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Major Study Complicates Debate over Cell Phone Use and Cancer Risk

Article date: May 18, 2010

By Rebecca V. Snowden

Results from a major international study do not establish a definitive link between cell phone use and cancer, but they don’t rule one out, either. In fact, the Interphone study, coordinated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), may have raised more questions than it answered.

The largest study to date to investigate the relationship between cell phone use and cancer, the Interphone study tracked nearly 13,000 cell phone users in 13 countries over the course of 10 years. Participating countries included Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The study focused on adults aged 30-59 – the largest group of cell phone users at the start of the decade -- and looked at the relationship between use and an increased risk of gliomas, a type of brain cancer, and benign brain tumors. It included over 2000 brain cancer patients.

Cell phone safety has been debated for years, and most research has been contradictory or inconclusive. Public health experts hoped this study would provide clearer guidance on the issue. However, the results do not give a definitive answer.

"This is the largest study of mobile phone use in relation to brain tumors. While the findings are predominantly negative, they are highly unlikely to end the controversy about whether cell phone use affects cancer risk,” said Michael J. Thun, MD, American Cancer Society vice president emeritus, Epidemiology & Surveillance Research.

What the Interphone study found

Overall, researchers found no direct relationship between cell phone use and an increased risk of brain cancer or benign brain tumors. In fact, people who used their cell phones the most were less likely than never-users to get brain cancer or benign brain tumors. However, in a completely contradictory finding, among cell phone users who used their phones the most, researchers found an increased risk for gliomas compared to other groups in the study.

The study also could not address certain issues.

For one, the authors acknowledge, even the heaviest cell phone users in the study wouldn’t be considered heavy users by today’s standards.

Thun echoes that concern: “The majority of participants in this study were not heavy cell phone users compared to today's practices; those who used cell phones for about one half hour per day ranked in the top 10 percent of use, and almost no one in the study had used cell phones for more than 20 years.”

Another issue is the lack of data on the risk to children, many of whom start using cell phones early in life. The heavy use of cell phones by young children is of particular concern because the radiofrequency (RF) waves from cell phones reach more brain tissue in children than in adults.

Further, the authors explain the seemingly protective effect of cell phone use by citing flaws in the study design and data collection. Error may also have adversely affected the data suggesting high-volume users are at an increased risk, the study authors concluded.

What does this mean for you?

“It is important that these issues continue to be studied in children, with longer term use, and through prospective studies," says Thun.

The Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL) is currently investigating cell phone use and cancer risk in children and adolescents through the MobiKids program, funded by the European Union. Other studies assessing cell phone use and cancer risk currently are underway.

In the meantime, the American Cancer Society recommends that people who are concerned take simple steps to reduce their exposure: 

  • Use a speaker phone or other hands-free device. 
  • Purchase a cell phone model with lower SAR (specific absorption rate) ratings. SAR is a measure of how much radiofrequency (RF) is absorbed by the body. Cell phones do not emit ionizing radiation, but there is some concern that RF may indirectly affect tumor growth. 
  • Parents may wish to limit their children's use of cell phones.

Concerned about the radiation emitted from your phone? See this list of cell phone radiation levels from CNET.

For more information, see our document, Cellular Phones.

Reviewed by: Members of the ACS Medical Content Staff


ACS News Center stories are provided as a source of cancer-related news and are not intended to be used as press releases.

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