I thought that this disappeared long ago, but I guess the belief that cell phones cause brain cancer is still a thing. It doesn’t, and we have science on our side. But still, the myth endures.
This article is going to review a few studies that debunk the claim that cell phones are linked to brain cancer. I know, most of you already know this, but it’s always good to have a science-based article that helps you when your crazy uncle makes that claim.
The history of brain cancer and cell phones
A few years ago, the internet was filled with claims that cell phones caused all kinds of problems including brain cancer. Now it’s faded a bit, although the COVID-19 pandemic brought back a subset of these claims — 5G signals cause cancer and COVID-19 itself. So, it really didn’t disappear, it just mutated into a new form.
There are other reasons that the claim has faded a bit. First, people just weren’t going to give up their iPhones, even if there was a risk of cancer. People are addicted to their mobile phones because access to information, their friends, and the world at large is instantaneous. Brain cancer or not, prying that iPhone away from any of us is pretty close to impossible.
Second, and I’m skeptical about this, maybe the science convinced a lot of people. The science clearly shows that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, yet we have been unable to convince the fairly large segment of anti-vaxxers of these facts.
Third, and probably the most important reason, people are chasing other medical quackery these days. COVID-19 has been at the top of the list of medical issues, and cell phone claims have been put into abeyance, probably temporarily.
Whatever the reason is, I just want to take a bit of your time to quickly review all of the clinical and epidemiological studies that show there is no link. You know, just in case your crazy uncle speaks of it.
I’m just going to list each study with a few comments. Of course, I’ll also list the full citation, since most of these are peer-reviewed studies of high quality. Because that’s what I do for my loyal readers.
- The Interphone Study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organization) was conducted in 13 countries, and they did not find an increased risk of brain cancer from cell phones. They found no increased risks of gliomas, meningiomas, and acoustic neuromas.
- A nationwide cohort study in Denmark found that cell phones are not linked to any form of brain cancer.
- The 2022 update to the U.K. Million Women Study found that cell phone use under normal conditions found no statistically significant increase in the risk of brain tumors.
- A large 2021 study in Korea found no association between brain cancer and the use of cell phones.
- Despite the massive use of smartphones (over 84% of Americans own one), the incidence of all brain tumors has dropped by 0.8% annually from 2008-17 in the USA. If there really was a link between cell phone use and brain cancers, we would expect that the incidence would have increased, maybe substantially.
I want to give a couple of important caveats to these types of studies:
- Like nutritional studies, this research relies upon the self-reporting of the subjects. They are not clinical trials where the actual use of cell phones can be monitored.
- Brain cancers can take years to manifest themselves. If cell phones are linked to brain cancer, then it could be decades between the causal event and the detection of a glioma. This is an important issue with all studies that try to link something to cancer.
I want to be complete in my analysis, so there is a bit of information that could be concerning — animal studies. The National Toxicity Program has found that high exposure to radiofrequency radiation appeared to be linked to tumors in the hearts of male rats, as well as some evidence of tumors in the brains and adrenal glands of male rats.
As I have written previously, preclinical studies in animal models rarely (less than 1% of the time) have human clinical significance. There’s an old joke that we have caused cancer in rats and mice millions of times. I have been known to write, “don’t bother me with animal studies, call me when phase 3 clinical trials in humans have been completed.”
I don’t want to dismiss animal studies outright, but there don’t seem to be any human studies that support the claim that cell phones are linked to brain cancer. In fact, the studies dismiss any link between the two.
My review of the potential links between cell phones and brain cancer seems to show not much is there. If there is a link, the increased risk of cancer is probably very small.
There are more important ways to lower your risks of cancer — don’t smoke and get cancer-preventing vaccines like HPV and hepatitis B. That’s the best advice that the old feathered dinosaur can give you about preventing cancer.
- Choi KH, Ha J, Bae S, Lee AK, Choi HD, Ahn YH, Ha M, Joo H, Kwon HJ, Jung KW. Mobile Phone Use and Time Trend of Brain Cancer Incidence Rate in Korea. Bioelectromagnetics. 2021 Dec;42(8):629-648. doi: 10.1002/bem.22373. Epub 2021 Sep 20. PMID: 34541704.
- Frei P, Poulsen AH, Johansen C, Olsen JH, Steding-Jessen M, Schüz J. Use of mobile phones and risk of brain tumours: update of Danish cohort study. BMJ. 2011 Oct 19;343:d6387. doi: 10.1136/bmj.d6387. PMID: 22016439; PMCID: PMC3197791.
- Miller KD, Ostrom QT, Kruchko C, Patil N, Tihan T, Cioffi G, Fuchs HE, Waite KA, Jemal A, Siegel RL, Barnholtz-Sloan JS. Brain and other central nervous system tumor statistics, 2021. CA Cancer J Clin. 2021 Sep;71(5):381-406. doi: 10.3322/caac.21693. Epub 2021 Aug 24. PMID: 34427324.
- Schüz J, Pirie K, Reeves GK, Floud S, Beral V; Million Women Study Collaborators. Cellular Telephone Use and the Risk of Brain Tumors: Update of the UK Million Women Study. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2022 May 9;114(5):704-711. doi: 10.1093/jnci/djac042. PMID: 35350069; PMCID: PMC9086806.