Can mobiles cause cancer?

Mobile phones hit the headlines again this week as a US cancer researcher recommended that staff should limit their use of their phones because of the potential cancer risk. It’s a controversial issue that has been fuelled by constant see-sawing media stories about studies that find a link and others that do not.

Let’s take a look at what we already know about mobile phones and cancer.

The bigger picture

The main issue is that there is still no strong evidence to suggest that mobile phones pose a cancer risk.

Their use has skyrocketed since the 1980s but during this time, the numbers of people with brain cancer has not changed very much.

Several studies have directly looked at the risk of cancer in mobile phone users, and overall, the evidence from these suggests that mobile phones do not cause any type of cancer, including brain cancers and leukaemia.

The largest study so far, which looked at over 420,000 people, found that even people who had used mobiles for 10 years did not have increased risks.

While some studies have linked mobile phones to cancer, almost all of these have come from a minority of research groups, whose methods have been criticised by other scientists, not least for the practice of publishing the results of the same study in multiple journals. Recently, the Swedish Radiation Protection Authority concluded that “bias and chance are the most likely explanations for their findings.”

A few studies have found that people with brain cancer are more likely to develop the disease on the side of the head that they hold their phone to, even though overall, they found no link between phone use and cancer. That’s a puzzling result and it’s most likely down to chance or inaccuracies. If phones were really increasing the risk of brain cancer on one side of the head, you would still expect to see this danger reflected in the overall result.

The problem is that many of these studies ask people with cancer to remember how they used their phones, often many years ago. Their memories may be biased if they had previously heard about a connection between phones and cancer in the media.

And most importantly, so far no one has been able to consistently agree on how mobile phones could cause cancer, and that’s been a big blow for the argument that they pose a risk. Sure, the phone gives off microwave radiation, but it has millions of times less energy than, say, an X-ray and is not powerful enough to damage our DNA. Nor is the heating effect of this radiation large enough to affect our bodies. Other suggestions have been put forward, but none are backed by consistent evidence.

The bottom line

Recently, a report from the Mobile Telecommunications & Health Research Programme, which looked at all the available evidence, came to the same conclusions. It said that:

  • Mobile phones aren’t linked to any negative health effects.
  • Short-term mobile phone use does not cause brain cancer, and does not affect brain function.
  • There is no evidence that the symptoms experienced by people who suffer from ‘electrical hypersensitivity’ are the result of exposure to mobiles or base stations.
  • There is no evidence that mobiles could affect our cells beyond heating them.
  • The effects of exposures of 10 years or more is unclear and deserves more research.

The last point is a valid one. Mobile phones are still a young technology. Studies suggest that using them for 10 years or less is safe, but only further research can tell us about longer-term effects.

For the moment, the only health risk that has been conclusively linked to mobile phones is a higher risk of driving accidents. People who use mobile phones while driving, even with a hands-free kit, are easily distracted and are four times more likely to be involved in an accident.

UPDATE: It has come to our attention that our main website mentions precautions that people can take if they are concerned about mobile phones, while this blog post does not. In light of that, here’s what we say over on our main Healthy Living site, for people who want to take action while new research is being carried out.

“Until we get a conclusive answer, the Government recommends some precautions for people who have concerns. For example, adults using mobile phones could minimise their exposure by keeping calls short. And children under the age of 16 should only use mobile phones for essential calls.

You can read the Government recommendations in full at the NHS website.”