About the SA Blog Network



Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American
Observations HomeAboutContact

Radiation from Cell Phones Flagged as “Possibly”– Not Probably–Carcinogenic

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

cell phones possible carcinogen who groupThe radiation emitted by mobile phones has been classified as "possibly carcinogenic to humans" by a World Health Organization (WHO) scientific working group.

The May 31 announcement, however, doesn’t imply that cell phones cause cancer. It suggests that there are still enough unknowns not to rule out long-term health effects of the devices, which are now used by billions of people around the globe.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) based its new conclusions on previous studies of humans, animals and lab work. The group called evidence for a link between cell phone use and glioma and acoustic neuroma cancers "limited"—and a link with other types of cancers "inadequate." Evidence for a link between cancer and exposure to other radiofrequency electromagnetic sources—including microwaves, radar, and television and radio transmission signals—was also found to be insufficient.

Over the years, the findings on cell phones and cancer have been about as spotty as mid-’90s cellular service coverage. A decades-long study in some European countries found no increase in the occurrence of brain cancer despite a huge jump in mobile phone use. A study earlier this year concluded that cell phone emissions did have an affect on brain metabolism near where callers held the devices against their heads. But as Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer explained last year, "Physics shows that it is virtually impossible for cell phones to cause cancer." (In short: unlike UV radiation, the radiation from cell phones is too weak to destroy the bonds inside cells.)

But the 31 scientists involved in the new assessment seem to want to play it on the safe side. "Given the potential consequences for public health," IARC Director Christopher Wild said in a prepared statement, "it is important that additional research be conducted into the long-term, heavy use of mobile phones."

A more detailed explanation behind the IARC’s recommendations will be published in the July 1 issue of The Lancet Oncology.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/Yuri_Arcus

Rights & Permissions

Comments 19 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. strubie 5:36 pm 05/31/2011

    The bottom line is that nothing has changed. There were no findings that warranted further research. By the standards on which these researchers are making cautious recommendations for more research, air could be causing cancer. The title of this article does nothing more than inflame already misguided attitudes about cell phone use. The title should be, "Using A Cell Phone While Driving Is A Greater Hazard To Health Than Cell Phone Radiation."

    Link to this
  2. 2. Jazzism 7:28 pm 05/31/2011

    Like in past studies, short conversations on the phone and the EM radiation is handled easily by the body. Long term exposure can cause problems so use a hands free connection. It’s like getting a sunburn. If your in the sun for a short period your body can absorb the radiation and you don’t get a burn. You stand out for long exposure times and you get burned, skin damage and possibly develop skin cancer. Like in a long marathon cellphone use theoretically. Like everything in life, it’s all about moderation of what your body is exposed to.

    Link to this
  3. 3. rsabbatini 8:08 pm 05/31/2011

    It makes me sick of disgust how reknowned epidemiologists are able to do such bad science. The own authors of the Interphone international study which gave origin to IARCs misguided decision have disavowed their results, so many were the sources of bias and error, and impossibility of interpreting mere statistical association studies in terms of cause/effect. What the people at IARC do not understand is how the public reacts to information like this and what bad PR for science all this will be. The mass media and the public know nothing about all these subtle concepts of 2A and 2B evidence, "possible" versus "probable" versus "unlikely", of what constitute evidence of cause/effect in epidemiological science: in the next day all headlines will be (already are) blaring that "cell phones cause cancer, says WHO!". Of course, no one will cease to use their cherished little cellphones, no, Sir! After all, there are motorbyke drivers (odds ratio of 1:200 of lifetime mortality), heavy smokers (1:10), automobile drivers (1:40,000), not to mention cocaine addicts, junk food feeders, etc. Few are giving a damn, you mean that a precious and useful thing like a cellphone is going to be abandoned for that? Actually, it has been proved by several studies that cellphones SAVE lives, in many situations. Much more than this putative health risk of causing gliomas (horrible tumors with no known case or risk) and neuromas (which are certainly more susceptible to be acquired by heavy users of earphones, like MP3 players, a relative risk of 1.7, actually). Now, tell me, how do you separate sound from EMFs in an epidemiological study? How do you made subjects of such study identify with an accuracy rate of 95% what is the ear they used their cellphones with, 10 years ago, and how many minutes per days in the average for every day since the day you started to use cellphones?
    Fellow experimental scientists, fall in awe: this is the kind of routine "science" in many (not all), epidemiological studies. Errors of 40% or more, in the independent variables… How can you conclude something based on this?
    Today is a sad day for medicine.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Dr. Strangelove 6:18 am 06/1/2011

    This is sheer nonsense. If cell phones are carcinogenic, then your reading lamp and your pet dog are a million times and 10,000 more carcinogenic. Cell phones emit microwaves, reading lamp emits light, dog emits infrared like all warm bodies do. Light photon is a million times more energetic than microwave photons. Infrared photon is 10,000 more energetic. Light and infrared radiations are more likely to destroy the chemical bonds in your body cells and cause cancer.

    Link to this
  5. 5. omnologos 11:57 am 06/1/2011

    What will the WHO say next? That life is 100% of the time the cause of death?

    Link to this
  6. 6. mbEPR 12:46 pm 06/1/2011

    Yes it is true that cell phone radiation is not ionizing and will not cause cancer in the canonical sense (i.e. chemical DNA damage like double strand break, intercalation by large aromatic compound, etc…). RF radiation is capable of rotating compounds about their bonds (this is how microwaves generate heat). The connection between cell heating and metabolic changes is not clear. As a structural biologist, I have seen great advances in the understanding of the structure of chromatin and how it relates to epigenetic changes in gene expression. My guess (strictly guessing here…) is that high energy bursts of RF radiation may be capable of changing the structure of chromatin and thereby leading to cancerous transformations, if there is indeed a link. I see how cell phone radiation does not fit the traditional category of carcinogenic compounds, but I believe that there is enough evidence to warrant further investigation and to be cautious.

    Link to this
  7. 7. timbo555 1:31 pm 06/1/2011

    The simple fact is that the world has been undergoing a decade-plus long study involving cell phones and their use. This study has had a billion or more willing participants. There has been no appreciable increase in the incidence of brain tumors worldwide since the introduction of these devices, unless one considers the increase brought about by ever earlier detection methodologies.

    Here in this country we have a burgeoning fifty billion dollar business trading on the ridiculous and scientifically insupportable notion that "organic" foods are better for you than commercially grown foods. The fundamental premise is the same. There is no scientific basis for the underlying supposition. But magazines like this one don’t care about scientific realities; they care about selling magazines, and nothing sells like fear and controversy.

    Link to this
  8. 8. michaeltdeans 3:48 pm 06/1/2011

    According to my understanding of brain function, cell phones are quite likely to cause cancer (go to or my essay ‘The chip in the brain’ at http://www.FQXi). Human intelligence has evolved far beyond digital computers, and uses many wavebands of electromagnetic radiation.

    Link to this
  9. 9. jgrosay 5:48 pm 06/1/2011

    When dealing with adverse events in clinical trials, the definition of "possible" connection with the experimental drug, in this case, cellular phones, is as follows: "Suggested by the type, the time course, the connection with the product and the external events; it may follow a known pattern of response to the experimental product, although it may have been produced by the subject’s clinical condition or by other therapy". It will be good knowing how the people that issued the warning on a "possible" connection between portable phones and brain tumors made the conclusion that their data fit the abovementioned definition, and knowing more about these data.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Chuck Darwin 6:52 pm 06/1/2011

    Thanks for this. It’s the first mainstream media account of the recent WHO announcement that avoids sensationalizing and distorting the announcement.

    I should add that the WHO announcement was apparently largely based on the results of the 13,000 person, 10-year "Interphone" study, which tried to see if the rate of glioma incidence correlates with cellphone use. The problem is, glioma incidence rates are so low (2-3 per 100,000 in the US and Europe) that even a 13,000 person study won’t produce statistically significant results unless cellphone exposure is associated with increased risk of several hundred percent or more, and Interphone apparently didn’t find that.

    Link to this
  11. 11. Chuck Darwin 7:10 pm 06/1/2011

    Cellphones emit about 1 watt of RF at 1900 or 800 megahertz. Are you aware of any data whatsoever that suggests that such a tiny amount of RF can create any significant rotation between chemical bonds? Microwave ovens, after all, put out 500-2000 watts. And your wireless router probably puts out 6 watts at nearly the same wavelength as your microwave (2.4 Ghz vs 2.45 Ghz for consumer microwave ovens). Meanwhile, whomever you sleep next to, if you don’t sleep alone, continuously puts out hundreds of times more RF than does a cellphone, and moreover, that RF is in the infrared band, which is far more energetic than the radio waves emitted by cellphones.

    This is nothing more than the "high power electric lines cause cancer" redux. What we have here is a study that was admittedly inconclusive, so there would have been nothing to see had not the media got hold of the WHO reclassification and hyped this into a controversy. Like previous studies, the Interphone study could not establish even an association with increased risk and cellphone use, much less suggest causation had they found an association. But that won’t keep someone else from getting a grant to do a study on EM emissions on our the scary EM emitter du jour, cellphones, for at least a few more years until they move on to the next one.

    Meanwhile, the TSA subjects millions of people per week to actual ionizing (and therefore carcinogenic) radiation in the form of X-rays, and millimeter wave scans that use wavelengths that carry far higher energies than the cellular bands, at far higher wattage than cellphones will ever generate, and all the press can do is parrot TSA’s outlandish (and demonstrably false) claim that "you get more exposure to X-rays on your flight than you do from the scan."

    Link to this
  12. 12. Roto2 9:51 pm 06/1/2011

    So similar to why airlines, in the US, prohibit cell phone use in flight. Just in case. Europe has no such restriction. There have been NO incidents, as far as I’m aware, even remotely associated with cell phones. Based on the US logic, maybe we should prohibit all jewelry on airlines just in case electromagnetic waves outside the plane may resonate with certain jewelry geometries and thus interfere with flight controls. It makes about as much sense!

    Link to this
  13. 13. Roto2 9:52 pm 06/1/2011

    So similar to why airlines, in the US, prohibit cell phone use in flight. Just in case. Europe has no such restriction. There have been NO incidents, as far as I’m aware, even remotely associated with cell phones. Based on the US logic, maybe we should prohibit all jewelry on airlines just in case electromagnetic waves outside the plane may resonate with certain jewelry geometries and thus interfere with flight controls. It makes about as much sense!

    Link to this
  14. 14. Dr. Strangelove 10:03 pm 06/1/2011

    If you’re worried about microwave cell heating, you should be more worried about light cell heating (your flourescent lamp generates more heat than your cell phone) or infrared cell heating (your cooking stove generates a lot more heat). Why don’t they study too how a light bulb or an oven toaster can be carcinogenic?

    Link to this
  15. 15. bahead 4:54 pm 06/3/2011

    Having read the WHO/IARC press release thoroughly, I have two concerns with its accuracy which leads me to question its credibility. These concerns are aside concerns with how WHO/IARC actually reviewed the literature and drew their conclusions (I’m eager to see the details when they’re availalbe).

    First, the press release from WHO/IARC states that "radiofrequency electromagnetic fields" have been classified in Group 2B. But the only evidence that WHO/IARC reviewed was related specifically to frequencies used by cell phones. Cell phone frequencies are only a subset of the entire radiofrequency spectrum; they are at the upper end of the spectrum, crossing into the microwave spectrum. Other frequencies lower in the radiofrequency spectrum include AM and FM radio and television signals. WHO/IARC did not review any evidence on these other frequencies, and they only commented on being cautious when using cell phones, not when using other devices that transmit radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (such as microwave ovens, cordless phones, wi-fi routers, etc.). It is troubling that WHO/IARC would issue a press release claiming that all radio frequencies are classified as possibly carcinogenic, when only cell phone research was reviewed. The press release should have stated that radiofrequency electromagnetic fields at a specific frequency range are classified as Group 2B.

    Second, the WHO/IARC press release states that there is "limited" evidence of a connection between cell phones and two specific types of brain tumours: glioma and acoustic neuroma. While gliomas are never benign, acoustic neuromas are always benign and never cancerous. In other words, acoustic neuromas are not cancer. The fact that the WHO/IARC press release lumps (no pun intended) acoustic neuroma into a cancer category is again very troubling.

    WHO/IARC is raising unnecessary alarm by placing cell phones in the same category as toxic metals such as lead. They are feeding the pseudoscience of the anti-radiation lobby. Here in Peterborough, Ontario, we have a Trent University professor named Dr. Magda Havas, who is an well-known anti-radiation ideologue (Google her). She gives presentations to community groups and parents concerned about wi-fi in schools, and makes outrageous claims about non-ionizing radiation. She is getting regular media attention because no credible scientist is debunking her claims. And she has now taken WHO/IARC’s finding as justification for her flawed and alarmist research.

    Link to this
  16. 16. iWind 8:31 am 06/4/2011

    If there were to be any correlation at all, which I doubt – so many studies have been carried out, it is statistically unlikely that none of them would find a false positive by accident – but if there really is a correlation, why link it to RF radiation? It could just as well be the plastics used in the cell phone covers or fumes from the electronics when reacting with human sweat or just unusual mental stresses associated with concentrating on a conversation carried through only one of two ears. Or something entirely different.

    In other words, the link with cell phones is extremely weak, but the link with RF radiation is non-existent without a plausible theory for cause and effect and an elimination of different explanations. Epidimiology alone can’t ever provide the first and on the current basis not the second either.

    Link to this
  17. 17. agfauteux 7:50 am 06/9/2011

    For an in-depth analysis of the Interphone report, read

    It’s important to note that the head of the Interphone project, Elizabeth Cardis, favors precautionary measures, as wel as Christopher Wild of IARC who said : `Given the potential consequences for
    public health of this classification and findings, it is important that additional research be conducted into the long-term, heavy use of mobile phones’, said Christopher Wild, Director of the IARC. Dr Wild
    said `it is important to take pragmatic measures to reduce exposure such as hands-free devices or texting.’

    Link to this
  18. 18. bucketofsquid 11:07 am 06/9/2011

    But it is!!!! Every person that was alive 1,000 years ago is now dead! Obviously life causes death! Panic!!!!!

    Link to this
  19. 19. BrettEliot 12:32 pm 08/5/2011

    You shouldn’t use cell phones so much that it becomes such a disease for you. Its true you start getting headache after listening to so many calls.

    Try avoid talking on phones on long durations.


    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article