Mobile phones have become a constant of modern life. They are literally everywhere. More than 50% of the world’s population has one, with 5 billion phones in circulation. No other product has been so ubiquitous across the globe since humanity invented fire, and even that took some time to catch on.
So it’s no surprise that we wonder about mobiles’ impact on our health. Are they good? Are they bad? Are they making our lives easier, or damning us to pain and suffering?
Are they causing cancer?
It’s a serious public health question. If mobile phones cause cancer, even quite rarely, the fact that everyone has one means that it’s an issue. Scientists recently released a study that looked at this exact problem, and news everywhere has been reporting that they found the unthinkable: phones cause cancer.
Fortunately for the 5 billion of us using mobiles, the news is actually not that bad.
Phones probably don’t cause cancer after all.
In this case, the experiment was actually fairly straightforward. Rats and mice were put in special, purpose-built chambers that exposed them to mobile phone radiation at pre-set intervals — a total of 9 hours a day — for their entire lives. The radiation was set at a wavelength and type mimicking 2G and 3G phones, and was at a level between 1 and 4 times the maximum dose that phones emit during use.
To do this, the scientists created exposure chambers, which were essentially cages that could be bathed in radiation at specified intervals so that the rodents could be exposed evenly across their entire lifespan.
Rodents who were exposed to the highest levels of radiation saw a small increase in the number of cancers — primarily a type of heart tumor called a malignant schwannoma — over rodents who were not exposed.
This was something of a surprise — the prevailing wisdom has been that mobile phone radiation cannot cause the DNA damage that leads to cancer. We have known for some time that it can heat up cells by a fraction of a degree, but up till now there has been no plausible reason to believe that the non-ionizing radiation produced by mobile phones could lead to cancer.
Now we have a single study, done in rodents, that found what appears to be a small increase in risk for extremely high exposure levels.
Cue the media terror.
What Does This Really Mean?
When looking at a study like this, it’s important to put it in context. Yes, the scientists saw an increased risk of cancer for rodents exposed to this radiation, but what does that actually mean?
Firstly, the rodents in question were exposed to a lot of radiation. To get the same effect on a person, you’d have to spend 30-odd years of your entire lifespan living in a specially-made radiation chamber going at full blast. Remember: the minimum dose the rodents received was the maximum dose that phones emit at their highest functioning, and it unlike a phone that is aimed at a specific part of your body, the rodents were exposed everywhere.
For 9 hours a day. For their entire lives.
This is not really how humans use their phones.
And if we look at research in humans, the link disappears. A study looking at every case of brain cancer in Australia from 1982 to 2012 found that there was no increase that could be attributed to phone use. Similar studies have failed to find a consistent link between mobile phone use and any cancer. In many ways, this is not surprising — remember, we currently have no plausible reason that would link mobile phone radiation with cancer.
Another major thing that the media left out is that the rodents who were exposed to mobile phone radiation were more likely to get cancer, but also more likely to live longer. All of those terrifying headlines could just as easily have said “New study shows mobile phones may be the key to longevity”, but sadly this makes a less appealing headline.
So does this study change anything? Probably not.
What this study means is that the type of radiation mobile phones emit may, in very, very high doses, cause a small increased risk of cancer. This link is preliminary, and has not yet been seen in people, so it may only be a problem for rodents, but even if it is an issue for people dose is very important. Bananas are radioactive, but the amount of radiation they emit is negligible. Similarly, the radiation emitted by mobile phones may increase your risk of cancer, but only in doses many hundreds of times higher than the average person would experience.
It’s also worth remembering that this study was done on old technology — the scientists mimicked 2G and 3G, while most mobile networks are now moving onto 4G and 5G. It’s possible that a new study on the newer technology might not find the same results at all, although the radiation is very similar.
Overall, there may be some increased risk of cancer from mobile phone radiation. So far, it doesn’t seem likely to affect humans, but it’s possible we’ll find one in the future.
Does this mean very much to your life?