Cell phones have become an ubiquitous part of life for many people, and present the possibility to connect areas of the world that have been cut off by the technological divide. But a fear that has existed since cell phones were first introduced continues to linger: do cell phones cause cancer?
The concern stems from the belief that cell phones are a source of radiation. That is true; the radio waves that are emitted by antennas in mobile devices are a form of radiation, and tissues near the antenna can absorb that radiation.
Worry is often backed by studies that crop up from time to time, suggesting evidence of a link between cell phone usage and cancer. Research published last year by the U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTF) caught the eye of many people when it revealed that rats exposed to radio waves developed tumors.
Studies like this prove the potential risk of radio waves in rats, but don’t necessarily transfer to humans. The American Cancer Society (ACS) noted, “some aspects of this study make it hard to know just how well these results might be applied to people.”
According to the ACS, the NTF hit rats with doses of radio frequency radiation that were considerably higher than those emitted from cell phones and left the rats exposed to the radiation for longer than most people spend on the phone each day.
While cell phones do emit radiation, the National Cancer Institute notes radio waves are low-frequency and low energy, rendering them essentially harmless. Exposure to high-energy, ionizing radiation like x-rays is known to lead to an increased risk of cancer.
Most studies, including a 2015 report from the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks, found there is no consistent evidence to suggest non-ionizing radiation like radio waves can increase cancer risk.
It’s also worth noting that brain tumor rates have not increased despite the proliferation of cell phones.
A 2017 report from Pew Research indicated 95 percent of Americans own a cell phone of some kind, and a 2014 report from GSMA Intelligence found there were more mobile devices in the world than people. Meanwhile, data from the National Cancer Institute suggests brain cancer rates haven’t increased at a commensurate rate—in fact, it decreased for a period.
Despite the occasional headline-grabbing study, most evidence seems to suggest that cell phones are not a likely cause for cancer—and even if they were, it hasn’t done much to slow the popularity of the devices.