Do cell phones really cause brain cancer?

In honor of July being National Cell Phone Etiquette Awareness Month – and with San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors recently approving a law requiring cell phone retailers to post the amount of radiation emitted by each phone they sell – we thought it would be a good time to re-run one of our post’s from last year addressing the question of whether or not cell phones cause brain cancer.

Q: I heard that cell phones might cause brain cancer. Is that true?

A: Cell phones work by emitting radio frequency (RF) waves, a form of electromagnetic radiation between FM radio and microwaves. Unlike x-rays or ultraviolet (UV) light, this form of radiation is non-ionizing, meaning that it lacks the ability to damage DNA molecules.

But because cell phones are constantly used in such close proximity to our brains, many people are worried that they might be associated with an increased risk of brain tumors.  There have been around 30 research studies over the past decade that have looked at this issue and most have found that:

  • People with brain tumors do not report using cell phones any more than people who don’t have tumors
  • People who use cell phones more than other people do not have an increased risk of developing a brain tumor
  • In people who had brain tumors AND who used cell phones, there was no correlation between the side of the head that they held their cell phone next to and the side of the brain that the tumor was on

These studies, however, do have limitations. Cell phones have only been around for about 20 years, so the studies haven’t been able to follow people over a really long period of time.  Also, there haven’t been any good studies looking at the effect of cell phones on the developing brains of children. 

For now, it’s safe to say that there is no evidence that cell phones increase your chance of getting a brain tumor.  Further studies will surely be conducted in the coming years but at this point, you’re safe to use all the free night and weekend minutes that you want.

Adam Brandeberry, Med IV (OSU COM)

John A. Vaughn, MD (OSU SHS)