Cohort, JNCI J Natl Cancer Inst (6 December 2006) 98 (23): 1707-1713
  4. Frei P, Use of mobile phones and risk of brain tumours: update of Danish cohort study, BMJ 2011; 343 doi: 10.1136/bmj.d6387 Published 20 October 2011
  5. Cell Phones and Cancer Risk, National Cancer Institute, NIH, October 24, 2011
  6. Electromagnetic fields and public health: mobile phones, WHO, June 2011
  7. Do mobile phones cause cancer? Cancer Research UK, July 25, 2008
  8. Hirose H, Mobile phone base station radiation does not affect neoplastic transformation in BALB/3T3 cells, Bioelectromagnetics. 2008 Jan;29(1):55-64
  9. IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans, The International Agency for Research on Cancer, Volume 80 (2002)
  10. Hours M, Cell Phones and Risk of brain and acoustic nerve tumours: the French INTERPHONE case-control study, Rev Epidemiol Sante Publique. 2007 Oct;55(5):321-32. Epub 2007 Sep 11
  11. Kan P, Cellular phone use and brain tumor: a meta-analysis, J Neurooncol. 2008 Jan;86(1):71-8. Epub 2007 Jul 10
  12. Hardell L, Pooled analysis of two case-control studies on use of cellular and cordless telephones and the risk for malignant brain tumours diagnosed in 1997-2003, Int Arch Occup Environ Health. 2006 Sep;79(8):630-9. Epub 2006 Mar 16
  13. Lönn S, Mobile Phone Use and the Risk of Acoustic Neuroma, Epidemiology: November 2004 - Volume 15 - Issue 6 - pp 653-659
  14. Chidi Jr. G, Class Action Suit Filed Against Cell-Phone Makers, PC World, Apr 20, 2001
  15. Sadetzki S, Cellular Phone Use and Risk of Benign and Malignant Parotid Gland Tumors—A Nationwide Case-Control Study, Am J Epidemiol. 2008 Feb 15;167(4):457-67. Epub 2007 Dec 6
  16. Cancer center director warns of cell phone risks, AP, 7/24/2008
  17. Karinen A, Mobile phone radiation might alter protein expression in human skin, BMC Genomics. 2008 Feb 11;9:77
  18. Volkow N, Effects of Cell Phone Radiofrequency Signal Exposure on Brain Glucose Metabolism, JAMA. 2011;305(8):808-813. doi:10.1001/jama.2011.186
  19. Electromagnetic Fields and Public Health Cautionary Policies, WHO, March 2000
  20. U.K. consumer group: Hands-free phone kits boost radiation exposure,, November 2, 2000
  21. Radio Frequency Safety, FCC, 4/20/11

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