Cell Phones and Cancer

This post is an excerpt from Children’s Cancer Recovery Foundation founder, Greg Anderson, taken from his book Cancer: 50 Essential Things to Do (4th edition), Penguin/Plume, 2012.

Cell Phones and Cancer

Q: Do cell phones cause cancer? A: Maybe.

Q: Is there good scientific evidence showing that radiation from a mobile phone has a biological impact? A: Definitely.

Q: Should I be taking precautions in the use of my cell phone? A: Absolutely.

“If cell phones were a type of food, they simply would not be licensed.” This statement was not uttered by some uneducated anti-technology activist, but rather written by British physicist and two-time Nobel nominee Dr. Gerard Hyland. His statement was printed in the prestigious medical journal “The Lancet.”

The safety of mobile phones is a subject few consumers ever think about. Just five years ago, the quality of the voice connection and longer battery life were the major concerns. That has changed.

Today the evidence is mounting that mobile telephony causes a range of adverse effects in people. The most significant research shows the possible connections between frequent cell phone use and neurological problems including an increased incidence of brain tumors. Other studies are also documenting higher rates of “head and neck cancers” which include mouth, nose, sinuses, salivary glands, throat, and lymph nodes in the neck.

In fact, there is growing evidence that mobile telephony, including cell phones and the myriad of new devices flooding the market, may be the greatest and most under-estimated health threat in modern history.

Cellular Technology: 101

To gain a layman’s understanding of this subject, a basic understanding of cell phone technology is necessary.

Cell phones and cell phone towers emit radio-frequency energy. This energy is in the form of radio waves, microwaves actually, of what is called non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation. These invisible waves of energy move at the speed of light. The basic transmission technology of mobile telephony is easily understood.

  • A cell phone tower or base station antenna typically sends out microwaves at a rate of sixty watts.
  • The actual handheld mobile device generates microwaves at rates between one and two watts.
  • The antenna of a handset sends signals equally in all directions while a base station produces a beam that is much more directional, depending on line-of-sight connections with other cell phone towers and other mobile devices in the area.

It’s like a giant spider web. It is also noteworthy to understand that the base stations themselves have lower-power side beams that are localized in the immediate vicinity of the tower.

The hand-held device itself also emits a low-frequency electromagnetic field (EMF) associated with current from the phone’s battery. With mobile devices that have an energy-saving discontinuous transmission mode, there is an even lower EMF which occurs when the user is listening but not speaking.

There has been a significant shift in cell phone technology since they came on the market. In the 1970’s, the first big and bulky handheld devices relied on what is called analog signals. These radio waves were “on” all the time without interruption. Our understanding of analog signals showed they did little if any damage to living tissue except for a moderate increase in temperature.

The new technology, called “3G” and “4G,” employs compressed digital signals using faster, smaller and more powerful radio waves that are “pulsed” on-and-off rather than continuous. Because these devices are rapidly and repeatedly sending and receiving signals to the cell tower base stations, not just voice signals but the full range of multimedia services offered through today’s mobile devices, the individual’s cumulative exposure to pulsed microwave radiation can be much, much greater.

Cell Phone Biology: 101

Electromagnetic radiation is divided into two types: “ionizing” radiation such as found in x-rays, and “non-ionizing” radiation found in cellular technology. There is clearly a biological impact to ionizing radiation such as from chest x-rays, radiation therapy used in many cancer treatments, and even the Transportation Security Administration’s “back-scatter” x-ray technology in use at many airports. Too much exposure and the risk of cancer dramatically increases.

Thermal Biological Risks

The use of cell phones has a clear biological effect. The radio frequency energy produces heat. Think of a microwave oven as perhaps the best-known example. Exposure to radio frequency energy heats the body. And it is simple to record a warming of the body’s temperature especially at the point of contact with the cell phone. There is simply no question that exposing our heads to microwave energy as we talk on our cell phones results in a rise in temperature in the nearby tissue. Heating of tissue is a fact beyond dispute. In the world of cell phone safety, this “hot hypothesis” remains central to our understanding and concerns.

The amount of such heat produced in a living organism depends primarily on the intensity of the radiation, as well as the body’s thermal self-regulation, once it has penetrated the tissue. Frighteningly, excellent research indicates that effects on health begin once the temperature rise exceeds only 1°C.

The central concern is the possibility this heating results in increasing numbers of brain tumors and head and neck cancers. But it is not only our head that is vulnerable. Among the most thermally sensitive areas of the body, because of their low blood supply, are the eyes and the testes. Cataract formation and reduced sperm counts are well-documented in studies of acute exposure to microwave energy.

Although much of the evidence on the link between cell phone use and cancer is disputed by the National Cancer Institute (U.S.), research from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer as well as the European Environmental Agency is unequivocal. The evidence is significant and growing that the microwave radiation employed in cell phone technology, and the resulting “hot spots” it creates, is linked to higher cancer incidence.

In an exhaustive review released in 2011 by WHO, it was documented that people who have used cell phones for half an hour a day for more than a decade have about twice the risk of glioma, a rare kind of brain tumor. Not surprisingly, the glioma appeared most often on the side of their head where these people hold their phone.

Brain cancers typically take decades to develop. The fact that such tumors are being found after 10 years in cell phone users with relatively light exposure by today’s usage standards is frightening.

Non-Thermal Biological Risks

Could it be possible that pulsed microwave radiation used in cell phone technology also exerts non-thermal influences on the human body? It seems so.

This issue centers on the frequency or oscillations of the microwaves and their impact on physiological processes as fundamental as cell division. Just to be clear, when we speak here of the “frequency,” this has to do with the characteristics of the vibrations of the radio waves. This is independent from the heating of tissue and does not refer to how “frequently” we are exposed to these.

Microwave radiation has certain well-defined frequencies, some of which emulate the human body’s biological electrical activities. Thus the incoming radio wave can potentially interfere with the orderly and exquisitely balanced functions of the body. It’s analogous to reception distortions on a car radio.

Although this non-thermal cell biology frequency premise is not without its doubters, there is growing experimental evidence to support it. At the cellular level, the observed evidence of exposure to microwave radiation includes:

  • A “switch on” of certain cell division process
  • Reduced lymphocyte toxicity
  • Increased membrane permeability
  • Increases in chromosome aberrations

In animal studies, non-thermal microwave radiation exposure influences include:

  • Depression of immune function in chickens
  • Increase in chick embryo mortality
  • Increased permeability of blood-brain barrier in laboratory mice
  • Changes in brain chemistry, including dopamine, in laboratory mice
  • Increases in DNA strand breaks in laboratory mice
  • Increases in lymphoma in mice

In human studies, non-thermal microwave radiation exposures, and similarly conditioned exposures, include demonstrations of:

  • Headache
  • Blood pressure changes
  • Sleep disorders with shortening of rapid-eye-movement periods

Non-thermal effects of cell phone radiation have proved to be quite controversial in the scientific community. The health problems are reported anecdotally and formal confirmation of such reports, based on epidemiological studies, are still to be completed. But to deny this possibility yet admit the importance of banning the use of mobile phones on airplanes and in hospitals, both prohibitions driven solely by concerns about non-thermal interference, is grossly inconsistent.

We have underplayed the threat of cell phone radiation too long. The message has been slow to capture public attention. Even government acknowledgement of the problem is minimal. And because much of the research into the potential dangers of cell phones has been funded by the cell phone industry, negative findings are routinely dismissed. It’s understandable as such information would be detrimental to cell phone sales.

It is not surprising that Devra Davis in her excellent book Disconnect points out: “There has not been a lot of truly independent research in this field.” In one of the most enlightening passages, Davis chronicles the work of Dariusz Leszczynski from Finland. He holds two doctoral degrees and is a research professor in Finland’s National Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority. He has served as a visiting professor at Harvard Medical School and is currently an adjunct professor of bioelectro-magnetics at a medical school in Hangzhou, China. Impressive credentials.

In 2002, Leszczynski’s research showed that after just one hour of exposure to pulsed cell phone signals, the same signals that are in the phones millions of people use each and every day, changes were recorded in the shape and character of endothelial cells, the tiny membranes that line our blood vessels. The reason this is so critically important is that breakdowns in endothelial cells are thought to be direct precursors to the formation of malignant cells. In short, his work showed that even low levels of microwave radiation may impact the formation of cancer, especially brain cancers.

What’s more, collaborative research showed children are more vulnerable to radiation than adults. It makes perfect sense. Radiation that penetrates only two inches into the brain of an adult will reach much deeper into the brain of a child. Their young skulls are thinner and their brains contain more fluid that absorbs the heat. Even though we know this, we allow children, and especially young adolescents, to freely use this technology. In fact, many of the new “applications” for mobile technology are aimed squarely at this age group.

Such findings should have had a dramatic effect on the cell phone industry and cell phone safety. They did not.

Professor Leszczynski was asked about his groundbreaking study during a visit to Washington, D.C., in 2010 where he testified before the U.S. Senate. He said: “. . . we clearly showed that radiation from a cell phone had a biological impact. [Now] the world can no longer pretend that the only problems with cell phones occur after you can measure a change in temperature.”

But we do keep pretending . . . all of us including governments, research scientists, the cell phone industry, and especially cell phone consumers. Most people are totally unaware that radio frequency radiation causes biological changes to our bodies. Or if they are among the few who are aware, most are in denial regarding the seriousness of the problem.

Protecting Yourself and Your Loved Ones

We can do better. Below is a list, adapted from the Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org ), of key personal actions you and can implement right now. Do so and you will be doing all possible to keep you and your family safe from cell phone radiation.

  • Switch to a low-radiation phone. Consider replacing your phone with one that emits the lowest radiation possible and still meets your needs.
  • Use a headset or speaker. Headsets emit much less radiation than handsets. Choose either wired or wireless. Unfortunately experts are split on which version is safer. Some wireless headsets emit continuous, low-level radiation, so take yours off your ear when you’re not on a call. Using your phone in speaker mode also reduces radiation to the head.
  • Listen more and talk less. Your phone emits radiation when you talk or text, but not when you’re receiving messages. Listening more and talking less reduces your exposures.
  • Hold the phone away from your body. Holding the phone away from your torso when you’re talking on your headset or speaker—rather than against your ear, in a pocket, or on your belt—means your soft body tissues absorb less radiation.
  • Text rather than talk. Phones use less power and radiation to send text than voice. And unlike when you speak with the phone at your ear, texting keeps radiation away from your head.
  • If you have a poor signal, stay off the phone. Fewer signal bars on your phone means that it emits more radiation to get the signal to the tower. Make and take calls when your phone has a strong signal.
  • Limit children’s phone use. A child’s brain absorbs twice the cell phone radiation as an adult’s. Health agencies in at least a dozen countries recommend limits for children’s cell phone use, such as for emergency situations only.
  • Skip the radiation shield. Radiation shields such as antenna caps or keypad covers reduce the connection quality and force the phone to transmit at a higher power with higher radiation.
  • Store your cell phone in a backpack or purse. If you must carry it mounted on your belt, turn the keypad to face your body because the antenna is on the back and it emits much more radiation compared to the keyboard.
  • Don’t sleep with your cell phone on next to the bed or under a pillow.
  • Pregnant women should keep the phones away from their abdomen.
  • Use your cell phone less. High-frequency users have higher incidence of reported neurological disease. Use a landline whenever it is available.

A Personal Appeal

In the end, I am certainly not advocating banning the use of cell phones. I use mine safely every day of the week. But I am urging cell phone manufacturers to make their products safer. Safer technology exists; it is past time to implement it. Plus I am asking for each of us to be fully aware of the dangers and take personal responsibility for curbing our exposure, and our family’s exposure, to cell phone radiation. It’s the only way to be certain we are not damaging our body’s cells every time we are on the phone.