Sometimes, it is hard to believe that just 25 years ago, few people had cell phones. Now, it’s hard to imagine life without them. Of course, cell phones have come a long way from their original function of simply allowing us to make calls while away from home: expanding to offer texting capabilities, mobile computing, and more. But does our dependence on cell phones come at a price? New research suggests—yet again and despite assurances to the contrary that we have received over the years—that it does, and it is a risk to our health.
The study, which was conducted by the National Toxicology Program of the United States National Institute of Environmental Health Services, found that exposure to high levels of radiation emitted from cell phones may be linked to an increased risk of cancer. These results are based on laboratory experiments that involved exposing rats and mice to full-body radio frequency radiation just like the 2G and 3G emissions that used to be produced by cell phones on those networks.
After exposure to radio frequency radiation, the male rats included in the trial were more likely to develop malignant tumors in the heart, and somewhat more likely to develop malignant tumors in the brain and malignant or benign tumors in the adrenal glands. Curiously, though, the mice and the female rats in the experiment did not experience as clear of a cancer risk as the male rats did.
There are a number of things that bear consideration in this study. First and foremost, we cannot directly compare how a mouse or rat is affected during research to the potential outcome in humans. Our physiologies are different and results would very likely be different as well. As Jon Barron has pointed out, only 4-20% of mouse studies statistically translate to humans. That being said, since it is difficult to isolate the radiation humans receive from our cell phones from other possible causes of cancer, we may never have all the information necessary to know just how much of an impact they have on the human body and malignancies, which means consistent results in animal studies might offer the best evidence of any connection between radio frequency radiation and cancer.
Another important factor is that the type of radiation exposure in the experiments isn’t the same as what we experience. The rodents received exposure across their entire bodies, which is obviously in great contrast to people, who typically receive the vast majority of cell phone radiation around their heads. So, it is likely that our hearts would not encounter nearly the same risk the rats faced, but it’s also hardly good news that brain and adrenal gland cancers were found, as those are in the region where we receive cell phone radiation.
It was noted that the lowest exposure levels for the rats and mice were the same as the maximum exposure permitted by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission for cell phone emissions, and the highest levels of exposure in the experiment was four times greater than that. Needless to say, the rodents were receiving quite a bit more radiation than humans generally do from cell phones. However, those people who can’t part from their phone for a minute and even sleep next to a charging phone to use it as an alarm clock might be placing themselves at higher risk.
And finally, because the study took 10 years to complete, the forms of radio frequency analyzed are far less commonly used than they were a decade ago. The 2G and 3G networks that were standard for cellphones at that time have been replaced by 4G and sometimes even 5G radio frequencies. This is a difference of efficiency in sending data, and the changes in bandwidth and radio frequency could potentially mean quite different findings if the trials were revised now. But keep in mind that 4G uses more bandwidth than 3G, which means towers need to be more powerful. The more powerful the cell phone towers, the more potential for radiation to be emitted into our environment. And even though 4G is more powerful than the 3G network, it’s not nearly as powerful as 5G. In other words, the risk is likely going up, rather than down.
So what does this mean for you? We need to take the results mainly as precautionary since there are so many discrepancies between the research conditions and real life use of cellphones by people. That being said, this is not the first time cellphones have been linked to cancer. A 2009 report issued by the International EMF Foundation analyzed research on cell phone safety and found an increased incidence of brain tumors, salivary gland tumors, and other health problems. You don’t need to give up your cellphone, but try to limit its use as much as possible. Make a conscious effort to leave it in another room and choose face-to-face interactions instead, which can both reduce your radiation exposure and strengthen your social ties simultaneously. But truth be told, most people are just too tied to their cellphones to do any of these things. That just means that if you get cancer 20 years down the road, you’ll be able to tell yourself, “Dang! I should have paid more attention to that newsletter.”