Can Smartphone Use Increase Brain Cancer Risk?

<p>Photo Illustration by Lecia Landis for Verywell Health; Getty Images</p>

Photo Illustration by Lecia Landis for Verywell Health; Getty Images

Fact checked by Nick Blackmer

Key Takeaways

  • People have long wondered whether cell phone use might cause brain cancer, but there's been no evidence to prove this connection.

  • A new 20-year study from Taiwan aimed to answer this question, but it only added to the mountain of inconclusive research after finding a positive but ultimately weak, non-significant association between mobile phone use and brain cancer.

  • Experts say we should still be aware of the potential risks and take possible precautions in the meantime.

The conversation about whether radiation emitted by cell phones can cause brain cancer has been ongoing for years, though research has yet to prove a solid connection between the two.

A new 20-year study from Taiwan aims to answer this longstanding question. The population-based study examined whether smartphone usage over a 20-year period had any effect on the incidence and mortality rates of malignant brain cancers of its participants.

Researchers found a positive, but ultimately weak and non-significant association between mobile phone use and brain cancer.

“There appears to be a limited connection between mobile phone usage and MNB (malignant brain neoplasm) occurrence and mortality. However, it is crucial to recognize that definitive conclusions cannot be made at this point,” said Shabbir Syed Abdul, MD, MSc, PhD, a professor of artificial intelligence and digital health and a co-author of the study.

While the study offers some valuable insights, it doesn't provide a concrete answer to the question at hand. It just shows that in tandem with a major increase in smartphone usage between 2000 and 2019, brain cancer incidence and mortality slightly increased as well.

The existing information on the subject is equally conflicting. In 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified radiofrequency electromagnetic non-ionizing radiations as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” while the 2020 guidelines drafted by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) suggest that “the great majority of studies have reported a lack of carcinogenic effects in a variety of animal models.”

A 2010 study looking at brain cancer incidence trends in relation to cellular telephone use in the United States found that incidence data did not provide support to the view that cellular phone use causes brain cancer. But a UC Berkeley meta-analysis of case-control studies from 2020 did find evidence that linked cellular phone use to increased tumor risk.

Still, an uncertain risk does not mean a lack of risk. Here’s why this topic has been so difficult to explore, and what you can do to keep your brain as safe as possible.

Related: Why You Should Not Sleep With Your Cell Phone at Night

The Challenges With Measuring Smartphone Impact

There’s a reason science can’t quite seem to figure out a definitive answer when it comes to phones and brain cancer, said Tara Morrison, MD, a neuro-oncologist at Lehigh Valley Health Network (LVHN). Morrison said measuring the impact of our phones on our health over a long period of time is tricky given how much our phone use, and the phones themselves, have changed.

“The mobile phones that we have today are vastly different than those from the early 2000s, not to mention the bricks of the 1990s,” she said. “I am not sure that we can ever truly measure the connection between the two.”

Not to mention that the time it would take for these tumors to develop after exposure to radiation is 10 to 15 years on average, she said. Given that phones are constantly changing, researchers are trying to measure something that had its “cause” years ago, which is difficult. And that is all while making the assumption that there is causation between the two, not just a correlation.

“It is important to note that due to the constantly evolving nature of technology, studying long-term effects is challenging,” Abdul confirmed. “Therefore, research in this field remains ongoing, and future studies will continue to refine our understanding of the potential connection between mobile phone usage and health outcomes.”

Related: What Is EMF?

When it comes to this study specifically, Morrison said the data is conflicting among the multiple groups, and there are limitations in all of them. For one, she said, they are retrospective, not prospective. They also do not control for other potential factors that may affect cancer risks, such as age and genetics. The study was also done within a very homogeneous population, and is not necessarily applicable to the human population at large.

And while it’s true that brain tumor incidence has been slowly increasing, Morrison said there are other factors that are contributing to this reality, including a better ability to diagnose and an aging population.

You may have also heard people speaking about concerns related to 5G service and its potential effects on our health, but Morrison said the jury is also still out on that one.

“5G service is much too new to be able to comment on what risks it might pose with regards to malignant brain tumors, again due to the long latency period between exposure and development of brain tumors,” she said.

How to Protect Yourself

Despite the challenge of pinpointing the exact impact of our mobile phone us on our physical health given the way our use of technology, and the technology itself, has evolved over the years, Morrison said there is still good reason to take note of the possible risks and to adjust our behaviors accordingly.

“It is reasonable for the IARC to have made the recommendation that it did—that this type of radiation is potentially carcinogenic—to make us aware of a potential risk, encourage us to study it further, and to encourage the ongoing research for alternatives,” Morrison said.

What we do know, she added, is that our skulls act to reduce our exposure to the type of radiation involved. But we can also use headsets, Bluetooth, and speakerphones to keep devices away from our head altogether, and this should be encouraged.

“In addition, young people and children have thinner skulls, and developing brains—which, in theory, might make them at higher risk than adults,” Morrison said. “We should consider really encouraging them to use the alternative modalities of listening to protect their brains.”

What This Means For You

While the jury is still out on whether the radiation coming from our cell phones might cause brain cancer, there are still precautions you can take to protect yourself from the potential impacts. This includes using headsets, Bluetooth, and speakerphones to keep devices away from your head.