02 Aug 2010: Report

Are Cell Phones Safe?
The Verdict is Still Out

While some studies have suggested that frequent use of cell phones causes increased risk of brain and mouth cancers, others have found no such links. But since cell phones are relatively new and brain cancers grow slowly, many experts are now recommending taking steps to reduce exposure.

by bruce stutz

Does your cell phone increase your risk of brain cancer? Does it affect your skin or your sperm viability? Is it safe for pregnant women or children? Should you keep it in your bag, on your belt, in your pants or shirt pocket? Should you use a hands-free headset? Are present cell phone safety standards strict enough?

You don’t know? You’re not alone.

With some 4 to 5 billion cell phones now in use worldwide and hundreds of studies seeking evidence of their health effects published in peer-reviewed journals over the last 10 years, there’s precious little scientific certainty over whether cell phones pose any danger to those using them. For nearly every study that reports an effect, another, just as carefully conducted, finds none. All of which leaves journalists, consumer advocates, regulatory agencies, politicians, industry spokespersons, and cell phone users able to choose and interpret the results they prefer, or ignore the ones they don’t.

Are Cell Phones Safe? Too Early to Tell
Getty Images
There are some 4 to 5 billion cell phones now in use worldwide.
Do you, for instance, cite the studies that report adverse effects on sperm viability and motility, due to exposure to cell phone radiation or the studies that showed no — or mixed — results?

Do you cite the 2001 study that found increased incidence of uveal melanoma (a cancer of the eye) among frequent cell phone users, or the 2009 study by the same authors that, in reassessing their data, found no increase?

Do you cite the Israeli study that found an association between salivary gland cancer and heavy use of cell phones or the Swedish study that found none?

Do you parse the data and report only those results that have found effects — no matter how small — without citing studies that found no effects? In its much-cited review of cell phone studies, the Environmental Working Group has done just that, reporting, for instance, that “a study from the University of California, Los Angeles, found a correlation between prenatal exposure to cell phone radiation and behavioral problems in children.” But the group left out the study’s very next sentence acknowledging that the association may be “noncausal and may be due to unmeasured confounding.”

The effects of cell phones have proven difficult to assess because they are relatively new, the way and the amount they’re used continues to evolve, and the problems that cell phones might cause are hard to detect. Brain cancers, for instance, are very rare cancers. They affect only some 18 out of every 100,000 people. But the fact that there’s been no recent increase in the numbers may be meaningless with regard to cell phone use since brain cancers are very slow-growing.

Cell phones produce “non-ionizing” radiation, which, unlike X- or gamma rays, doesn’t damage DNA by stripping away electrons from molecules in cell tissue. Radiofrequency energy does, however, produce heat and, at high enough levels, can damage cell tissue. This, in the late 1990s,
The question is whether safety standards are sufficient to protect against long-term exposure.
prompted the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) in Europe to set limits on cell phones’ Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) — the measure of the amount of radiofrequency energy a cell phone user absorbs — at, respectively, 1.6 and 2.0 watts per kilogram. The question remains, however, whether these standards are sufficient to protect against long-term exposures and whether the buildup of heat in cell tissues is more damaging where there’s less blood flow to dissipate it, such as the outer ear, brain, skin, or testes.

The exposure standard has been the subject of Congressional hearings. Consumer groups have warned that children may be more susceptible to radiofrequency heating effects than adults. U.S. Congressman Dennis Kucinich introduced a bill for a federal research program on the effects of cell phone radiation that also calls for a label warning users about potential links between long-term use and cancer.

Last month, San Francisco passed a “Cell Phone Right-to-Know” law that requires manufacturers to post in stores each cell phone’s Specific Absorption Rate. In response, CTIA-The Wireless Association, which represents the wireless communications industry, filed suit July 23 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco to block enforcement of the new law. It cites the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) statement that “the weight of scientific evidence has not linked cell phones with any health problems.”

So far, the National Cancer Institute stands by the FDA. And neither the FCC nor the ICNIRP has recommended any changes in their present standards until there’s clear scientific evidence to demonstrate they need changing.

That kind of clarity may be a long way off.

Take, for example, the findings released in May of INTERPHONE, the largest and longest study ever conducted on whether — and by how much — cell phone use increases the odds of developing brain cancer. Carried out by the International Agency for Research on Cancer — at a cost of some $25 million and nearly 10 years in the making — the study involved roughly two dozen scientists and research teams from around the world and some 10,000 patients and cell phone users from 13 countries. The study’s epic scope, however, only made its meager conclusions seem all the more unsatisfying.

“Overall, no increase in risk of glioma [a cancer of the cells that protects the brain’s neurons] or meningioma [tumors that develop in the tissue that surrounds the brain] was observed with use of mobile phones,” the study concluded. “The possible effects of long-term heavy use of mobile phones require further investigation.”

And yet even these modest claims proved contentious. The study scientists themselves recognized problems in the methodology: While they had good data on the participants’ tumor and cancer histories, they had very suspect
‘After 10 years of research, we do not have an answer whether mobile phone radiation causes brain cancer,’ says one expert.
data on their cell phone usage. Participants’ recall of how often and how much they talked on their cell phones, when checked against their actual cell phone records, in some cases proved very unreliable. The matching of patients with control subjects also turned out to be problematic. Should controls include only those who never used a cell phone and exclude those who’d used one only infrequently? While the distinction may seem insignificant, such selection biases can wreak statistical havoc. The analysis using the first group, for instance, resulted in the somewhat astonishing finding that regular users of cell phones had a reduced risk of developing glioma.

No one was surprised, therefore, that divisions appeared over interpreting the study’s results. These delayed its release for four years. The raw data, in fact, showed that “long-term heavy use” — that is, talking on a cell phone for 30 minutes a day for 10 years — increased the odds of developing glioma by 40 percent. The question was whether this result was subject to the same selection bias as that which strangely showed a reduced risk among regular users. The final decision was that the findings with regard to the “effects of long-term heavy use” were, while worth “further investigation,” too unreliable to conclude they represented a clear and irrefutable increased risk.

While the risk of any individual developing glioma would still be small, a 40 percent increase could still mean some thousands more new cases in the U.S. each year. And gliomas account for nearly half of all childhood tumors.

The question for the INTERPHONE scientists was whether this finding was real or the result of flawed data?

As Finnish researcher Dariusz Leszczynski of Helsinki’s STUK-Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, put it, the study’s combination of reliable and flawed information resulted in a “scientifically unreliable and non-informative result.”

“What it all means,” Leszczynski concludes, “is that after 10 years of research and millions of Euros used for it we are still in the starting point [his emphasis] and do not have the answer whether, or whether not, mobile phone radiation could cause brain cancer.”

Christopher Wild, director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, acknowledges that most of the study’s participants, even the heaviest users, were not frequent mobile phone users by today’s standards. The criteria for a “regular” user was someone who made from one call a week to 25 calls a day, but no one in the study talked for more than half an hour a day. On the other hand, the study doesn’t take into account that people now often text rather than talk, and many more use hands-free headsets.

Ten years of use may not be a legitimate time frame to establish any causal links to such slow-growing cancers. And if there is a risk, does it continue to increase beyond 10 years of usage, and by how much? This would especially be a concern for those who began using cell phones when they were children, as is now frequently the case.

New epidemiological studies now underway might prove more elucidating. They include COSMOS, a United Kingdom study that will follow for 20 to
Nearly everyone seems to agree that it’s worth reducing your exposure as best you can.
30 years some 350,000 cell phone users from the UK, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and The Netherlands, and that will use actual cell phone records for their database. Another study, MOBI-KIDS, is a European Union project in 13 countries that over five years will compare the cell phone usage of some 2000 young people, ages 10 to 24, with brain tumors to the same number of healthy controls.

Are there alternatives to epidemiological studies?

Studying animals exposed to cell phone radiation has proven difficult, especially when it comes to controlling doses of radiation which, in the case of cell phones, are small; the response of animal cells at low doses may not reflect the response of human cells.

Recent in vitro studies — that is, studies on cultured cell tissue — have focused on whether radiofrequency radiation might interfere with the DNA repair process and cause damaged DNA to accumulate. So far, some studies have found damage while others have not. With so much uncertainty as to what exactly causes the disruption of cell processes, it’s difficult to compare one study with another. The same uncertainty has been true regarding the few studies on sperm — of concern because many men tend to keep their cell phones in their front pants pockets.

Leszczynski and others point out that present SAR standards don’t necessarily take into account how cell phones are actually used. While our brain may be exposed to the allowable amount of radiofrequency radiation, our bodies and our skin may be getting more than the phone’s advertised dose of radiofrequency radiation. A hands-free device can reduce exposure to the head, but if you still keep your phone in your shirt pocket, your body’s still being exposed.

In the meantime, nearly everyone seems to agree that it’s worth putting the precautionary principle into play; that is, reduce your exposure as best you can. The radiofrequency radiation falls off quickly the farther your cell phone is from your body. Look for a cell phone with a low SAR. Don’t keep your cell phone in your pocket. Use a hands-free device. Text rather than talk. And while the cancer risks are unknown, the risks from using your cell phone while driving are pretty clear.

POSTED ON 02 Aug 2010 IN Business & Innovation Pollution & Health Pollution & Health Science & Technology North America North America 


While it may be true that "nearly everyone" believes precaution is needed, there is at least one important "everyone" that does not, and that is the cell phone industry and many of its consultants. I say that with some measure of confidence, because I have heard it directly from the horses' mouths at standard setting meetings with primarily industry and other RF user attendees: laughter at the idea of precaution, point blank statements about the ridiculousness of continuing the research. Of course, that is not the public face they present.

From my many years of watching the research and the politics, it is pretty clear to me that the industry has often been obstructionist re the progress of RF health research. Too often, once a researcher finds low level effects, they lose their funding, sometimes their jobs and reputations, and rarely can follow up on the results. If the results might cause a stir, the industry will fund its own scientist picks to try to "replicate" the results. Usually those scientists have never found effects before and also make adjustments in the protocol. Young researchers watch all this and decide to steer clear of such a controversial area. It's no way to build a secure career. I believe we would know much more about the bioffects of RF by now if unbiased science had been allowed to take its course.

Regarding the FDA, thus far, I have not been impressed with the rigor with which the FDA has investigated this issue. Even their web posting on Interphone was riddled with inconsistencies. My impression after some discussions is that they are heavily influenced by the industry, which then, in turn, points to the FDA as backing them up. I wish there were a little more independence there. The suggestions they have given to CTIA on handset antenna placement, and their inquiries to FCC on why they exempted some phones from having to operate within the FCC limits, have gone unanswered. I don't see our watchdog biting at their heels to get an answer either.

I appreciated your balanced reporting. There is however, a slight internal counterweight that is tipping the research results in a direction where it does not belong. Until that effect is removed, we will continue to be uncertain of the risks.

Posted by M. Glaser on 03 Aug 2010

More information about the biological effects of non-ionizing radiation from wireless technology is coming out every day.

Enough is not being done by cities, counties, states and the federal government to protect us from the potentially devastating health and environmental effects. Through the 1996 telecommunications act the telecoms are shielded from liability and oversight. Initially cell phones were released with no pre-market safety testing despite the fact the government and the military have known for over 50 years that radio frequency is harmful to all biological systems (inthesenewtimes dot com/2009/05/02/6458/.). Health studies were suppressed and the 4 trillion dollar a year industry was given what amounts to a license to kill.

On it's face, the 1996 telecommunications act is unconstitutional and a cover-up. Within the fine print city governments are not allowed to consider "environmental" effects from cell towers. They should anyway. It is the moral and legal obligation of our government to protect our health and welfare? Or is it? When did this become an obsolete concept? A cell tower is a microwave weapon capable of causing cancer, genetic damage & other biological problems. Bees, bats, humans, plants and trees are all affected by RF & EMF. Communities fight to keep cell towers away from schools yet they allow the school boards to install wi fi in all of our schools thereby irradiating our kids for 6-7 hours each day. Kids go home and the genetic assault continues with DECT portable phones, cell phones, wi fi and Wii's. A tsunami of cancers and early alzheimer's await our kids. Young people under the age of 20 are 420% more at risk of forming brain tumors (Swedish study, Dr. Lennart Hardell) because of their soft skulls, brain size and cell turn over time. Instead of teaching "safer" cell phone use and the dangers of wireless technology our schools mindlessly rush to wireless bending to industry pressure rather than informed decision making. We teach about alcohol, tobacco, drugs and safe sex but not about "safer" cell phone use. We are in a wireless trance, scientists are panicking while young brains, ovaries and sperm burns.

Posted by dm on 03 Aug 2010

A long time ago, I made the personal choice not to use a cell phone, I did not like the way it made me feel. I don't even like wearing head phones. That was fine my personal choice.

But where was my choice went it came to this Microwave Auditory Effect with the internal sound (HUM) and the aggravation on my Central Nervous System. Foster and Repacholi say it's an trivial effect -

It's not trivial, it's disorienting, because it's internal at the cochlea, it's incessant these days.
I wonder whos bright idea it was to call it RF Tinnitus, when did tinnitus ever stimulate the CNS.

How quickly could Fibromyalgia be attributed to far field spurious effects from the pulses of electromagnetics. I wish you all could hear the density of the packets of data, thats gong thru the air. I'm sure you would be amazed.

Posted by Patricia Green on 07 Aug 2010

There is a long debate on usage of cell phone and health risk.
In an interesting article, How Safe are Cell Phones?
Research indicates long-term cell phone use may pose health risks, About.com Guide
Larry West wrote:
“Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer?
Wireless cell phones transmit signals via radio frequency (RF), the same kind of low-frequency radiation used in microwave ovens and AM/FM radios. Scientists have known for years that large doses of high-frequency radiation—the kind used in X-rays—causes cancer, but less is understood about the risks of low-frequency radiation.
Studies on the health risks of cell-phone use have produced mixed results, but scientists and medical experts warn that people should not assume no risk exists. Cell phones have been widely available for only the past 10 years or so, but tumors may take twice that long to develop.
Because cell phones haven’t been around very long, scientists haven’t been able to assess the effects of long-term cell-phone use, or to study the effects of low-frequency radiation on growing children. Most studies have focused on people who have been using cell phones for three to five years, but some studies have indicated that using a cell phone an hour a day for 10 years or more can significantly increase the risk of developing a rare brain tumor.
What Makes Cell Phones Potentially Dangerous?

Most RF from cell phones comes from the antenna, which sends signals to the nearest base station. The farther the cell phone is from the nearest base station, the more radiation it requires to send the signal and make the connection. As a result, scientists theorize that the health risks from cell-phone radiation would be greater for people who live and work where base stations are farther away or fewer in number—and research is beginning to support that theory.
In December 2007, Israeli researchers reported in the American Journal of Epidemiology that long-term cell-phone users who live in rural areas face a "consistently elevated risk" of developing tumors in the parotid gland compared with users who live in urban or suburban locations. The parotid gland is a salivary gland located just below a person’s ear.
And in January 2008, the French Health Ministry issued a warning against excessive cell phone use, especially by children, despite the lack of conclusive scientific evidence linking cell-phone use with cancer or other serious health effects. In a public statement, the ministry said: "As the hypothesis of a risk cannot be entirely excluded, precaution is justified."

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

Posted by Dr.a.Jagadeesh on 09 Sep 2010

One hint to help clarifying the debate:

If we draw a parrallel with the tobacco industry, it is clear that before judging any kind of scientific study for a general medical evaluation of the risks, the financing, connection of the publication authors should be assessed. If any connection is found between the authors and microwave or cellphone industry, the study should end up immediately in the trash bin without even reading the title. I am sure that at least half of the studies used for the diverse assesment cited in the article are just mere propaganda from the start.

Science, even without the pressure of industry is already filled with small and big frauds to boost ones career. There are so many example that one can say it is now more a rule than an exception.

Then it is clear that to issue warnings, one cannot wait for clear trend in hospital records that will take decades, too late!

In that sense those studies on cancer are useless and authorities know that. They are made to delay things. Instead of focusing on human cancer rather start to look for effects in vitro, to see if anything reproducible is found. What say independent studies on that matter ? These studies can be replicated more or less fast and i thought there was a german studie that concluded already some year ago on the presence of extensive and preoccupying damage to the DNA material. So let's focus on these results for now, the rest is expected to give absolutely no trend (except may be some trends in psychatric symptoms, and people have seen a surge in sweden since 1997, when mobile phone use exploded... need to be investigated).

Obviously an independent study should not even be made by governement and official organisation, which are actually also financed by industry (no job, no tax, no chance to get elected).

Posted by kervennic on 24 Sep 2010

During the iPhone antenna brouhaha, some reports came out how many cell phones had
similar instructions to the iPhone; For full signal, don't hold it with your hand on the antenna
(where ever it is, visible or not) and hold the phone off your ear by a number of millimeters.
Wait, don't put it on your ear like a regular phone? Yep. The result of holding it off your skull
by about an inch is that you reduce the radiation to your head considerably. Using a wired headset/mic eliminates it entirely.

Use a headset!

Posted by Mike on 05 Oct 2010

google Sandaura. There are two important videos we published exposing the noise pollution caused by the wireless Wi-Fi and 802.11 signals.

We have forensic audio evidence to prove this noise is in our air everywhere. These frequencies are effecting the habitats of our wildlife. This noise whether you can hear it or not is effecting everyone's brainwaves!!!!

We have been stonewalled by our State and Utilities for over 3 years. We have presented compelling evidence of power quality issues, a witness of list people who can hear the pollution
and the audio evidence that identifies a 250Hz narrowband that is modulated pulse. It is buzzing, humming constantly. Even during a power outage it is present. There is an infrasound of thumping and thudding that is constant too.

Posted by sandaura on 16 Nov 2010


Thoughtful piece, but I'd disagree about the value of a low-SAR phone. My understanding is that the SAR rating is the maximum rating of the phone. In most urban areas, the phone is not pumping out power at its maximum, so the SAR rating is misleading.

In fact, if you carry a cell phone with you for emergency purposes (as I do on remote bike rides) you might want to consider using a phone with a high SAR value, which is more likely find a remote tower.

In any case, texting or using a headset vastly reduces your exposure regardless of the phone's SAR. But, as you mention, don't use a headset with your phone in your pocket. When signal strength is poor, hold the phone by its base, with the back pointing toward where you think the tower might be located.

Posted by Michael Barnes on 18 Jan 2011

Like any kind of radiation I am sure that the radiation that is produced by cell phone usage is harmful. There are many different types of cell phones available today and technology is continuously changing. There needs to be a better way to asses this situation. The use of too many uncontrolled variable will greatly hinder any study that is performed. If we really want to know the answer to this question I believe a long term study needs to be performed with a very tight control over the variables. I agree that the best thing we can do at this time is to take all of the necessary precautions. Use headsets and try to keep the phone at a distance. It seems as if we are at the very beginning stages of answering this question and before we find a definite answer we will need to perform many more studies over an extended period of time.

Posted by Netz19 on 20 Apr 2012

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Bruce Stutz writes on science, nature, and the environment. A former editor-in-chief of Natural History, he is a contributing editor to OnEarth. He has written for the New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post, Discover and Audubon. He is the author of Natural Lives, Modern Times and Chasing Spring, An American Journey Through a Changing Season. In earlier articles for Yale Environment 360, Stutz wrote about restrictions placed on research into GM crops and the role adaptation will play in any climate change plan.



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