That brings us back to the main question here: Do cellphones cause tumors? We chose to focus this story on cancer risk, since it seems like the most common health concern people have about cellphones. But before we get to the answers, we need to take another (brief) detour to explain how this science has been done with human subjects. To do that, we need to zoom in on a nerdy subject: research methods.
The World Health Organization states that "A large number of studies have been performed over the last two decades to assess whether mobile phones pose a potential health risk. To date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use." In a 2018 statement, the FDA said that "the current safety limits are set to include a 50-fold safety margin from observed effects of radiofrequency energy exposure".
In March, however, a peer-review panel of 11 experts from industry and academia voted to advise the agency that it should raise the confidence level from “equivocal evidence” to “some evidence” of a link between cellphone radiation and brain tumors in male rats. (The female rats did not show evidence of a link between the radiation and such tumors.) Two panel members, Lydia Andrews-Jones of Allergan and Susan Felter of Procter & Gamble, proposed the risk upgrade.
I also searched around to see if cell phone radiation was anything to worry about anyway. I turned up enough information from a lot of different credible sources to convince me it was worth protecting against the possible damaging effects of this radiation. IF there is no real health impact, then having a protective device would be overkill, but I figured better overkill than discover in time people started developing problems as a result of heavy cell phone use.
The Ministry of Health Medical Administration circular (from 2002) addressed to hospital Directors, states that use of mobile phones and wireless handheld transceivers (walkie talkie) in the hospital, must on the one hand guarantee the patient’s wellbeing and safety, and on the other hand, allow the staff, the patients and their families to enjoy the service benefits. This circular outlines the areas where use of mobile phones is strictly forbidden and areas where use is permitted (while keeping an appropriate safety distance from areas where life-supporting equipment or systems are operated).
EWG also reviewed data in the FCC filings on tests of battery life during a continuous call, measured on an iPhone 4 without a case and on the same phone with an Incipio Le Deux case. This case was chosen because it contains metallic parts (a stainless steel back plate). The presence of metallic components influences the phone’s radiation properties, as the FCC acknowledges (FCC 2001; FCC 2014). Under the test conditions with constant signal strength, an iPhone 4 without a case had 85 percent of battery capacity after a one-hour call and 70 percent after two hours. When the test was repeated with the Incipio Le Deux case, the phone had only 65 percent of battery capacity after a one-hour call and only 10 percent after two hours (Pong 2012).
The following is an excerpt of a typical conclusion published in a scientific journal about the links between EMFs, cell phones and health: "Epidemiologic research shows a low degree of association, inconsistency and missing dose-effect relations. A biologic mechanism of action is still debatable. No harm to human health has been shown. Conclusion: There is no scientific basis as to the harmful effects of EMFs on human health."
The 13-country INTERPHONE study, the largest case-control study done to date, looked at cell phone use among more than 5,000 people who developed brain tumors (gliomas or meningiomas) and a similar group of people without tumors. Overall, the study found no link between brain tumor risk and the frequency of calls, longer call time, or cell phone use for 10 or more years. There was a suggestion of a possible increased risk of glioma, and a smaller suggestion of an increased risk of meningioma, in the 10% of people who used their cell phones the most. But this finding was hard to interpret because some people in the study reported implausibly high cell phone use, as well as other issues. The researchers noted that the shortcomings of the study prevented them from drawing any firm conclusions, and that more research was needed.
Another thing that many people fail to realize is that EMF-emitting devices such as laptop computers are exceptionally more harmful when plugged in as opposed to when they’re operating on battery power alone. Tests have shown that working on a laptop that’s plugged in can result in up to 100 times more radiation exposure than using one that’s operating on battery power.
In the US, a small number of personal injury lawsuits have been filed by individuals against cellphone manufacturers (including Motorola, NEC, Siemens, and Nokia) on the basis of allegations of causation of brain cancer and death. In US federal courts, expert testimony relating to science must be first evaluated by a judge, in a Daubert hearing, to be relevant and valid before it is admissible as evidence. In a 2002 case against Motorola, the plaintiffs alleged that the use of wireless handheld telephones could cause brain cancer and that the use of Motorola phones caused one plaintiff's cancer. The judge ruled that no sufficiently reliable and relevant scientific evidence in support of either general or specific causation was proffered by the plaintiffs, accepted a motion to exclude the testimony of the plaintiffs' experts, and denied a motion to exclude the testimony of the defendants' experts.
The studies are notable for their sizes. Researchers at the National Toxicology Program, a federal interagency group under the National Institutes of Health, tested 3,000 rats and mice of both sexes for two years—the largest investigation of RF radiation and cancer in rodents ever undertaken in the U.S. European investigators at the Ramazzini Institute in Italy were similarly ambitious; in their recent study they investigated RF effects in nearly 2,500 rats from the fetal stage until death.
In subsequent analyses of Interphone data, investigators addressed issues of risk according to specific location of the tumor and estimated exposures. One analysis of data from seven of the countries in the Interphone study found no relationship between brain tumor location and regions of the brain that were exposed to the highest level of radiofrequency radiation from cell phones (9). However, another study, using data from five of the countries, reported suggestions of an increased risk of glioma and, to a lesser extent, of meningioma developing in areas of the brain experiencing the highest exposure (10).