To find out about the state of research on the link between phones and cancer, we spoke with Jonathan Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health and an expert in phone radiation who led a World Health Organization working group on the subject. In 2011, the WHO group deemed phone radiation “possibly carcinogenic,” which is less certain than other classifications, but isn’t an outright “no” either. Six years later, Samet said the evidence in either direction is still mixed and that for the time being, there remains “some indication” of risk.
Stephen Chanock, who directs the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics at the National Cancer Institute, remains skeptical, however. Cancer monitoring by the institute and other organizations has yet to show increasing numbers of brain tumors in the general population, he says. Tracking of benign brain tumors, such as acoustic neuromas, was initiated in 2004 by investigators at the institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results program, which monitors and publishes statistics on cancer incidence rates. According to Chanock’s spokesperson, the acoustic neuroma data “haven’t accumulated to the point that we can say something meaningful about them.”
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The science is still out on whether the long-term use of cell phones—which emit electromagnetic radiation when they send and receive signals from towers or WiFi devices—can affect human health. But for people who want to reduce their exposure to this type of energy, the California Department of Public Health has published new guidelines on how to do just that.
Cell phones emit low levels of radio frequency energy (i.e., radio frequency radiation) in the microwave range while being used. It is well known that high levels of RF can produce biological damage through heating effects (this is how your microwave oven is able to cook food). However, it is not known to what extent or through what mechanism, lower levels of RF might cause adverse health effects as well. Several research studies have shown that the radio frequency radiation from wireless phone antennae “appears to cause genetic damage in human blood,” while another case study uncovered a “statistically significant increase” in neuro-epithelial brain tumors among cell phone users. Other research has shown little or no adverse effects. ABC’s 20/20 News (May 26, 2000) took the five most popular phones sold in the US and tested them at a highly respected German laboratory. Four out of the five phones tested were above the SAR limit. One thing is for certain, similar to the case of cigarette smoking, it will take several tests and many years before the effects of radio frequency radiation on the human body are known.
Can cellphone radiation cause cancer in humans? There’s no scientific consensus on this issue, but there is “some evidence” that exposure to radiation equivalent to that emanating from 1990s-era cellphones is associated with brain tumors in male rats, according to results of a US National Toxicology Program (NTP) study released last week (November 1).
The energy of electromagnetic radiation is determined by its frequency; ionizing radiation is high frequency, and therefore high energy, whereas non-ionizing radiation is low frequency, and therefore low energy. The NCI fact sheet Electromagnetic Fields and Cancer lists sources of radiofrequency radiation. More information about ionizing radiation can be found on the Radiation page.