Do smartphones cause cancer? Whether you call them mobile phones or cell phones, the portable hand-held phone has revolutionized communication. Smartphones go way beyond that with added functionality. The humble phone has become a must have tool for work, entertainment, productivity, fitness, you name it! But are there health risks to our addiction to smartphones?
For the sake of clarity I will use the terms mobile phone and cell phones interchangeably. Smartphones are cell phones with added functionality such as cameras, internet access, storage & multiple apps.
Mobile phone use has been steadily on the increase since the late 1980’s. It is estimated that over 2.6 billion of us have smartphones. That’s around 35% of the human race. And that percentage is growing steadily. By 2020 it is estimated to grow to 79% !
But there may be a dark side to the phenomenal growth in smartphone use. In 1993 David Reynard sued mobile phone manufacturer NEC and the network provider GTE Mobilnet over the death of his wife at the age of 34. He claimed that radiation from her cell phone either caused or accelerated the growth of a brain tumour that led to her untimely death.
Since then there have been various studies on the possibility of a link between cell phone radiation and tumour formation. It is generally accepted in scientific circles that the radiation is not intense enough to cause DNA damage that may lead to cancer. While the majority of studies have failed to find an association, as always, some studies show different results. Recently two new studies made the news. One garnered more headlines than the other.
Do Smartphones Cause Cancer? YES!!!
In a study that Time magazine calls ‘important’, the U.S. National Institutes of Health reported that cell phone radiation causes brain and heart tumours in rats. The study was part of the National Toxicology Program. It exposed rats and mice to non-ionizing radiation over the course of two years. This paper reported that there were slightly higher incidences of brain and heart tumours in the male rats, but not in the female. The results of the experiment on mice is still ongoing.
As a smartphone-addicted man, that sends shivers up my spine!
Several objections were made to the findings of this study, however. Specifically:
The rats were exposed to radiation levels at the upper most limit or in excess of what smartphones can emit. All of the rats’ bodies were exposed to this radiation for several 10 minute periods for a total of nine hours. No current smartphone battery could last nine hours of maximum usage. Also radiation levels for wifi, 3G and 4G are lower than for 2G, which the radiation levels in this study most closely resembles.
Mobile phone use has changed. Rather than holding a phone to our ear, Smartphones are typically used away from the face. This reduces the amount of radiation that we’re exposed to.
There’s a big question mark over the rats in the control group. None of them developed similar cancers. Typically the types of cancers reported develop in old age, but the rats in the control group did not live as long as the rats exposed to the radiation. The reason for this is unclear. But it is a big deal as the researchers are not comparing like with like. Old age is the biggest factor in cancer in rats and humans. If we can’t compare the number of cancers that arose naturally in old rats, then we can’t know if the incidences in those exposed to radiation is significant. The results of this research could just as easily have been “Cell phone radiation makes you live longer!” (Which is unlikely.)
The report is not published on a peer-reviewed journal. It was reviewed, but not by an anonymous panel. Instead the researchers selected three reviewers themselves and published on a pre-publication website. In fact, the chosen reviewers were largely critical of the study.
The study is not complete. No details of the mice experiments are available.
Rats are not humans.
So despite the apocalyptic headlines, thankfully the research leaves a lot to be desired.
Do Smartphones Cause Cancer? No.
Another study looked at brain tumours rates of the Australian public in the last thirty years. As the use of cell phones grew exponentially over that time, the researchers reasoned that any increase in cancers should show up. Fortunately, this research found no increase in brain cancer. Well, pretty much. One age group, 70 – 84, did see an increase in brain tumours but this trend started in 1982, five years before cell phones were available in Australia.The researches think that these higher numbers were due to better methods for detecting cancer. No increase was found for any other age group despite cell phone usage jumping to 94% of the population in 2014.
“We found no increase in brain cancer incidence compatible with the steep increase in mobile phone use” – Chapman et al, 2016
Of course this study also had its critics. Dr. Lennart Hardell of the University Hospital Orebo in Sweden observed that the study does not look at brain cancers in specific regions of the brain. Instead it looked at all brain cancer incidences, no matter where the tumours occurred. Also he notes that mobile phone use has increased dramatically with the introduction of smartphones. The authors point out that the data did not show personal phone use.
Honestly? I don’t know. But, I’d prefer to lend more weight to a large study of humans over a long time than to a study of rats that got criticisms from its own chosen reviewers. The Australian study is not alone, a previous study of the Danish population also found no correlation between mobile phones and cancer. The combined population of Denmark & Australia at the times of the studies was nearly 27 million. That’s a big enough sample to notice if cancer rates were rising. Of course, like Dr. Hardell points out, specific types of cancer may be increasing but that doesn’t explain why other types would decrease in line.
Radiation levels are falling in smartphones, and we tend to use them further from our faces than we used to. While we are using smartphones more, this is for activities other than making phone calls. Logically the higher and closer the radiation source is to our head the higher the risk of smartphones causing cancer.
So, while the data are not totally conclusive either way, it’s probably not worth stressing over.
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