mythology, science

Myth Busting: Cell Phone Cancer

It seems every time you turn around there’s another menacing lurking threat to our health. Or is there? Chances are, if you look a little closer at the headlines, past the sensational sell-the-papers hype, and past the quacks who turn a profit by pitching woo, you’ll find that the truth is closer to… nothing wrong here, move along.

So when I recently listened to someone talking about how talking on cell phones was going to give you cancer, and how carrying them in your hip pocket was bad for ‘women’s… areas’ and yes, that really is how he said it complete with the awkward pause, I realized that it was past time to shed a little light on this particularly devious junk science that has become a popular myth. No, your cell phones aren’t dangerous. At least, not like that. Now, texting and driving? Oh, yeah, that’ll drive your mortality risk through the roof. Don’t do it. But carrying your phone in your pocket, or putting it to your ear while talking? Not a risk.

But don’t take my word for it.

As noted, the RF waves given off by cell phones don’t have enough energy to damage DNA directly or to heat body tissues. Because of this, it’s not clear how cell phones might be able to cause cancer. Most studies done in the lab have supported the idea that RF waves do not cause DNA damage.” (emphasis mine) –American Cancer Society

Many people are concerned that cell phone radiation will cause cancer or other serious health hazards. The weight of scientific evidence has not linked cell phones with any health problems.” — FDA

And although the National Institute of Environmental Health Studies produced a study stating that they had seen an increase in certain very specific tumors in male (and they don’t know why not female) rodents, they also found that the males lived longer in their study than normal because certain kidney diseases were not showing up. On top of that there are the usual concerns with any sort of study like this: mice are not humans and although frequently used as a model mammal for studies, that is because they are small and easily raised in captivity, not because they are reliably a close analogue to humans. Also, they were exposed to a far higher dose of the radio frequency radiation over their entire bodies than a human ever would be. We can safely acknowledge that sunbathing does more damage than cell phone usage, and move on with our lives.

The World Health Organization went even further, and reviewed the studies on all electromagnetic fields. This would include cell phones, your microwave, power lines, computers, WiFi… the list goes on.

In the area of biological effects and medical applications of non-ionizing radiation approximately 25,000 articles have been published over the past 30 years. Despite the feeling of some people that more research needs to be done, scientific knowledge in this area is now more extensive than for most chemicals. Based on a recent in-depth
review of the scientific literature, the WHO concluded that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields.

Some members of the public have attributed a diffuse collection of symptoms to low levels of exposure to electromagnetic fields at home. Reported symptoms include headaches, anxiety, suicide and depression, nausea, fatigue and loss of libido. To date, scientific evidence does not support a link between these symptoms and exposure to electromagnetic fields. At least some of these health problems may be caused by noise or other factors in the environment, or by anxiety related to the presence of new technologies.

Their last conclusion, that the health concerns can be partly tied to anxiety, surprises me not at all. We’ve seen, over and over, the medical hysteria that crops up when cultures change radically, as with the Industrial Revolution, then the advent of the Silicon Era, and I’m sure the next big thing will bring it’s concerns along too. Unfortunately, we will always have quacks who ride the wave of anxiety shilling their services and products to the worried. It’s nauseating to watch, and I can only hope that by pointing people in the direction of actual science instead of the wacky world of junk science, I can help allay concerns and let people get on with their lives without the pain and expense of a parasite trying to leech their lives away through snake oil and empty pocketbooks.



19 thoughts on “Myth Busting: Cell Phone Cancer

  1. 1. I recall the big deal of UV leakage from fluorescent lighting in the 1980’s or 1990’s. And it seemed to fade away fast after someone pointed out the data wasn’t there for any issue, but it (the debate, etc.) sure was causing stress that was known problem.

    2. Also recall the story (was not there – way before my time, yes really) when some townsfolk had issue over possible dangers posed by the new (AM broadcast) radio transmitter in the area. The engineer held a demonstrate – he picked up a crowbar in his bare hand and drew an arc from the live antenna to it and let it arc for a second or two before pulling it away. “Now, what’s this about some danger from radio?”

  2. My only issue with carrying my phone in my pocket is that it falls out, LOL! But I do know people who truly believe that microwave ovens make food harmful to eat. We live in electromagnetic fields, albeit rather weak ones — seems like if anything was going to cause damage, the natural ones that we are exposed to all over, all of our lives, would be the ones to do it.

  3. Worst issue I’ve run across with people carrying their phones in their pants pockets is it tends to break the screen and they won’t take ‘not covered under warranty’ for an answer.

    Yes, I used to do warranty support for three phone manufacturers.

  4. It’s a simple enough, though fallacious step from a-bomb RADIATION caused cancers to RADIATION causes cancer to cell’ ‘phone RADIATION causes cancer. Now I must go tune into my local clear-channel radio station. It has a 50,000 watt SIGNAL, not RADIATION.

  5. If only!
    If only the standard of “find out what the evidence supports before publicizing doom” was followed.
    If only the headlines were reflective of the story, and not click bait.

    Then I wouldn’t have the oldest daughter texting mom to get me to stop vaping IMMEDIATELY! because people are dying!

    Ain’t even gonna think about responding. Just nod my head, and smile.
    I did explain to my gift-from-God, happily-ever-after trophy wife Vanessa, the elegant, foxy, praying black grandmother of Woodstock, GA, that I didn’t buy pods off the streets, I didn’t use tobacco, and didn’t use THC.
    And that six deaths was a ridiculously low level for triggering panic. 60 people per year die from bee stings, and nobody is freaking out over that. (source: Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, March 2018)

    If only…

  6. Now, texting and driving? Oh, yeah, that’ll drive your mortality risk through the roof.

    *raises finger in just-a-sec gesture*
    Actually, the support for that turns out to be lacking.

    Short version, the claim is either based on assuming massive and growing under-reporting, or by ignoring all crashes without listed causes and attributing all distraction-contributed-to crashes to cellphones, even the ones where a drunk walks out from between cars in a downtown area at night and the driver was just driving, but that’s counted as “distraction involved” because they didn’t see the drunk. My favorite example is the guy who was messing with his phone at a red light and got run into, and that was given as an example of him being “distracted” as a contributing factor.

    Same reason they use percentages of crashes, not numbers much less per 1k people, and why they say teen involved accidents rather than teen driver involved. (Mid-twenties drivers are the most likely to be in accidents.)

    1. I went down the rabbit hole after I stumbled over the fact that raw numbers of traffic accidents had been falling my entire life, even as the PSAs got more and more hysterical, with the fatalities dropping too.

        1. If you’d like, I can email you a bunch of the links I found! Some of them even still work.
          (Wrote one up for Sarah a few years ago, I think she decided the sheer flack wasn’t worth not writing for a day. 😉 )

            1. I might have it somewhere, but I’m in the middle of rebuilding Awesome Computer from…well, warranty repair should probably cover itself and pay me for the privilege, let’s just say. -.- Thank God I have the cloud backups. (which back-up to three other computers in this house alone, but those are all in use)

    2. OK, anecdata:

      Locally we’ve had one known fatal due to texting, where a flagger was killed by an idiot driver speeding while texting. No DUII, female driver somewhere in her 20s, driving alone. (I gather she either admitted to the texting or law enforcement looked at the phone logs. Maybe both.)

      She managed not to notice the three roadwork warning signs and ran over the flagger. The driver is up for (at least) vehicular manslaughter, and the contractor did a stop-work on the highway maintenance project for several weeks. This was on a state highway, and OR DOT is now using radio controlled flagging stations for their own work, but this was flagger and a pilot car.

      It was on a straight, flat piece of road with good visibility. For her to miss all the signs, it probably meant she was ignoring the road for 45-60 seconds at a minimum.

      OTOH, long before texting, a teenaged driver was fishing behind her seat for cassette tapes an managed to hit 4 cyclists (not sure how many were killed) on the widest, flattest two lane road in San Jose. Reporting (such as it is) was that the cyclists were on a paved shoulder, one abnormally wide for that area.

      1. *nod* Running a four-way stop because you’re tuning the radio and totally missed that stop sign is nasty, too.

        (I was almost That Guy– it wasn’t helped by the bad condition of the trimming for visibility, but if my mom hadn’t trained me to believe I am an utterly incompetent driver, I would have totally blown through and possibly never known what happened. I ALWAYS check again to see if there’s a stop sign if there’s an intersection.)

        Distraction is a serious issue– fiddling with radio, watching that crazy driver over there and not seeing the guy who is following the rules over here…. Going off of the narrow misses I’ve seen (usually just past my front bumper), one of the biggest causes of serious accidents is probably the push to put kids in the back seat. Doesn’t matter if you’re distracted by the baby screaming like a fire truck, or are trying to hand the baby a toy/bottle/check they’re breathing, that’s a BIG distraction.

        Thing is, “distracted driving” is already illegal, and if caught it’s actionable.
        Making it so that I have to be scared that some idiot will give me a ticket because my trailer’s brake control uses a phone’s bluetooth rather than a direct-wired system isn’t going to fix that.
        (one of these; was a buying bonus with the camper)

        Biggest thing that seems to come of texting bans is that folks get to displace their moral scolding impulses into yelling at strangers to “hang up and drive” every time they do anything below the sight-line of a car. (I did not yell back “I am hung up, that’s why I’m adjusting my seat belt, you obnoxious twit.” But I wanted to.)

  7. The lower limit of usable mobile phone signal is -110 dBm, or ten femtowatts. If you integrate this power for 30 years, you will obtain roughly the kinetic energy of a falling snowflake. Ten femtowatts is a hundredth of the power consumption of a single cell in your body. Mobile phone technology is a remarkable achievement.

  8. A professor at the University of Colorado (Frank Barnes) has been looking at health effects of low level radiation, sponsoring and encouraging research in the area. His conclusion is that low level radiation does have health effects but they vary. In some experiments cell growth was encouraged or inhibited depending on the level of the radiation. He says it’s one problem — the results don’t follow a simple “higher levels of radiation mean bigger effects”, so many people don’t accept them.

    His conclusion is there is an effect, and it appears to be in the couple deaths per 100,000 range. There are a lot of other things which are much more dangerous (like driving a car or walking across a street) so why worry about cell phones?

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