For decades, health experts have struggled to determine whether or not cellphones can cause cancer. On Thursday, a federal agency released the final results of what experts call the world’s largest and most costly experiment to look into the question. The study originated in the Clinton administration, cost $30 million and involved some 3,000 rodents.
But the results of these two rat studies align with those of the biggest cell phone-radiation human study to date, INTERPHONE. The INTERPHONE study, published in 2011, was a coordinated effort by researchers at 16 institutions across 13 countries, and found that the heaviest mobile phone users were more likely to develop glioma—the same type of brain cancer the NTP study found in the male rats. “So there’s a concordance between the animal and human data,” Melnick says.
There were no biological hypotheses tested in the study. It was therefore only a numbers game. Ignored were mechanisms of disease found in other studies of cell phone radiation effects, including genetic damage, blood-brain barrier leakage, and disrupted intercellular communication. The study did not discuss any research supporting the notion that cell phones could cause problems in users.
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 one type of study, called a case–control study, cell phone use is compared between people with these types of tumors and people without them. In another type of study, called a cohort study, a large group of people who do not have cancer at study entry is followed over time and the rate of these tumors in people who did and didn’t use cell phones is compared. Cancer incidence data can also be analyzed over time to see if the rates of brain tumors changed in large populations during the time that cell phone use increased dramatically. These studies have not shown clear evidence of a relationship between cell phone use and cancer. However, researchers have reported some statistically significant associations for certain subgroups of people.