Technology

Cell Phones and Cancer Risk

What is radiofrequency energy and how does it affect the body?

Radiofrequency energy is a form of electromagnetic radiation. Electromagnetic radiation can be categorized into two types: ionizing (e.g., x-rays, radon, and cosmic rays) and non-ionizing (e.g., radiofrequency and extremely low frequency, or power frequency). Electromagnetic radiation is defined according to its wavelength and frequency, which is the number of cycles of a wave that pass a reference point per second. Electromagnetic frequencies are described in units called hertz (Hz).

The energy of electromagnetic radiation is determined by its frequency; ionizing radiation is high frequency, and therefore high energy, whereas non-ionizing radiation is low frequency, and therefore low energy. The NCI fact sheet Electromagnetic Fields and Cancer lists sources of radiofrequency energy. More information about ionizing radiation can be found on the Radiation page.

The frequency of radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation ranges from 30 kilohertz (30 kHz, or 30,000 Hz) to 300 gigahertz (300 GHz, or 300 billion Hz). Electromagnetic fields in the radiofrequency range are used for telecommunications applications, including cell phones, televisions, and radio transmissions. The human body absorbs energy from devices that emit radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation. The dose of the absorbed energy is estimated using a measure called the specific absorption rate (SAR), which is expressed in watts per kilogram of body weight.

Exposure to ionizing radiation, such as from x-rays, is known to increase the risk of cancer. However, although many studies have examined the potential health effects of non-ionizing radiation from radar, microwave ovens, cell phones, and other sources, there is currently no consistent evidence that non-ionizing radiation increases cancer risk (1).

The only consistently recognized biological effect of radiofrequency energy is heating. The ability of microwave ovens to heat food is one example of this effect of radiofrequency energy. Radiofrequency exposure from cell phone use does cause heating to the area of the body where a cell phone or other device is held (ear, head, etc.). However, it is not sufficient to measurably increase body temperature, and there are no other clearly established effects on the body from radiofrequency energy.

It has been suggested that radiofrequency energy might affect glucose metabolism, but two small studies that examined brain glucose metabolism after use of a cell phone showed inconsistent results. Whereas one study showed increased glucose metabolism in the region of the brain close to the antenna compared with tissues on the opposite side of the brain (2), the other study (3) found reduced glucose metabolism on the side of the brain where the phone was used.

Another study investigated whether exposure to the radiofrequency energy from cell phones affects the flow of blood in the brain and found no evidence of such an effect (4).

The authors of these studies noted that the results are preliminary and that possible health outcomes from changes in glucose metabolism are still unknown. Such inconsistent findings are not uncommon in experimental studies of the biological effects of radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation (5). Some contributing factors include assumptions used to estimate doses, failure to consider temperature effects, and lack of blinding of investigators to exposure status.

How is radiofrequency energy exposure measured in epidemiologic studies?

Epidemiologic studies use information from several sources, including questionnaires and data from cell phone service providers. Direct measurements are not yet possible outside of a laboratory setting. Estimates take into account the following:

How “regularly” study participants use cell phones (the number of calls per week or month)
The age and the year when study participants first used a cell phone and the age and the year of last use (allows calculation of the duration of use and time since the start of use)
The average number of cell phone calls per day, week, or month (frequency)
The average length of a typical cell phone call
The total hours of lifetime use, calculated from the length of typical call times, the frequency of use, and the duration of use

  • Why is there concern that cell phones may cause cancer or other health problems?
  • What is radiofrequency energy and how does it affect the body?
  • How is radiofrequency energy exposure measured in epidemiologic studies?
  • What has research shown about the possible cancer-causing effects of radiofrequency energy?
  • Why are the findings from different studies of cell phone use and cancer risk inconsistent?
  • What do expert organizations conclude about the cancer risk from cell phone use?
  • What studies are under way that will help further our understanding of the possible health effects of cell phone use?
  • Do children have a higher risk of developing cancer due to cell phone use than adults?
  • What can cell phone users do to reduce their exposure to radiofrequency energy?
  • Where can I find more information about radiofrequency energy from my cell phone?
  • How common is brain cancer? Has the incidence of brain cancer changed over time?
  • Why is there concern that cell phones may cause cancer or other health problems?
  • There are three main reasons why people are concerned that cell phones (also known as “mobile” or “wireless” telephones) might have the potential to cause certain types of cancer or other health problems:

Cell phones emit radiofrequency energy (radio waves), a form of non-ionizing radiation, from their antennas. Tissues nearest to the antenna can absorb this energy.
The number of cell phone users has increased rapidly. As of December 2014, there were more than 327.5 million cell phone subscribers in the United States, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. This is a nearly threefold increase from the 110 million users in 2000. Globally, the number of subscriptions is estimated by the International Telecommunications Union to be 5 billion.
Over time, the number of cell phone calls per day, the length of each call, and the amount of time people use cell phones have increased. However, improvements in cell phone technology have resulted in devices that have lower power outputs than earlier models.

The NCI fact sheet Electromagnetic Fields and Cancer includes information on wireless local area networks (commonly known as Wi-Fi), cell phone base stations, and cordless telephones.

 

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