Cell phones and brain cancer—the evidence doesn’t ring any bells


Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

If yesterday’s announcement by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that cell phones may cause brain cancer has you worried, you might want to wait a bit before trashing your mobile phone and going back to a land line.

Last week, the IARC convened experts from around the world to assess what, if any, cancer threat cell phones pose to the 5 billion or so people who use them. After reviewing hundreds of studies, the IARC panel concluded that cell phone use may be connected to two types of brain cancer, glioma and acoustic neuroma.

That sounds mighty scary. But the IARC said the evidence for this conclusion was “limited.” Most studies have shown no connection between cell phone use and brain cancer. In the relatively small number of studies that have observed a connection between the two, the positive result could be due to chance, bias, or confounding.

The decision puts cell phones in IARC’s Group 2B category of agents that definitely or might cause cancer. Group 1 are things like asbestos, cigarette smoke, and ultraviolet radiation. Things in Group 2B are “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” Other denizens of this group include coffee, pickled vegetables, bracken ferns, and talcum powder.

I think the IARC decision puts cell phones on notice—a formal “we’ve got our eyes on you” warning—more than it fingers phones as a cause of brain cancer. For one thing, the evidence so far is pretty weak. Writing on the Cancer Research UK Web site, blogger Ed Yong offers a peak at the data through 2009, taken from a review by Swedish researchers. A graph from the paper shows that only one of 28 studies shows a statistically significant association between cell phone use and cancer. We’ll know more about the strength or weakness of the evidence when the panel publishes its report online later this week and in the July 1 issue of The Lancet Oncology.

For now, I’m far more concerned about being rammed by someone talking on his or her cell phone while driving than I am about getting brain cancer from a phone. If you think the IARC report warrants action, the FDA offers suggestions for reducing your exposure to radiofrequency energy from a cell phone, like using the phone less, texting instead of talking, and using speaker mode or a headset to place more distance between your head and the cell phone.


  1. Marcus Baker

    I guess the biggest problem with any of this right now is that we have not had enough time to ascertain whether there is a direct link between cell phones and cancer. So right now it’s inconclusive. It may be a totally different story in ten or twenty year’s time.

  2. cameronengli37

    the points were sent across is very understandable. I loved it.

  3. louisville ky

    stumbled across this and glad i did well written piece, i actually had a co worker with glioblastoma until he passed

  4. cautious

    You say, “For now, I’m far more concerned about being rammed by someone talking on his or her cell phone while driving than I am about getting brain cancer from a phone.”

    Probably depends on how often you use your phone.

    Repeated exposure the the electrical field may well cause cancer in the long term.

    I’d rather err on the side of caution, as many “experts” may be paid to give out misleading information.

  5. Chris

    Unfortunately it seems that as technology progresses, along with it comes many negative effects.
    With how popular mobile devices are becoming today it is almost scary that it is actually a threat to our health.

    Does anyone else think the government needs to put their foot in on an issue like this?


  6. Heather Smith

    Whether it’s true or not that cellphone is causing cancer, it is a fact that it emits radiation. So it’s better to limit the exposure as much as possible, thanks for this informative post.

  7. Faiz Ahamed

    Most newer cellphones have an attachment for an external antenna. Use it. This allows ALL the energy radiated by the phone to be outside the vehicle, reducing to nearly zero the amount of energy in the vehicle and you. Most people are not even aware that their phone has such a connection. More’s the pity.

    Using the cellphone on your person is also a no-brainer. Merely use a hands free device, allowing you to place the phone just about anywhere safer than stuck in your ear. Neat. Petite. Safe. Use it.

    We live in an age of communications. There is nothing one may do to protect one’s self from radiated RF energy. Nothing. Unless you choose to live in a lead lined home or apartment. As a result, and assuming one is able, choose your home or apartment carefully. If you can, locate your home in an area which has less energy surrounding it. Some of us are able to do this. Many cannot. More’s the pity for those who cannot.

    One thing is certain. Whatever you do, you will never isolate yourself from radiated RF energy. To lobby against communications means the death of our civilization. A strong statement indeed. But notwithstanding the strength of the statement … true.

    Using a hands free device in the car is advised. My cellphone has voice recognition. It will dial the number you tell it to dial, in digits. It will dial the number of a person you’ve stored in memory as well. It has ports for an external antenna and a hands free device. Together, the cost of an antenna for the outside of the vehicle is less than $30 American. The cost of a simple hands free device is less than $20 American. For a total investment of about $50, one may remain free of radiation and still enable the use of the phone.

    Rather than state the problems, state some solutions as well. It is more appropriate and a lot more important to those reading the piece.

  8. Anonymous

    True article.. this is a fact cellphone is causing cancer, radiation is very harmful.So it’s better to limit the exposure as much as possible.

  9. Anonymous

    These days every person are using cell phone. The major cause of the brain cancer is the cell phone. We avoid to excessive usage of cell phone.
    [URL removed by moderator]

  10. Andrew Plank

    The city of San Francisco, CA recently began requiring cell phone sellers in city limits to provide warnings about the possible health risks of use. Initially I thought this type of action was a little overboard, but this article is changing my mind about the subject. You can read more about S.F. board of supervisors plan here… http://wizug.com/http:/wizug.com/2011/san-francisco-cell-phone-ordinance-is-it-necessary/

  11. Rosley

    Hello admin,

    Walking and talking, working on the train, always in contact, never out of touch—cellphones have dramatically changed the way we live and work. No one knows exactly how many little plastic handsets there are in the world, but the best guess is over 4.6 billion. That’s around two thirds of the planet’s population! In developing countries, where large-scale landline networks (ordinary telephones wired to the wall) are few and far between, over 90 percent of the phones in use are cellphones. Cellphones (also known as cellular phones and, chiefly in Europe, as mobile phones or mobiles) are radio telephones that route their calls through a network of masts linked to the main public telephone network. Here’s how they work.


  12. Cory

    “Well whether it’s true or not that cellphone is causing cancer, it is a fact that it emits radiation. So it’s better to limit the exposure as much as possible…”

    Every lightbulb in your house emits radiation. So does your TV, your computer, your microwave, the electrical wiring in every building you’ve ever been inside, the sun, and bananas (seriously, look it up). Even if you seal yourself inside a foot-thick lead box, the lead itself is probably slightly radioactive, so you will still be getting dosed.

    The point of the article is that if there is an increased risk of brain tumors from cell phone radiation, it’s so small that it can’t be empirically proven. For things like asbestos, cigarette smoke, and ultraviolet light, there is a strong enough link between the carcinogen and the cancer that it can be proven through controlled experiments. While there is some correlation between cell phone use and brain tumors, the correlation is so small that it can’t be effectively tested for causality. It would just take too many rats with cell phones duct-taped to their heads to get a large enough sample.

    If you are worried about the health effects of cell phone use, you have your priorities really mixed up. There are thousands of things in life that are far more likely to cause your premature death than cell phone-related brain tumors. If you want to eliminate a piece of technology from your life to increase your personal safety, avoiding driving is WAY better for your health than getting rid of your cell phone.

  13. Mark Gregory

    Interesting article. Well whether it’s true or not that cellphone is causing cancer, it is a fact that it emits radiation. So it’s better to limit the exposure as much as possible

  14. Anonymous

    Very good, interesting this article, It is very unusual in today’s technological developments, so too many people who are not aware of the influence of technology could lead to danger to his health, especially for mobile users.
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  15. Sergio Cruz

    P.J. you sound skeptic, but in Switzerland there are a number of cities that do not allow the installation of mobile antenna no way near them!

    On the other hand all you have to do to quell your skepticism is think how people were duped into smoking because it was “so safe”!

    You as an editor of such prestigious university should no better than ignore that people gets paid to debase just about anything that might stop them from selling!

    I agree with Jeanne keep the cell phones away from children!

    Sérgio Cruz

  16. Jeanne Marten

    My husband died from a Glioblastoma. If you have ever dealt with this type of cancer you would run not walk the other way from anything that increases the chances of developing one. It robbed him of his dignity bit by bit. He was only 49 at the time. Dr. Keith Black was his doctor. Great man.
    Don’t take these new warnings with a grain of salt. Be proactive and do as much as you can to reduce your exposure. And for goodness sake TAKE THE CELL AWAY FROM YOUR KIDS AND TEENAGERS. At least have your teenagers text only.

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