Mythbusters: do mobile phones cause cancer?

Around 93% of adults in the UK own or use a mobile phone and there are over 6 billion subscriptions worldwide. They have become so embedded in our culture it is difficult to imagine life without them. So the very idea that they could cause cancer is a frightening thought… Surely it can’t be true? We have all heard someone claim that they do. It may have been a friend, a relative or just some bloke down the pub. They’ll have probably said that it was obvious, mobile phones emit all kinds of weird radiation, don’t they? Nothing that does that can be good for you.

“Mobile phones emit all kinds of weird radiation, don’t they? Nothing that does that can be good for you”

Well, there’s more to it than that. Mobile phones do emit radiation in the form of radio and Wi-Fi waves, but it is a type of non-ionising radiation. Most radiation of this kind does not have enough energy to damage our cells in the same way as ionising radiation (such as X-Rays and Gamma Rays). This did not stop the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) from reclassifying mobile phones in 2011 as ‘possibly carcinogenic’. We may roll our eyes when our friends and family spout some grand claim, but when the specialised cancer agency of the World Health Organisation says it, you take heed.

They did not say that mobile phones do cause cancer, but that they could ‘possibly’ cause cancer. Their decision was based mainly on the results of two large studies that suggested there might be a link between some types of brain tumours and the heaviest users. Though this sounds ominous, there was not enough evidence to come to a clear conclusion. And just to put it into perspective, the IARC has placed mobile phones in to the same carcinogenic grouping as coffee, carpentry and pickled vegetables.

“They did not say that mobile phones do cause cancer, but that they could ‘possibly’ cause cancer”

The reliability of these results has also been questioned as they emerged from case-control studies. This means that people with and without cancer were asked to remember how they used their mobile phones. The accuracy of memory, and the subconscious belief that mobile phones may be associated with cancer, could have distorted the answers they gave.

An alternative means of research, known as a cohort study, is often seen as more reliable. These studies ask people about their habits and then follow them up over a period of time. Two major studies of this kind have been conducted since the IARC made its decision, both of which found no link between mobile phones and cancer. Earlier this year, a peer review study found that rats exposed to mobile phone radio waves were more likely to develop tumours in their brains and hearts. One of the researchers made the bold claim that it ended the debate on whether mobile phones do or do not cause cancer.

British scientists said that the new research, that found a “low incidence” of cancer, was not strong enough to raise concerns. Cancer rates have not been rising in response to mobile phone use and there are vast ranges of other studies that have found no links. The key phrase repeatedly used, is that mobile phones are ‘unlikely’ to increase the risk of health problems. The truth is, they are a relatively new invention. We still do not fully know the long-term effects of these beloved devices.

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