Why People Think Cell Phones Cause Cancer

cell1.jpg Images: Shutterstock (1, 2) Siddhartha Mukherjee deftly tells you everything you need to know about the current state of knowledge of the risks to human health from use of cellular phones. Mukherjee, a doctor and professor of medicine at Columbia, does so in a few thousand words in the New York Times without dismissing concerns, and while explaining why this issue is so fraught with interpretation bias and confusion. Mukherjee's key points are well understood in epidemiological circles, and typically misstated in the mainstream press. They are: • Rates of cancer types expected to be associated with long-term mobile phone use have declined in America during the rise of cell calling. • The low incidence of such expected cancers in the general population makes it nearly impossible to conduct prospective longitudinal studies: find a large cohort of people with no disease and follow them for 5, 10, or 20 years to see in which groups normal and abnormal rates occur. • Retrospective studies that ask people to remember past usage of cell phones are deeply flawed due to recall bias. • Cellular tests examining DNA after exposure to phone emissions were found in a meta-review of papers and research to have no provable link. (Mukherjee also explains that the recently reported "cell phones make your brain light up" study showed unexplained brain activity when a silent cell phone was active in areas adjacent to the phone, which was near one or the other of a subject's ears. However, the brain activity wasn't harmful--it was similar to activity from other routine activities--just inexplicable. And the study only involved under 50 people.) I've been reading cell-phone and RF exposure studies for a decade, starting at a point where I was convinced that the industry must have known of a link and was trying to hide it. Who trusts multi-billion-dollar corporations with everything to lose, where executives might even be sent to prison as a result? Of course, they might hide evidence or fund fake studies.
cell2.jpg Over time, though, as I learned more of the science and read increasingly well-designed and comprehensive surveys, I found the evidence compelling. No credible research backs up an increased risk of cancer or other health risks. (If you write about this subject, and I imagine we'll see it in the comments, you'll be told that all the mainstream research except the few outlier studies is bogus and corrupted by the cellular industry, and that numerous other studies outside the scientific establishment prove a link.) Retrospective studies are the worst culprits here, because if you ask someone with cancer how often (and even on what side of the head) they used their cell phone during the last X years, you not surprisingly get a biased response. It is not their fault. They are looking for an explanation for their condition. I had a brush with cancer in the late 1990s. I'd like to believe it was because of exposure to some particular substance, but cancer that requires treatment (as opposed to the cancerous precursors that constantly grow in our bodies and are dispatched by our defenses) is proving to be a complex outcome of genetics, environmental causes, and random mischance. Mukherjee doesn't mention a related issue, which is that dozens of studies that have attempted to find an association between so-called electrosensitivity--an adverse reaction to the presence of normal levels of urban electromagnetic radiation--have found no correlation in self-identified sufferers, nor in control groups. You can read a meta-review of 46 studies involving 1175 sufferers from 2009 that concludes: "Despite the conviction of IEI-EMF sufferers that their symptoms are triggered by exposure to electromagnetic fields, repeated experiments have been unable to replicate this phenomenon under controlled conditions." (Some studies have found that such sufferers do have measurable symptoms and distress which they may experience in the lab, but that this happens whether or not EMF signals are in use.) Mukherjee explains one aspect of the problem with retrospective studies in regards to the international Interphone study of thousands of users across several countries. As a whole, no correlation between cell usage and brain tumors were found, but certain subsets of data analyzed separately produced contradictory results: regular phone users had decreased incidence and heavy phone users had increased risks.
...some men and women with brain cancer recalled a disproportionately high use of cellphones, while others recalled disproportionately low exposure. Indeed, 10 men and women with brain tumors (but none of the "controls") recalled 12 hours or more of use every day--a number that stretches credibility. In a substudy of Interphone, researchers embedded phones with special software to track phone usage. When this log was compared with the "recalled" usage, there were wide and random variations: some users underreported, while others overreported use.
Mukherjee's article is intended to make a larger point: that there is a reasonable desire to want to find a true cause for an inexplicable illness or impairment, whether it's autism in your child or cancer in your partner's brain. We reach out for what we think are causative effects, whether or not the research ultimately backs this up. The Internet needs a kind of medal to hand out to writers who can summarize vast arrays of information into accurate, sensible, and fair articles that don't trivialize multiple facets of a complex issue into "on the one hand, on the other hand" presentations. Mukherjee would get my vote for the 2011 award even this early in the season. New York Times: Do Cellphones Cause Brain Cancer?


  1. Hard to take it seriously after industry supported lies about cigarettes, global warming, the gulf oil spill, and Fukushima. Is this more of “don’t worry, be happy”? Or does it reflect actual science. I don’t know.

    1. The question would be: is the research or researchers funded by industries affected and, if so, in such a way that those doing the science would have a requirement to produce outcomes positive to the industry.

      There are now thousands of studies across many different areas of this subject, which Dr Mukherjee references directly and indirectly. You can go and read Interphone, for instance: several different papers have emerged from that research, and read about the statements of funding as well as find critics of how the funding came about (both those that think it favored and disfavored industry).

      While we can’t individually vet every study, a lot of the work produced is from academic funded by national grants rather than industry-underwritten ones.

      Your question is completely valid. I’ve spent years reading studies and examining funding sources and concerns about funding bias. You shouldn’t trust my say-so, but pretty much everything I’ve read and learned is publicly available.

    2. It’s also hard to take seriously blanket accusations of “industry must be up to something evil”. It’s uncomfortably close to “anything that’s popular is poisonous” combined with “anyone who produces anything popular is evil”.

      Blind trust and blind suspicion are both blind.

    3. The difference is that this is supported by a prevailing quantity of evidence-based science. Global warming deniers and tobacco companies, as well as homeopathy advocates and anti-vaccine groups, cherry pick their data or just flat-out lie. As the internet gives us great research tools, it is not that difficult to find peer-reviewed journals and you’ll find that all of them will say that:

      current vaccines are safe
      anthropogenic climate change is real
      tobacco use causes cancer
      homeopathy has no proven efficacy
      there is no causal link between cell phones and cancer

      Science might prove that these findings are incorrect, but so far, the overwhelming findings of research and experts in the field shows they are right.

      But the key here is to be a discerning researcher and sniff out the bad science.

  2. Glen-
    Regarding the study (n<50) of increased brain activity while using, you say:
    "However, the brain activity wasn't harmful--it was similar to activity from other routine activities--just inexplicable."

    "Routine activities" cover quite hundreds of things, and I was hoping you could provide an example or two for clarification.

    1. Read the NY Times article (if the paywall didn’t stop you), as it has more detail. In brief, lots of activities cause increased brain activity in isolated portions, like dreaming and certain kinds of mental exertion.

      The original reporting was overwrought about cell phones burning your brain up, when the levels recorded were clearly within a normal range of brain activity. The mystery is why an active signal would cause this. With under 50 in the cohort, chance is always an issue.

      And while the researchers said participants wouldn’t have any aural or visual clues as to whether a cell phone was active or inactive, I don’t know the specifics. I have read in other studies were such attempts were undone by a faint buzzing that participants could hear when power was active, for instance.

  3. Nevertheless, I’m still hopeful for the day cell phone users are sent outside to specific areas to prevent 2nd-hand EMFs.

  4. If people would give cell phones a rest once in a while, it wouldn’t be an issue. Just because your phone rings, doesn’t mean you have to answer it. And you don’t have to make a call for every trivial thing.

    I swear, people walk around like frickin’ zombies with their phones clamped to their ear. Just try to get through an airport or down a busy sidewalk, people stop short to answer their phones, or to make a call. Or worse, putter along texting without being aware of their surrounding. Hell, crossing the damn street (without traffic signals, even) without looking up from their phones. It’s ridiculous.

    I love my iPhone. I appreciate the convenience of mobile phones. But really, is the communication of the average person that urgent that they can’t wait ’til they get out of traffic (auto & foot) to make a call, text, or google something? What’s more important, your ironic tweet, or whether there’s a taxi about to hit you?

    If I were a criminal, I would prey on these oblivious victims-to-be.

    I think we need a “Leave Your Cell Phone at Home Day”.

      1. You are all missing the bigger story here…

        Did Antinous just say he does not have/use a cell phone? If so, IMPRESSIVE!

        oh and re-the article, thanks for validating that I don’t have to care about something I don’t care about.

        1. I work at home, and I get a better long distance plan on my cable-bundled land line than I got with a cell phone. I got rid of it about three years ago when I noticed that I was paying way too much to use less than fifteen minutes a month.

          Plus, most Americans could really stand to do a lot less talking and a lot more thinking.

          1. Amen, brudda…I sneer at mine when it starts ringing and have actually told people I ever answer my cell.

  5. That was nicely explained. For this type of gnarly safety problem, one has to think about: (a) scientific evidence, (b) the economics of how scientific evidence is generated, including how some studies are more expensive than other studies, and (c) a bit of political analysis. Scientists are not always strong on (b) and (c), and non-scientists sometimes weak on (a).

  6. I’m reminded of the 80’s era scare about radiation from power lines. It’s very difficult to disprove an effect with epidemiology – small confounding effects, like power lines being more often placed in low income areas, can show up as statistically significant. So if all you look at is epidemiology, you end up with a lot of papers that say “maybe no or weak effect, but possible confounding factors, more study needed” which to the press and general public sounds like a coverup. The right way to analyze statistics is with an understanding of what effects are physically and biologically plausible. For both power lines and cell phones, all the radiation is non-ionizing. A connection between non-ionizing radiation and cancer is about as plausible as global warming being due to a Martian conspiracy, or 20C homeopathic preparations curing the common cold. Unfortunately, you need to understand a bit of physics and biology to know that this is the case.

    1. Using my cell phone might not be as harmful as the double-cheeseburger I had for lunch…burp.

      Then again, the real danger of cell phones is driving-while-texting, talking, checking email, etc…

  7. Besides causing cancer, I’ve also heard it said that cell phones are responsible for bees dying, and even make gas stations explode. In the absence for good evidence for any of them, my suspicion is that people simply like having a reason that cell phones are evil.

    1. Agricoltural usage of neonicotinoid is more likely to be the main cause of bee colonies disruption.

  8. Only undesired calls give you cancer.

    In fact I feel a new Glioblastoma multiforme growing out of my skull every time my neighbor phones (frequently) because he suspects I spend my time moving around his tv antenna on the roof.

  9. Maybe the problem has nothing to do with RF.
    There was a recent news item about the effect magnets have on our brains.
    Don’t all ‘speakers’ in radios, headsets and phones contain permanent magnets?
    Could there be a problem when a magnet is held to one’s head?

  10. Anon #12:
    Oddly, the only known cure for that glioblastoma is to actually move around your neighbor’s TV antenna.

  11. I really wish someone would discuss the actual physics and biology behind why cell phones simply cannot cause cancer unless we forget everything we know about 1) physics and 2) biology.

    In a very basic nutshell: Radioactive materials can cause cancer because they emit radiation with very, very short wavelengths. Like 0.00000000001 meters short. Because they’re similar in size to the atoms and energies that make up your DNA they can interact with them, damage them, mutate them, and sometimes cause cancer.

    Cell phones emit radiation with LONG wavelengths. Like 1 meter long. These simply cannot interact with the chemical bonds that make up your DNA, and there is no mechanism known to mankind that can cancer with these wavelengths unless we unlearn everything that we already know about science [and before someone says ‘well maybe we should!’, please don’t be contrarian without a good reason].

    Anon: “Blind trust and blind suspicion are both blind” Bravo!

    Teller: second hand EMF makes absolutely no sense. If you’re worried about EM waves, DO NOT GO OUT IN THE SUN.

  12. Gas stations exploding (i.e. RF energy causing a fuel/air mixture to detonate) actually have a plausible mechanism, and seem a touch more likely than brain cancer.)

    1. Photolyase is a natural enzyme that we all have that repairs some damage from sun light harvesting energy from sun light itself. This is very cool. Evolution made our cells capable of using “bad” radiation from the sun to repair some radiation damages up to a certain extend. The same thing cannot be done with different ionizating radiations / emf etc. We have dozens of other enzymes, anatomical and psychological features evolved to preserve our biological functions in highly energetic environments.
      So you cannot put sun radiation on the same level of other new artificial energy sources just by measuring it’s gross output.
      On the other hand I always have wondered about how and if we have adapted to fire. My pathology teacher told us that in Mongolia, on the long term, many people develop tumors where keep hot stones under their vests.
      Anyone aware of IR waves from heating giving cancer?

  13. I seem to get into this about once a month. The only way to get cancer from radiation is from the damage it does to your DNA.

    In order for DNA to be damaged it must be struck by ionizing radiation. I.E. Radiation with enough energy to knock out parts of the DNA when it impacts them.

    Cell phone radiation is non-ionizing meaning that the cell will absorb the energy and then after a while it will release the energy in the form of a photon. This will damage nothing unless the energy level really cranks up.. as in to the level where you are cooking the meat.

    So unless your cell phone is putting out so much energy that it is cooking the flesh of your face… your not going to get cancer from it.

  14. I’ve often been curious about the apparent cultural difference relating to this topic; how this and related issues like power line, cell phone station, microwave telecom tower radiation and the like has been more a concern of the public in the US than in Europe while there we see greater concern over the use of chemicals in foods, drinking water, and household products and the issue of GM foods. What is the nature of this difference between these cultures’ perceptions of apparent threat associated with radiation, electronics, chemistry, and genetic engineering? Does it perhaps relate to the way the Cold War nuclear threat impacted US culture while, in European history, we have the legacy of chemical weapon use on European soil? Or does it relate to some other difference in the mainstream cultural perspective of types of technology? Is there a difference in the nature of public science education being reflected here? Something about how electronics or chemistry are presented to the society that makes one or the other seem more or less threatening or more or less comprehensible?

    1. I think it’s less a cultural difference than an education difference. People in the U.S. are generally less educated than people in Western Europe. If Americans had better educations in math and science, and even the most fundamental, reading, there’d be a lot less belief in things that are physically impossible.

      There’s a lot of belief in hoodoo in the U.S., things like copper bracelets, hologram bracelets, magnet cures, that monosodium glutamate makes them sick, etc. Americans thrive on quick fixes, superstition, and scapegoating.

      Many of us have no basic understanding of biology or physics. Much less the motivation to do research on anything, even to the point of just looking something up on Wikipedia. If they say it on teevee, it must be true.

      And we’re terribly susceptible to suggestion. You can try this at home: Next time you’re with friends, pick an object, then ascribe some ridiculous property to it in conversation. Then later, comment on it again, and ask your friends if they sense that property too, e.g., “This Fuji water kinda tastes like bubblegum”, or “My TV remote makes a high-pitched whine when I change channels, do you hear that?”, or pick up a random rock from outside, and make up a story about how you bought it at a health food store and that it’s supposed to make you get a natural high if you hold it in your armpit for a couple of minutes. Be sure to mention magnetism and ions, and special rare earth metals. Or that it’s a piece of a meteorite.

      Hopefully one or two of your friends will be skeptical and call you an idiot for believing such nonsense. Others will come to your aid and verify your claims.

  15. I love this recently-promoted notion that we should, by default, believe the sensationalists, panic-mongers and conspiracy theorists, because corporations and people in power have, from time to time, been caught lying.

    As opposed, of course, to the sensationalists, panic-mongers and conspiracy theorists – who never tell us anything but the completely unvarnished truth.

    All sorts of people, on all sides of any controversial issue, are likely to lie to you – sometimes for money; sometimes for fun; sometimes for the sense of superiority they get from not being one of the ‘sheeple.’

    Sometimes, I think, just out of habit.

    (Personally, I think the reason people believe that cell phones cause cancer is that holding cell phones against their heads for hours on end every day makes them stupid.)

  16. All of that is irrelevant.

    Microwave photons do not have anywhere near enough energy to cause molecular changes. Without molecular alteration, there is no genetic damage and without genetic damage there is no induced cancer.

    You don’t need epidemiological studies, long term or otherwise, to explore that. Microwave induced cancer is prohibited by the laws of physics.

    Photons are not energetic enough to trigger molecular damage until you get into the near ultraviolet. From there on up the electromagnetic spectrum, worry about cancer. From there down, it’s bullshit.

    Doctors, epidemiologists, professors of medicine, and scaremongers would do well to take a physics class every now and again. The lack of cell phone induced cancer is a direct consequence of the work for which Einstein won the Nobel prize a century ago. It isn’t a mystery to anyone except the physically ignorant.

    1. This is going to sound nuts, but I recently heard Gallagher of the fruit smashing celebrity give a pretty coherent mini-lecture regarding subatomic physics in relation to cancer on WTF. After which he and Marc Maron got into a sophomoric semantics fight.

    2. Ironically, even if I do agree with most of your point, I often think that physicist should take some biology class.
      Living organisms are so complex that are literally mind blowing…
      Unlike physics in biology we observe many things at the human scale that we can’t yet understand, while -please correct me- in physics most of the big questions arise in the microscopic or galactical scale.
      So, microwaves can heat (move atoms), and SMALL movements can determine BIG changes in living organisms. One degree C° of difference can be called fever (sickness). Proteins folding, protein pores, cell growth, genetic signaling can be affected by very small energy quanta. I’m not trying to be a fear monger -I do use a cellphone and my children do as well, once in a while.
      Just getting things straighten out a bit.

  17. ASPARTAME caused the rise in brain cancers over the past 20 years.

    Google [Rumsfeld Searle Aspartame] to learn how Searle got a highly addictive carcinogen legalized, and guess who was president at the time.

    The “cell phone theory” is propaganda. The Disinformation Age makes that too easy for some players. You might see this effect elsewhere, such as “oh noes Social Security is bankrupt!”

    Always treat information with suspicion, even if you think it comes from someone in your own camp.

  18. I worked much of my time at high powered transmitter sites. Going back 20 years or more we had to measure field intensity near towers. Some transmitting antenna changes were made to reduce the field on the ground under towers. Those fields were nonetheless non-ionizing radiation, meaning they didn’t have the ability to damage body cells and DNA like intense x-ray or radioactive substances can.
    In comparison, the fields from cell towers and cell phones are minute. If you are paranoid about RF I have two suggestions. One is to put your phone on your belt. RF fields decrease with the square of the distance. Thus the field at a given distance is 1/4 of what it was at half that distance. Second, I would not gift children and teens with cell phones. Their bodies are going through a lot of changes and you don’t want them exposed to something that might eventually prove harmful.

  19. My explanation is that there are evolutionary pressures selecting for pattern matching, but none selecting against. In other words, figuring out that after a heavy rain lots of predators roam that valley to the east can boost your chances of spreading your genes, but believing that peeing in the northwest corner of your cave at sunrise will end a drought does not decrease your chances of spreading your genes. This produces a ratchet effect that turns out offspring more likely to match patterns that aren’t there.

    1. Wouldn’t be too sure about that. No way am I reproducing with someone who pees in their own cave.

  20. Non-ionizing radiation really should cure cancer, because it’s essentially a very energy-diluted version of ionizing radiation. Like cures like, right?

  21. Boing Boing. Boing Boing Boing Boing. No intelligent comment here. Just wanted to request more John Cusack and say boing a few times. Mission accomplished. Have a good night.

  22. Because people are nitwits, that’s why.

    Cell phones rot your brain, but it’s the audio that does it.

    1. Indeed. Some people believe you’ll die if you sleep in a room with a fan running.

      It’s no wonder folks are scared of the magic talking machine.

  23. “Who trusts multi-billion-dollar corporations with everything to lose, where executives might even be sent to prison as a result? Of course, they might hide evidence or fund fake studies.”

    Seriously, we’re two years out from the greatest near-depression the world has experienced in 80 years, not a single executive has been charged or prosecuted, and this very same Web site not 24 hours ago posted a Rolling Stone article detailing the depraved depths of greed that occurred as a RESULT of said near-depression, yet you still believe executives would fear prosecution? Please, come on. The last people to be prosecuted for anything in the Western world are executives with plausible deniability and massive legal resources to protect them.

  24. Do we need to wait for the studies?
    Don’t cell phones operate on the same frequencies that we use to cook food?
    Doesn’t your head get really hot after talking on the phone for a while?

    My grandparents said that in their day folks just thought smoking winded you a little – no one thought it would kill you.

    1. Wow, you must be quite old. The health-adverse effects of smoking were well studied and proven to be correct during the third reich, but I admit it was kinda easy to dismiss it becaue “it was done by Nazis.”

  25. I’ve read studies which suggest that non-ionizing radiation (even at extremely low densities) changes the behavior of white blood cells.

    It may well be that non-ionizing radiation doesn’t *cause* cancer — it just interferes with natural defenses against the typical pre-cancerous cellular misfires that happen everywhere in your body all the time.

    1. To use the Internet vernacular, “PDFs or it’s not real.”

      What studies? Peer-reviewed? Mainstream? Or articles published on sites that purport stuff? I’d love to see studies with good methodology on the topic.

  26. “The cellphone instructions-cum-warnings were brought to my attention by Devra Davis, an epidemiologist who has worked for the University of Pittsburgh and has published a book about cellphone radiation, “Disconnect.” I had assumed that radiation specialists had long ago established that worries about low-energy radiation were unfounded. Her book, however, surveys the scientific investigations and concludes that the question is not yet settled.

    Brain cancer is a concern that Ms. Davis takes up. Over all, there has not been a general increase in its incidence since cellphones arrived. But the average masks an increase in brain cancer in the 20-to-29 age group and a drop for the older population.

    “Most cancers have multiple causes,” she says, but she points to laboratory research that suggests mechanisms by which low-energy radiation could damage cells in ways that could possibly lead to cancer.

    Children are more vulnerable to radiation than adults, Ms. Davis and other scientists point out. Radiation that penetrates only two inches into the brain of an adult will reach much deeper into the brains of children because their skulls are thinner and their brains contain more absorptive fluid. No field studies have been completed to date on cellphone radiation and children, she says. ”

    “Henry Lai, a research professor in the bioengineering department at the University of Washington, began laboratory radiation studies in 1980 and found that rats exposed to radiofrequency radiation had damaged brain DNA. He maintains a database that holds 400 scientific papers on possible biological effects of radiation from wireless communication. He found that 28 percent of studies with cellphone industry funding showed some sort of effect, while 67 percent of studies without such funding did so. “That’s not trivial,” he said.

    The unit of measurement for radiofrequency exposure is called the specific absorption rate, or SAR. The Federal Communications Commission mandates that the SAR produced by phones be no more than 1.6 watts per kilogram. One study listed by Mr. Lai found effects like loss of memory in rats exposed to SAR values in the range of 0.0006 to 0.06 watts per kilogram. “I did not expect to see effects at low levels,” he said. ”

    “The largest study of cellphone use and brain cancer has been the Interphone International Case-Control Study, in which researchers in 13 developed countries (but not the United States) participated. It interviewed brain cancer patients, 30 to 59 years old, from 2000 to 2004, then cobbled together a control group of people who had not regularly used a cellphone.

    The study concluded that using a cellphone seemed to decrease the risk of brain tumors, which the authors acknowledged was “implausible” and a product of the study’s methodological shortcomings.

    The authors included some disturbing data in an appendix available only online. These showed that subjects who used a cellphone 10 or more years doubled the risk of developing brain gliomas, a type of tumor. ”


    All of the above (including data from the Interphone study) seems to contradict claims made by the “non-ionizing radiation CANNOT cause cancer” crowd. Any responses?

    1. Devra Davis and Henry Lai and a few other usual suspects are always trotted out as the loyal opposition to any reporting on this topic. As with global climate change, there are thousands of scientists who have conducted research and a smaller number involved in meta-analysis who are, for some reason, put on one side of the scale equally with Davis, Lai, and a few others. This is not to dismiss their approach by numbers, but their concerns are simply not represented in the data. Lai’s research and meta-analysis is presented in isolation, and never described in the context of the large amount of lab experiments, clinical studies, epidemiology, and meta-analysis performed that doesn’t agree with him.

      As for Interphone, read the story I link to here. It addresses those and other concerns. Better yet, read the Interphone summaries, not even the studies. I don’t get the ‘only available online’ bit in what you’re quoting. When I went to read the Interphone results, I downloaded a few papers at the top level of the site, and one of the first I read (an overall methodology and results summary) specifically called out the unusual results that came out in comparing information across components of the study. It’s reasonable that researchers call out something that didn’t arise out of the research itself, and which appears to be an error. They suggest additional analysis on the topic. And the Mukherjee article I link has several paragraphs providing context.

      1. Thanks for the reply. I’m not familiar enough with Devra Davis and Henry Lai to comment on their research (but certainly just because NYT’s quotes them does not give them automatic credibility).

        I did gather that these increases in gliomas are suspected to be a result of recall bias (yes, 12 hours continuous hours of cell phone use is hard to believe).

        “Overall, no increase in risk of glioma or meningioma was observed with use of mobile phones. There were suggestions of an increased risk of glioma at the highest exposure levels, but biases and error prevent a causal interpretation. The possible effects of long-term heavy use of mobile phones require further investigation.”


        To me, recall bias is a somewhat insufficient explanation in that it could be used to ignore potential informative anomalies. On the other hand, it could be totally accurate. It seems this is a limitation of the study that was acknowledged from the outset. The summary simply states that it “require(s) further investigation.” I tend to agree.

        However, the point I was making (which you, Mukherjee, and Interphone also make) is that although it is theoretically unlikely, we currently have insufficient evidence to DENY that non-ionizing radiation can cause cancer (as many comments here claim). The Mukherjee article goes into some detail of the various mechanisms being investigated as to how (or if) this might occur. It’s premature to say it can’t happen. Although, to be fair, the evidence is definitely leaning against that conclusion.

  27. Always having to answer or not answer that cellphone causes stress that results in brain cancer. I don’t have one. I pay for 4 members of my family to have one.

  28. Antinous, I am in awe. You rock!

    AFAIK some people with solid, relevant credentials have considered this cell-phone-cancer-cause thingy and have argued for the Precautionary Principle. Green America (ok ok I know I’m not going to convince anyone here who already hates all “green” stuff) published several articles here on this: http://www.greenamerica.org/pubs/greenamerican/index.cfm

  29. I have nothing important to add, just wanted to say that I’m glad BB is staying classy by using ridiculous stock images.

    Finding a CC image to use because it’s funny or ironic (or just plain relevant) in relation to the story is great, but searching for “person using cell phone” on shutterstock is not the same thing…

  30. >> Do we need to wait for the studies?
    Yes. The alternative is insanity – even though there’s no evidence, you have to assume that the boogeyman IS gonna get you and now you must PANIC at EVERYTHING.

    >> Don’t cell phones operate on the same frequencies that we use to cook food?
    No. They are about 500mhz or so apart. Microwave ovens – as long as the tissue in question stays cool; heating any meat enough will denature the DNA and proteins in it, that’s why you can die of heat stroke in the summer – do not cause DNA changes.

    Also, the power level involved is radically different: my microwave oven is a 1600 watt model. My cell phone puts out about a tenth of a watt, less if I am closer to the cell tower (the power output is scaled back to the minimum required, both to prevent cell areas from interfering with each other and to conserve battery life).

    >> Doesn’t your head get really hot after talking on the phone for a while?
    No. If it’s going to be *that* kind of conversation, I’ll just hang up on em’… ;-)

    Actually – holding anything to my head for long enough will make it feel hot and irritated… even a set of earmuffs (with no electronics of any kind in them). Which, of course, is a good reason to use the speakerphone function on the cell phone…

  31. I expected a greater breadth of acceptance AND skepticism about this one NY Times article in this Boing Boing post. I really don’t think the case is as strong as it is being made here or implied by this one article about absence of harm. It is not so simple as “no ionizing radiation, no harm to the brain”. That kind of clear cut rational is specious. Take it to another level of complexity.

    Here is a link to an excellent article on mobile phone safety from the NY Times that preceded the one above (the rebuttal??) by two weeks:


    and the original study from JAMA

    Here is a clear and concise guide for finding and comparing your mobile phones SAR to others

    Here is the Interphone Study Link:

    In fact there is something happening to the brain proximal to wear an active phone is placed relative to an active phone. Frequency, energy emissions, and duration of use may matter and all have been going up dramatically over the past decade. 4G technology and todays PDAs demand higher SAR. If you are moving, your device will work at a higher energy level to maintain a tower connection.

    Various cancer and tumors are occurring in the brain of some & that requires an explanation and for user to pay attention to developments in this medical area of study.

    You may be thankful in 20 or 40 years.

    I think reasonable precautions are still reasonable and they are simple enough to employ, and have some side benefits as well, that should seem obvious. The links I provided review these. Pay attention, particularly if you are a heavy user or your body is young and developing.

    I believe some the arrogant dismissals may tone down a bit after re-reading the information in the links I have provided, and no they are not sensational.

    1. “It is not so simple as “no ionizing radiation, no harm to the brain”. That kind of clear cut rational is specious. ”

      That’s good, because the article I link to, and the thousands of papers and hundreds of studies that the author of that article refers to don’t say anything that simple.

  32. It’s pretty simple. Microwaves in microwave ovens heat food up, because they use a very powerful source (the magnetron) which emits a tightly-focused beam of RF into a carefully-tuned resonant box. There’s a great experiment you can do with cheese slices on a plate raised up from the rotating turntable that shows where the “hot” areas in a microwave oven are – there’s one big bit where the RF impinges on the food, and an interference pattern caused by reflections from the inside of the box. The metal grid on the door lets light through but keeps the RF in.

    So, microwave ovens – hundreds of watts of RF, narrow beamwidth, resonant enclosed box. Right?

    Mobile phones use a lower frequency (but that doesn’t make a lot of difference), much much lower power (a few hundred *milliwatts*, instead of a few hundred watts) and an aerial designed to disperse the RF in as wide a pattern as possible (in practice, the radiation pattern is a bit like a flattened doughnut so you don’t have to stand facing the nearest phone mast). If mobile phones emitted enough RF to heat up your brain, the battery would last about ten seconds.

    There are two *real* reasons why your head gets hot when you use a mobile phone. One is that the phone itself gets warm in use. The other is that you are holding an insulated plastic container to the side of your head. Try holding a phone with the battery removed, or even a phone-sized empty tupperware container. Your head will get hot on that side, because it’s not radiating heat.

    Gordon MM0YEQ (who avoids working near high-power transmitters at work, but uses a mobile and doesn’t have a landline any more)

    1. I am not qualified to respond to a lot of what you say, however, from my experience you are incorrect regarding the heat emulating from phones. If what you said was true, there should be no difference when using a phone from fifteen years ago and today. Yet, in my experience there is a big difference. My last three phones I could feel a heat like sensation in varying degrees when talking on the phone. With my iPhone 3GS, that isn’t the case. That phone has the lowest SAR rating compared to the other phones I was using. Your explanation also doesn’t account for the repeated headaches I used to get when talking for a very short time on older cellphones.

      Further, it isn’t really a normal type of heat I would feel. It is more like when you stand next to a very high power generator. The air around the device feels charged.

      1. “My last three phones I could feel a heat like sensation in varying degrees when talking on the phone.”

        I can remember when I was much younger talking on the phone with a friend for hours. I also felt a heat like sensation and it did seem to me that the handset was radiating heat. This was because I had been holding a piece of bakelite to my head for over an hour. Any heat the handset was radiating came from my body. I have a strong suspicion that the sweat that covered the phone came from me too.

        What is the mechanism by which a cell phone could cause cancer? If there is no mechanism I don’t care how strong of a statistical correlation you have, there is no cause at work.

  33. I just want to say that idea about a prize is a terrific idea. For science sake, someone please!

  34. As far as I’m concerned, if Japan doesn’t have abnormally high rates of brain tumors, then cell phones are safe. Children there get cell phones as early as children in the west start using computers.

  35. The article in the Times has too many weasel words and too many of the speculative claims it criticizes for my comfort. It reads like a slick industry release in certain ways, its subtle relatively speaking, but its more obvious if you read it critically. Like a Rorschach in a way.

    In a medical article I would expect clear disclosure about any financial ties or other links to the mobile phone industry, directly or indirectly. Many doctors do have ties to industries that they speak favorably about,e.g., medical device, drug makers. Its endemic and is problem at all levels of medical science. Those relationships exist for a reason, and not always out of the best interests of people’s health.

    Some of the more serious challenges he raises, he avoids much detail and avoids exploration into findings that did show tumor growth—brushes them off because the study flaw(s). ALL STUDIES HAVE FLAWS, especially if you focus on findings for which the study was not powered to focus on.

    The comparisons to rats (which live a couple years), or cell phone use 1990-92, or to tobacco raise plenty of questions rather than simply make his case.

    Estrogen?? Bad example and, like tobacco, one where the manufacturing companies obfuscation was/is tremendous and costly. Look how much flip flopping there is with estrogen benefits Vs risk. Another study came out just recently which gives the impression that the study before it was misleading. Yet, with a decrease in Premarin use, there has been positive results for many women–including less cancer. Its not nearly as mandated as it was. So much shame in its over-selling.

    Today, people have & use more minute calling plans, many many more younger and younger people have them now, and carry more powerful phones for more purposes then 1990-2002.

    The kind of studies he states would be most effective HAVE NOT BEEN DONE, but he wants so badly for you to focus your concern elsewhere.

    He should have spent more time addressing non-ionizing effects and on tumors most specifically suspected with regards to cell phone use and less on all that distracting background.

  36. “deftly tells you everything you need to know ”

    WHAT A CLAIM Mr Glenn Fleishman of Wi-Fi Networking News blog!!!

    Never mind the ever increasing amounts of Wi-Fi around us–phones, video, sound systems, remotes,etc.

    Everything you need to know in one article? About tumors? Gee, I cant think of one article that settles what we need to know about any product/industrial related tumors.

  37. My biggest concerns about cell phones are the mouthbreather I saw looking at his phone typing a text message while driving his F350 down the highway and the dumb lady I saw dialing a call while going 15 mph over the limit on a city street. I rubberband mine to the visor and use voice commands to dial and reduce my chances of getting in an accident. I hate using the damned thing but if I didn’t call people and tell them I was picking them up in a few minutes to expedite their getting ready to get in the cab I’d spend an hour more a day than I already spend waiting in people’s driveways and parking lots.

  38. Low-level exposures, if they show up, take decades (on average) to do so. Widespread use hasn’t been around that long.

    A very simple law of physics is that EM fields drop off as the square of the distance. So if it’s a worry, you could use a corded headset/microphone (not Bluetooth!) and wear the phone so the antenna’s lower in your body. Another way to decrease exposure is say what needs saying and get off … save the long discussions for face-to-face.

    I don’t own one either, but it’s about wanting to stay in the moment.

  39. A related interesting item:

    Many years ago it was thought that head injury caused brain tumors. Why? Simple – researchers questioned the parents of children who had brain tumors and in every instance could elicit a history of a prior bump on the head.


    1. I’d love to see a citation on that. It sounds a little too much like “20 years ago scientists all thought the earth was cooling!”

  40. Just because something can’t be proven scientifically doesn’t mean there isn’t a causal link. Many products we use today are built on underlying theories that we don’t understand. Any non-flawed study would have to study the radiation exposure over a long period of time. When people talk about these types of issues, they sometimes like to throw common sense out the window. Without actually jumping, it would be hard to prove if I jump off the Empire State Building I am going to die. I, however, can make an educated calculation that it is a bad idea to give it a try.

    The reality is there have been no genuine long term studies on the radiation exposure from cell phones. Cell phones companies are not interested, the government isn’t interested, and Universities rely on funding from those sources. Even if there were such studies, they’d be flawed. In the last fifteen years, the radiation levels from cell phones have dropped and every different model exposes one to a different level of exposure.

    From personal experience, I know cell phones have some effect on the body.Ten years ago if I talked on a cell phone, my head started hurting after five to ten minutes. I could feel the heat radiating from the phone into my head. With my old Nokia I could feel the same thing to a much lesser degree, and I still received the headaches (yet after a longer period of time). With my iPhone 3GS, I really don’t feel the heat sensation, and I don’t really get headaches. My experience is unscientific, but it correlates to the variations on the radiation levels of various phones (which are published). The old Motorola phone had a SAR rating of something like 2.48; the Nokia phone 1.4; and the iPhone 3GS .78 (the new iPhone is more like .98).

    There are also changes in terms of the radios in the phones becoming more power efficient, and not having to be as strong because of more tower proliferation. Today, people are also ditching traditional phones, and using just cellphones. These types of variations and changes make it hard to study the issue over a long period of time.

    I do know this. My girlfriend is an OR Nurse at the University of Michigan. She informed me that most of the neurosurgeons specializing in the brain limit their cell phone use and when they do use cell phones they try to use headphones or talk on speaker phone. The reason is that since the rise of cell phones, in their personal experience and from the experience of their colleagues, there has been a significantly higher rate of cancer that appears in the brain by where most people place their cell phones (right behind the ear).

    These surgeons can’t prove a causal link (and it isn’t their job to do so), but they have been exposed to enough data through experience to allow them to make an informed common sense decision to limit the exposure. In the future, it might be discovered there was another reason to explain the rise in this type of cancer (and the location of it) or cell phones may have improved to not be an issue anymore. For now, I think I will continue to rely on the judgement of people who actually see cancer on a daily basis. I try to use speakerphone as much as possible, and Ford’s vehicles with Sync are great.

    1. “I do know this. My girlfriend is an OR Nurse at the University of Michigan. She informed me that most of the neurosurgeons specializing in the brain limit their cell phone use and when they do use cell phones they try to use headphones or talk on speaker phone.”

      No, you don’t know that. Gossip is not knowledge. Did you know that Dr’s once kept the head of a newborn baby alive in order to conduct experiments on it? IT’S TRUUUUUUUE! A friend of a friend of a friend TOLD ME!!!!

  41. I wear a tin foil hat. Okay it is actually made of silver and nylon. I lived next to a cell tower for two years and found that I could not sleep more than four hours and woke up exhausted. I also had aching muscles and creaky joints and short term memory loss. These symptoms became progressively worse as I lived there. I network with people all over the world who have had similar experiences and for most of us, moving to a low emf/rf environment correlated with our symptoms being greatly alleviated. I spent a year after I moved away avoiding anywhere with WiFi or other transmitters. When I did spend time near them I would not sleep that night. I finally purchased the silver mesh material and made a hat and use it as sheets. I now sleep great and find I can tolerate more exposure in high emf/rf environments.

    The studies on people who feel they are sensitive to emfs are highly flawed. The people who have severe reactions drop out and our not included in the results. Only subjective symptoms were tested. Madga Havas, Ph.D. conducted a study measuring heart rate changes upon exposure to DECT phones. She found that people who identified as being sensitive had changes in their heart rate when exposed. Why aren’t there more studies like this?

    I suggest a read of Louis Slesin’s Microwave News – He discusses this article in his short takes and follows the money on the studies that show no harm – http://www.microwavenews.com

    Regarding ionizing radiation and cancer, is there anyone who believes that this is the only cause of cancer? Non ionizing radiation does not have to break DNA to be a causative factor. Many studies show that it unravels DNA and/or interferes with DNA recombining, causes oxidative stress and leads to lower melatonin levels. All of these are factors in developing cancer.

    If you read the instruction manual you would know that the phone tells you not to hold it to your head or body. Why do you think they say that?

    The U.S. has an exposure standard of 1,000 uW/cm2. China, Russia, Italy, Switzerland and Morocco all have an exposure standard of 10 uW/cm2. This is because they accept the vast scientific body of studies demonstrating non thermal biological effects from non ionizing radiation. I do too. I have a meter and find that if I can keep my exposure down I do not get symptoms. If I get high exposure I get symptoms. Russian research found that there is a threshold effect where increasing exposure leads to pathological results.


    1. “Madga Havas, Ph.D.”

      She’s another of the usual suspects. We could make a paper chain of Davis, Liu, Havas, George Carlo, Louis Slesin, and Alasdair Philips, and recite their names over and over again.

      I don’t try to ridicule or dispute anyone’s personal experience of pain, suffering, and disease. Some electrosensitive studies have found that symptoms cited by self-identified sufferers are measurable in the lab. The Essex study, for instance, found that such participants had measurable physical affects that the sufferers attributed to the presence of a signal. However, researchers in the double-blind test found that such symptoms expressed themselves regardless of whether or not a signal was present at the time that the sufferer experienced real symptoms. Thus, there was an organic or psychosomatic cause that the person identified with EMF, but which didn’t correlate to it. The Essex study, like many of these types, was conducted in a shielded environment to prevent outside signals.

      “The studies on people who feel they are sensitive to emfs are highly flawed. The people who have severe reactions drop out and our not included in the results.”

      This is a trope. There are now 49 studies covered in a meta-analysis of research on this topic. So: all of them are flawed, all of them have dropouts, all of them are wrong. It’s very convenient to be able to dismiss 49 studies with a wave of the hand and point to a single bit of non-peer-reviewed detail from a single researcher.

      I don’t doubt you have the symptoms you describe. No one is (nor should) call you a liar, a hypochondriac, or a Munchhausen’s Syndrome sufferer. Nonetheless, it’s been impossible to find a correlation of the kind you describe.

  42. Hi Glenn, It goes both ways. The same scientist are called forth over and over again to dispute the science on non thermal bio effects from emf/rf. If you want to read on why this is so, I suggest reading the following –

    The Procrustean Approach is now online – EMFacts Consultancy
    Jul 28, 2010 … Literature reviews, Microwave effects on wildlife, Miscellaneous … My PhD dissertation, The Procrustean Approach Setting Exposure Standards for … of biologically relevant exposure standards. Don Maisch PhD …

    I realize that it is hard for someone to believe that another person feels something that they do not, but it is the case over and over. Sunlight and skin sensitivity is a good example. I can sit in the sun for hours and not feel anything. Someone else will be in the sun for ten minutes and have their skin burned. This is a visible effect and easy to understand. It is much more difficult to understand with the effects of non ionizing radiation where there are no visible symptoms. But just as we all have varying sensitivities to ionizing radiation it is likely that we have varying symptoms to non ionizing radiation. And just as there is a cumulative life time effect to ionizing radiation exposure there is likely a cumulative life time effect to NIR.

    Correlating to the rollout of wireless transmitters is an increase in insomnia. The recent NIH studied showed that there is an increase in glucose levels from cell phone exposure. And this was from phones that were passive, i.e. not being used for talking or texting, etc. I really don’t get why people think it is so impossible for their to be non thermal biological effects from NIR. We are electrical beings. A good read on this is Robert Becker’s The Body Electric. We are effected by very minute emf/rf fields. Not all of these effects are negative and some of these effects are used by the medical field today. Becker pioneered low level emf/rf bone therapy. You can read more on this topic here –

    Pulsed radiofrequency – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    Pulsed radiofrequency is the technique where by radio frequency (RF) … Non thermal therapeutic uses of pulsed radio frequency are currently being used to treat pain and edema, chronic wounds, and bone repair. Pulsed radiofrequency therapy technologies are described by the acronyms EMF (electromagnetic field), …

    MRIs utilize the sensitivity of proteins to very weak magnetic fields. There are studies that provide evidence that RF also effects protein function as it twists the polarity of proteins. Which really should be totally evident from how MIRs work. They cause a reaction in proteins and other chemicals which is what allows the mapping to happen.

    1. “The same scientist are called forth over and over again to dispute the science on non thermal bio effects from emf/rf.”

      I’m not bringing up the “same scientists” here. I’ve read dozens of studies, and there are hundreds, about two main topic areas: a link between cell phone use and cancers, typically brain cancers, but others have been tracked as well; and electrosensitivity and its testability.

      “I realize that it is hard for someone to believe that another person feels something that they do not, but it is the case over and over.”

      If you read my comment, that is precisely the opposite of what I state. I do not attempt to deny or explain away anyone’s discomfort, illness, disease, etc.

      Rather, I point to the four dozen studies that individually and in meta-analysis are unable in controlled conditions to reproduce the linkage that you believe is there. I don’t dispute you believe it, or that you have conducted your own personal tests to this end.

      What’s more about many of the studies is that people who find themselves suffering experience symptoms during controlled testing that they assert is caused by the presence of a signal, and they say is identical to the symptoms they experience when near transmitters. But the studies show that those symptoms manifest with no correlation better than chance during testing when a signal is present or absent.

      It would produce a result if sufferers never exhibited symptoms during testing that they associated with and stated were a result of a signal being present, too. That doesn’t occur. And it’s cross checked against control groups who have far less symptom presentation (so less to check against signal absence/presence).

      When there were a handful of studies, one might dispute their methodology. When you have nearly 50, conducted under different funding by hundreds of researchers across at least a dozen countries with different methodologies (and different cohorts) that produce the same results, you’re starting to deny reality about the reproducibility and accuracy of self-identified suffers.

      That has no bearing, of course, on what you personally experience, nor the case you have built for yourself.

  43. The problem is that it would be a lot easier to demonstrate that cell phone do cause cancer if it was the case that to prove the opposite. Negative results are very hard to prove.

  44. I just discovered this study by Tufts University. This helps to explain why the interference with cell polarization is so important.


    Bioelectrical signals turn stem cells’ progeny cancerous

    Biologists at Tufts University School of Arts and Sciences have discovered that a change in membrane voltage in newly identified “instructor cells” can cause stem cells’ descendants to trigger melanoma-like growth in pigment cells. The Tufts team also found that this metastatic transformation is due to changes in serotonin transport. The discovery could aid in the prevention and treatment of diseases like cancer and vitiligo as well as birth defects….

    The researchers achieved similar results when they used a variety of different methods to manipulate transmembrane potential. Therefore, they concluded that the impact was triggered by the voltage change itself and was not intrinsically dependant on ivermectin, chloride flow or the GlyCl channel.

    Testing of human epidermal melanocytes in a depolarizing medium also showed a shape change similar to that found in the Xenopus tadpoles.

    The researchers also addressed the question of how cells sensed depolarization and converted this biophysical signal into changes in distant cells’ behavior. After testing three potential mechanisms, they found that transport of serotonin (a neurotransmitter that can be modulated to regulate mood, appetite and other functions) across the cell surface was the likely messenger.

    The Tufts researchers note that analysis of other ion channels might reveal other instructor cells that can signal and change the behavior of various important cells in the body. Learning to identify and manipulate such cell types may reveal additional roles for ion flows and establish a new model for control of cell behavior in regenerative medicine and oncology.

    Levin and his colleagues are already pursuing avenues for early, non-invasive cancer detection using voltage-sensitive dyes and exploring techniques to normalize cancer by repolarizing abnormal cells and instructor cells….

  45. Glenn, I have to concede that it is next to impossible to get a good testing of people who claim to be electrosensitive. Often I do not feel the effect of a days exposure until I am trying to sleep that night. I rarely get overt effects when I walk into a room with WiFi or sit next to someone on a cell phone. Although when I lived next to the cell tower I did. I would get flushed and heated when I went to a place with WiFi. Now my most identified symptom with exposure is that I can’t sleep that night. I will literally lie awake all night unless I take a sleep aid. Now that I use my silver mesh screening material I rarely have to do this. In fact, when I first got that material I would fall asleep in minutes when I wrapped myself up in it. I might only sleep for fifteen minutes, but it is unusual for me to fall asleep so quickly. I think I was so sleep deprived that I was catching up on my sleep. Now my sleep is back to more normal – that is pre cell tower exposure days.

    My suggestion to people who have trouble sleeping is to experiment. Turn off your wireless devices at night and see if there is a difference. There are many shielding materials and products that you can find at http://www.lessemf.com.

    It’s made a world of difference in my life to use shielding products.

    1. “I have to concede that it is next to impossible to get a good testing of people who claim to be electrosensitive.”

      I don’t know why it should be hard. It should be very easy to test. You just get self identified EM sensitives in a study and you subject them to EMF radiation without their knowledge. If their symptoms do not correlate to when the EM field is on then there is no connection between their reported symptoms and EMF. And that is exactly what the studies find. Humans have no sensitivity to EM fields.

      A long time ago someone someone put together a little device by which he could press a button and interfere with a TV signal. He would go to say a friends home and press the button. People would then try to adjust the rabbit ears to get a better signal not knowing that he controlled how well the TV worked. He found he could get people to adopt all kinds of odd postures because they thought if they held their arms just so the signal would clear up. But the truth is they were being tricked and he was just pushing or releasing the button on his interference device.

      These kinds of folk beliefs are very common. We have a strong tendency to believe that if B follows A then A must have caused B and that just ain’t always so.

    2. “Glenn, I have to concede that it is next to impossible to get a good testing of people who claim to be electrosensitive”

      You understand how this sounds. If you can’t test a proposition, and it’s inconsistent, how can it be true?

      But I’m glad you’ve sorted out something that works. We’re all individuals and need to shift our own way through life, regardless of what statistical analysis tells us.

      However, making public policy and broad pronouncements based on non-testable, inconsistent outcomes would make little sense.

  46. I want to point out that DNA damage from radiation is not required to cause cancer. The potential for cancer could already exist in the DNA, and simple environmental conditions could cause the cells to express the DNA differently (epigenetics). Any small local biochemical change could cause a cell to react differently.

    Personally, I don’t like moderate powered RF transmitters near my head, and I don’t like standing near the microwave while it is running. But, there seems to be no credible scientific support that either causes cancer.

  47. John Fryer

    All the usual excuses here and the chestnuts about how we need the stuff.

    In France a family found their chickens died after the mast went up next to them.

    12 years later and the same study repeated twice and we get the same answer.

    The retort from the regulators et al is DONT PHONE CHICKENS.

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