Cell Phone Health Hazard?

It’s become one of those oft-repeated half-truths floating around that people either assume to be unerringly true or completely false. It draws both sides of the spectrum: those that eschew all traditional medicine, and the folks who take the official governmental recommendations and proclamations as gospel, every single time. Every now and then, you might hear a blurb about the cell phone-cancer connection on Oprah, or on the evening news, or from the neo-hippy mother picking up her child from daycare. You probably can’t really quite place where you first heard about it. It’s just there, lingering in the public mind space. And it never really gets a clear answer. Now, a growing body of research seems to suggest that a link between cell phone usage and brain tumor incidence does exist, but it’s just that: an association, a correlation. Correlations are interesting, but you can’t draw concrete causal conclusions with correlations alone (Ancel Keys’ dietary fat graph, anyone?).

We remain stuck with ambiguous links and suggestions. Is there evidence of a causal link between cell phone usage and the incidence of brain tumors? Do scientists offer an actual mechanism that theoretically explains the brain’s susceptibility to tumor growth when exposed to cell phone radiation?

I’m going to spoil the ending before I really get started. No, it hasn’t been proven, and while the correlative data has only gotten stronger, a possible mechanism for causation has not been established. One study showing correlation is pretty meaningless. Five studies showing the same correlation warrants further investigation, but they’re still essentially meaningless. But once you get into the realm of eleven, or even twenty-three studies all suggesting a correlative link between cell phone use and brain tumors, things change. It still doesn’t prove anything in the way of causation, but it can make for some serious hypothesizing. And it definitely legitimizes a closer look.

In September of this year, researchers from the Australian National University took a closer look. They conducted a review of eleven long-term studies examining a possible link between cell phone usage and brain tumors. In order to be eligible for consideration, each study had to satisfy certain requirements: publication in a peer-reviewed journal; study participants with a minimum 10-year history of cell phone usage; and a focus on “laterality,” or whether using a cell phone on a particular side of the head resulted in greater tumor development on that side. These were long-term studies with some fairly rigorous standards, and the authors of the meta-analysis concluded that “there is adequate epidemiologic evidence to suggest a link” between cell phone usage and brain tumors. No causation, but it began to look like something was going on.

The inquiry continued in October, when another team of researchers conducted a similar meta-analysis of 23 eligible studies. They too found “possible evidence” that mobile phone usage exceeding ten years may be linked to an increased risk of brain tumors, concluding that further cohort studies are needed to confirm hard evidence of a causal effect. These guys also found a connection between which side of the head a user typically held the phone and which side of the head developed tumors – if that correlation doesn’t inspire a bit of hypothesis formation, I don’t know what possibly could.

The media is taking notice. CNN discusses the associations between cell phones and cancer in a recent article, but to their credit, they avoid any bold, definitive pronouncements. Epidemiology suggesting actual links between two variables (red meat intake and mortality, for example) is usually instant fodder for the media’s insatiable desire for sensationalist “news” stories, so I was halfway expecting the coverage of the subject to boldly proclaim, “Cell phones cause brain cancer!” CNN does mention the October 23-study meta-analysis, and notes that the stronger, more scientifically rigorous studies showed the greatest link between cell phones and cancer, while the weaker studies, some of which actually suggested a protective quality, were funded by telecommunications industry groups.

The debate rages on, but there is one incontrovertible truth: cell phones do emit an electromagnetic field that penetrates the head. Cell phone radiation is not ionizing – that is, it doesn’t detach electrons from atoms or molecules and shake them around and cause havoc, as do x-rays or radioactive materials – but it is similar to microwave radiation. Skeptics counter that although cell phone radiation is classified with microwave radiation, since it isn’t powerful enough to damage DNA or heat up tissue (like sticking your brain in a microwave), there’s no danger. No short-term danger, sure. It’s never been shown that cell phone usage instantly produces brain damage (although you wouldn’t know it from the way some users behave in public or in transit), but that’s never really been the issue. The real issue is long-term, incremental damage over a lifetime. Does it exist? Does the correlation imply causation?

Two UK papers report that the upcoming release of the World Health Organization’s decade-long Interphone study on heavy cell phone use and brain cancer will show a significant increase in brain cancer following a decade of regular cell phone use – about an 18% increase, with the majority of those cancers developing on the same side of the head users hold their phones. Hmm. 18% over ten years? Sounds like a massive increase, especially for something as serious as brain cancer. But when you consider the relative rarity of a condition like brain cancer, 18% doesn’t sound so bad. According to an article by Scientific American, men and women worldwide have a 1 in 29,000 and 1 in 38,000 chance, respectively, of developing brain cancer in their lifetimes. Even if a study indicates that heavy cell phone users have three times the risk of developing brain cancer, that would mean a man’s chances over 60 years would jump from 0.206% to 0.621%, and a woman’s from 0.156% to 0.468%.

My hunch is that basic cell phone use isn’t a huge issue, and brain cancer is such a rarity that using your phone once or twice a day isn’t going to ensure a tumor. If you’re going to stress about the electromagnetic field emitting from a cell phone, where do you stop? What about the steady hum of electronics all around us? Wi-Fi? I look at like this: contemporary life, with all its trappings and tech and comforts and electromagnetic fields, is here to stay. You can mitigate its effects by eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, getting plenty of sleep, and wearing a Bluetooth headset or holding the phone away from your head, but unless you live completely off the grid, you’re going to expose yourself to unnatural, perhaps unwanted environmental effects. And even if you live a hundred miles from the nearest sliver of civilization, it’ll still probably find you.

I’ll still recommend that people keep the cell phone usage to a minimum, but not to necessarily avoid brain cancer. Perhaps a better reason is that too often cell phones become prisons preventing us from truly engaging with the world. Time is ever moving, and technology is only going to progress – it may soon become a rare and precious moment that we’re able to dwell silently on our thoughts without wireless signal or electromagnetic field or peripheral cell phone chatter intruding.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

39 thoughts on “Cell Phone Health Hazard?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    1. What she said. 🙂

      It seems wiser to take the money one would spend on fancy-schmancy “electromagnetic neutralizers” and buy grass-fed, organic, etc. Far better odds that eating right is going to save your health!

  1. I’m sticking to letters, and throwing rocks with notes attached to them

  2. Good article.

    Electromagnetic radiation is an inevitable part of modern life, something we can’t possibly control if we intend to lead normal lives.

    The only place where I try to limit it is in my bedroom, I’ve taken all electronics out except for my alarm clock which I keep at the far side of the room.

  3. Are there any studies looking at cordless phone usage as opposed to cell usage.

    1. This question popped into my head too while reading the article.

      I looked around and found that certain types of cordless phones which emit 1.9Ghz waves (DECT) have also been correlated to harmful effects. Of course, cordless phone makers do offer different frequencies which may be less of a problem.

  4. Thermography does show that cell phones do heat up brain tissue when you use them. I’m not waiting for a study or a large body of evidence or a brain tumor for that matter. I rarely use a cell phone, and when I do it’s either on speaker mode, with a wired ear piece/mic or I hold the phone a couple of inches away from my ehad when talking. What’s odd is that after a couple of minutes, my hand starts heating up, but the battery is still cool to the touch. Hmmm….
    Too cautious? Maybe, but those interventions don’t take any trouble.

    1. I have the same experience with heat when using cell phone, especially around my ear.

      I believed cell phone is hazardous to our health because it generates scalar waves which vibrate at similar levels to our cells. Cells used scalar waves to communicate; therefore, the scalar waves from cell phone can disrupt their communications and may even destroy them.

  5. I wonder what effects carrying a cell phone around in my jeans pocket all day will have? It’s always in my left pocket, so perhaps there’s a greater chance that my left thigh will develop cancer than my right thigh.

    Please excuse the next comment as it’s completely off the wall goofy (it’s just one of those days). These studies are so sexist. They all fail to include the risks for transgendered individuals. I mean if the risk of developing brain cancer from cell-phone use is greater for men than for women, then shouldn’t some of us men begin to consider getting a sex-change operation? Of course, we need more information, such as, does getting the operation shift our risk from that of a man to that of a woman? Or do we then have a risk level that is the median of the two modal genders? So many unanswered questions…

    1. Or what if it links to the fact that men behave differently than women? Then men should start acting more like women. Not only would we solve brain tumors, but we’d solve most of life’s problems too! 😉

  6. I think cellphone usagemust be kept to a minimum, but great post mark!

  7. My husband got a tumor on his parotid gland, likely from his cell phone. This was probably 8 years ago. When there was any background noise at all, he would have to cup his hand around the entire phone and press it to his ear. His job requires him to be on the phone several hours each day. Luckily, even though the tumor was cancerous, it was encapsulated and was easily removed.

  8. What about the electromagnetic field from the ear piece or headphones? Those tiny little speakers aren’t powered by fairy dust!

  9. I might be the last person on earth to not have a cell phone (and I’m 29, it’s not like I’m 80 and scared of technology), but it’s mainly a lifestyle choice. I have noticed a profound effect on the organizational and planning skills of people since cells became common. We don’t need to worry about meeting people on time because you can call and tell them you’ll be late and that somehow makes it better. We don’t need to arrange a meeting place because we can always just call each other when we get there. Sure… until your phone’s out of batteries. ; )

  10. It’s all about correlation vs. causation.

    I have good anecdotal evidence suggesting a strong correlation between shopping in Costco and Type 2 diabetes. It can be concluded that, therefore, frequenting the grounds of the store produces a strong sustained insulin spike in its customers.

  11. I’m not sure why wearing a bluetooth headset would be better? Isn’t that just emitting radiation in the same way, albeit a different frequency?

    1. Bluetooth is not only at a different frequency, but a radically lower transmission strength. When a bluetooth transceiver is operating, it only needs to be able to communicate to another transceiver within a few feet and with almost nothing impeding the signal. When your mobile phone’s main transceiver is operating, it is sending a signal strong enough to be picked up several thousand feet up to several miles away, and possibly having to overcome the losses of transmitting through multiple barriers (building walls, etc.)

      The power difference between a bt and main phone transceivers is between 1000:1 and 100,000:1 depending on the effective distance to the cell tower.

  12. 1./ I appreciate your post, Mark.
    2./ I thought I’d share a few reflections.
    a./ about the cellphone usage : “keep it to a minimum”. Indeed. It is not as though as we had a clear picture of what lies ahead (long-term side-effects, ie. over a generation at least). That’s what I tend to think. It’s good for your social skills, and probably for many other things you cannot quite grasp yet.
    b./ what engineers (whose area of expertise is the field of microwaves [ie. people working on research and development for wireless devices, RADARs, and so on]) tend to be cautious about : keeping exposition times as short as possible, while being as far as possible from the emitting source. These people may be dealing with not so long-term side-effects. In fact, I have been told by someone who works for one of the leading manufacturers in Europe that there are studies from the UIT that state that 70% of the people working in the telecommunications field tend to have daughters (rather than sons). It is supposedly a clear correlation. The statistics remain stable.
    c./ what can we gain from it in our every-day use :
    well, if you think about it, consider the microwave frequencies we use : 900MHz, 1800MHz, 2400MHz, 5000MHz (for WiFi, bluetooth, GSM, DCS, UMTS).
    If you know a little bit about physics, you basically know that waves get (and resonate) into cavities easily, when these cavities are of the appropriate size. We’re talking about multiples of the wavelength. Ideally, exactly the wavelength. Now, if you roughly get the wavelength corresponding to electromagnetic waves that propagate through the air (at the frequencies listed above), you get : ~33cm (comparable with the human skull ?), ~16cm (I’ll let you make the comparison), 12.5cm (I think you get the picture).
    What it means is that when a human body is exposed to electromagnetic radiation at these frequencies, the waves possibly resonate within any organ that has suitable size. Now : do you want that ? Probably not. And if you still wonder whether you can afford to undergo these, consider a wise version of the precaution principle, as approximately translated from French below :
    d./ “La physiologie de l’homme et des autres espèces vivantes est le produit de millions d’années de compromis avec les émissions électromagnétiques naturelles, essentiellement d’origine solaire et cosmique. Elle n’est pas adaptée à des rayonnements normalement inexistants, ou négligeables, au niveau de la biosphère. L’interaction avec ce milieu électromagnétique nouveau est donc a priori susceptible de s’accompagner d’effets nocifs, dont la nature et l’évaluation préoccupent autant les scientifiques que les pouvoirs publics, si l’on en juge par la quantité des travaux et règlements qui leur sont consacrés”. (Jacques THUERY, ALCATEL-ESPACE engineer (“Les microondes”, TECDOC 1989))
    The physiology of the humans and other living species is the result of millions of years of arrangement with natural electromagnetic radiations […]. It is not adapted to normally non-existing radiations (or negligible) at the biosphere level. The interaction with that new electromagnetic environment is likely to bring upon noxious effects[…]
    e./ Does anyone have links to statistical studies on other animals affected by our artificial electromagnetic fields ? it would be interesting to know what happens to birds like pigeons… and other urban birds.
    3./ final word : while we have some clues that it may be harmful to us, it is not as though we were really ready to give up on wireless technology. Economically, we cannot even afford it. Let’s hope it will push us forward even faster to find “greener” ways of using wireless transmissions.
    Anyway, be hardcore, drink water, get some sleep and grok on ! [and thanks for reading]

  13. Dr Joe Mercola has discussed this several times in his weekly newsletters over the past few years. He does hawk his own safe “bluetooth” type product but I do think he has a point, even if he is an alarmist.
    I tell people to call me on my landline at home or at work if they want to speak with me. My cell is used weekends, and rarely at that.
    Mark is correct, there’s very little we can do to protect ourselves from radiation from cell towers & wifi other than follow the PB. But I have to wonder if cell phones are the next cigarettes…
    And look at what distracted driving has become-almost worse that drunk driving.

  14. It’s too easy to jump to correlations.

    A couple decades ago the press was gaga about the danger of high tension (voltage) transmission wires. People who lived under these lines had higher incidents of all kinds of ailments.

    It didn’t seem that the researchers noticed the socio-economic state of people living in such locations.

    It is unfortunate that procuring fresh produce and grass fed meat is correlated (my assumption) with income, level of education (one can be educated without going to college), etc.

    One does not have to be rich or have an advanced degree to live like Grok, but one does need to be aware of their environment and make the sacrifices (if needed) to do so.

    One shouldn’t live on corn syrup because it’s cheap!

  15. I have been called a neanderthal on more than one occassion by my tech savvy and just plain ‘up to speed’ friends. I am soon to be 38 and still have never owned a cell phone. More to do with my frugil nature and pure stubborness to not take the road most traveled like everyone else. I agree with the member who wrote above that it does seem a bit of a crutch to be late for appointments or a convenient resource to use to not have to really commit to any plans until the last minute. However, there have been a few moments when I wished I did have a cell-like when I was stranded in 90+ degree weather (with non air conditioning) with my two young boys and noone around for miles and noone family members knowing which direction I had taken to get home. Hmmmm, rereading that, I think I need to atleast get a cell for emergencies……

    Best way to be about stuff like this is the Grok way….be aware, know what is going on around you, but do not react defensively to anything until you know that it requires you to do so (instictively or otherwise).

  16. 1 in 29,000 is much less than 0,206% (which equals roughly 1 in 500)

  17. Laura – I thought I was the last! I’m not a luddite (I’ve owned computers since 1988 and like my HD TV) I always figured that if people wanted to call me, they could do so at work or home – the rest of the time I was travelling or exercising and wouldn’t appreciate the call anyway. However, I finally succumbed this year, shortly before I turned 42. I was going to Paris on holiday with two friends, but as they were travelling from another city I had to meet them there. I bought the most basic phone (no camera, no apps) I could find to make sure they could contact me. I take the phone out with me when I go to meet people, just in case there’s some sort of travel problem, but that’s it. The rest of the time it stays at home.
    Mobile phones can be useful from a safety point of view, but they’re also an unnecessary tether. My pet peeve? Going out with someone who is more interested in replying to texts than actually talking and spending time with me. If you do that, knock it off – it’s incredibly rude.

  18. Perhaps we should encourage texting by children, then, seeing as it doesn’t involve holding the cell phone next to the head? ;-p

    I do agree that environmental factors like this, which are largely out of our control – cell phones are practically a requirement for modern living, unfortunately – are best mitigated by a good health habits.

  19. Mark, Did you see this study when it came out?


    It suggests a mechanism for causality that shows up in a laboratory setting. Essentially, the microwaves cause free radicals to form.

    My understanding is that we shouldn’t be concerned about small amounts of EM radiation, but the problem is that if the transmitter is very close to your body, your body absorbs a significant fraction of the energy. Some of this energy is simply turned into heat, and evidently some of the energy is used to create free radicals.

  20. well,i actually met a guy in the bus yesterday he was selling a colorful stamp-like paper (free shield)which he claims could reduce the microwave emitted by cell phones when placed on the battery.i checked the free shield site and got some info…but i need to know if this free shield thing works

    1. You have to know about one thing : power consumption.

      When you’re in an area that is “perfectly” covered by the cellular network, your phone does not need to use much power to successfully establish a link.

      However, as the coverage decreases (areas where you have little to no network), your phone uses more power to do the same thing : successfully establish a link with your network.

      So, if you use something that somehow “shields” the phone from the surrounding wireless network coverage, it is as though you were forcing your phone to emit more strongly so as to be able to make phone calls and emit/receive other data.

      In the end, I guess it’s the same. You’re trying to shield yourself, but you’re shielding the phone, so it emits stronger bursts.

      Either way, in my opinion, it does not work. [it would have to be done the other way around : shield yourself by using your cellphone at a distance (not via bluetooth, but rather via good old wires) and as little as possible.

  21. I think because I thought the phones were landlines, I followed lemming-like using DECT phones for the past few years. I have just realised they throw out more EMR than mobiles. So not such a great idea having them pulse on the bedside table overnight for safety – in case of a fire…Maybe worse as I have MS and improperly coated neurones? In any case got rid of the DECTs and their emitting base station and have some cheery old skool corded phones which go ‘ring ring’, no choice, such relief. I know they can pick up some EMR too but it’s no way as bad. Now for shielded Ethernet cable. Wondering if anyone else reckons this is becoming more not less of an issue? Grok did not live in this level of EM smog. I can’t control most of it but my kids sleeping with Wifi on all of their lives? From when they were conceived? I can stop that now, as well as aim to feed us/live paleo. I kind of think in 2013 it’s the same thing, not separate.