Should You Really Worry About Getting Cancer From Cellphones?

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Do cellphones really cause cancer and brain tumors? The answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no. (Photo: Greg Vote/Corbis)

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop website is no stranger to attention-grabbing stories — last year it featured advice on vaginal steaming and why you may be yawning the wrong way. The latest: An article that claims our cellphones are toxic.

First, the claim: “The simple truth is that talking or texting on a cell phone uses the same kind of radiofrequency radiation you would find in a microwave,” nutritionist Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, said in the article. “It is comprised of frequencies, modulation patterns, and other characteristics that make it biologically disruptive.”

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That disruption can cause serious health problems for us, Gittleman said. “The bad news, unfortunately, is that cell phone radiation has been associated with many types of cancer, the best known being brain tumors,” she said. “The longer the hours of use, and years of use, the greater the risk.”

According to Gittleman, the radio-frequency radiation emitted from cellphones can been linked to neuron death in the brain and blood barrier permeability. “Such risk is increased for those who began cell phone use as a teenager or younger,” she said.

A closer look at whether there is a cellphones-cancer link

The National Cancer Institute says on its website that no link has been established between cellphones and cancer: “Although there have been some concerns that radiofrequency energy from cell phones held closely to the head may affect the brain and other tissues, to date there is no evidence from studies of cells, animals, or humans that radiofrequency energy can cause cancer.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) takes a similar stance, although it doesn’t say that cellphones don’t cause cancer. In a Q&A published on its website that asks, “Can using a cell phone cause cancer?” the CDC answers: “There is no scientific evidence that provides a definite answer to that question. Some organizations recommend caution in cell phone use. More research is needed before we know if using cell phones causes health effects.”

The CDC acknowledges that cellphones give off radiation but says, “We don’t know for sure” if the radio-frequency radiation given off by cell phones can cause health problems.

Research leaves unanswered questions

However, in 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified radio-frequency electromagnetic fields as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” meaning there’s a chance they might cause cancer.

Many large studies haven’t found a link between cellphones and cancer. A study of nearly 359,000 adults in Denmark that was published in the BMJ, for example, didn’t find an increase in the number of brain tumors among cellphone users — including those who had been using them for 13 years.

What are we supposed to think?

“There is considerable controversy about a link between cellphone use and brain cancer,” oncologist Timothy Moynihan, MD, education chair of the Mayo Clinic’s Division of Medical Oncology, tells Yahoo Health. “However, there are no definitive studies that clarify that situation.”

Moynihan also points out that, despite the widespread use of cellphones over the past 30 years, there has been no increase in brain tumor diagnoses.

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Garni Barkhoudarian, MD, an assistant professor of neurosurgery and neuroscience at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Saint John’s Health Center in California, agrees. “Benign brain tumors could take 5 to 10 years to develop and become symptomatic,” he explains to Yahoo Health. “For malignant brain tumors, it’s shorter — just a few years.”

So, are cellphones safe?

As cellphone technology has improved, the ability of radio-frequency radiation to penetrate our body’s tissue has also lessened, Barkhoudarian says. Cellphones in the ’80s and ’90s used higher-energy, lower-frequency systems, which can more easily penetrate our bones and skin, he explains. But modern cellphones use lower-energy, higher-frequency systems. “We do know that the higher the frequency, the lower the penetration through biological tissue,” says Barkhoudarian.

While Moynihan notes that there are multiple, ongoing trials that may help clarify things even more, Barkhoudarian says people shouldn’t be alarmed. However, if you have concerns about cellphones and cancer, he recommends using a hands-free device.

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