Cell Phones and the Cancer Myth

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Skeptic's Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media

By Roy Benaroch, M.D., Emory University

Does excessive use of cell phones increase the risk of cancer? No, so far research studies have not been able to establish that cell phone usage increases the risk of cancer. Does this seem to be at odds with the umpteen stories that we hear linking excessive use of cell phones to cancer? How and where do these stories originate from? Read on to find the answers.

Depiction of a person looking at a cell phone. The phone is emitting something. The person's head is a cross-section showing the brain.
Contrary to common belief, excessive use of mobile phones does not increase the risk of cancer. (Image: solar22/Shutterstock)

Quoting the Chief Medical and Scientific Officer for the American Cancer Society, physician Otis Brawley: “The draft reports are bound to create a lot of concern, but in fact they won’t change what I tell people: the evidence for an association between cell phones and cancer is weak, and so far, we have not seen a higher cancer risk in people.”

Large, well-planned research studies on humans provide strong proof and salient evidence on the non-existence of a link between cell phones and cancer. If the study is not on human beings, then it is less salient and not really reliable. However, the articles that grab media attention are sometimes irrelevant but manage to influence the risk perception about cell phones.

Learn more about genetics and the media.

Non-Salient Animal Studies Grab Media Attention

A government-funded research study associated with the long term use of cell phones was conducted on rats in 2016. Such studies are sometimes significant as they may lead to useful interventions. But at the same time, it is important to recognize that most of the health issues seen in animals may not manifest in human trials. This means that the health risks pertaining to rats may not be important for humans.

Image of a rat holiding a cell phone and carrying a blue case.
Results in rats are not always the same in humans.
(Image: Kathy Keifer/Shutterstock)

Several media stories focused on the preliminary results of this research study on rats. Stories that appeared in both CBS News and The Wall Street Journal did not mention rats at all in their headlines, though it was mentioned in their first sentences. Others such as Mother Jones’ pushed it further stating “Game-Changing Study Links Cellphone Radiation to Cancer.” Of all the news stories, only Consumer Reports headlined the article as “Government Study Finds Link between Cell Phones and Cancer in Rats.” These news stories were published when the animal data was released partially.

The final results on the same study, published in 2018, once again received plenty of media coverage. Though the final data from the rat study was much more reassuring than the partial data, the headlines of some of the leading media houses created a very different perception. In fact, media outlets created more confusion with NBC reporting “Do Cellphones Cause Cancer? Maybe, in Some Rats, Anyway.” The CNN headline read “Cell Phone Radiation Study Finds More Questions than Answers” while The New York Times declared “Cancer Risk from Cell Phone Radiation is Small, Studies Show.” All these headlines only caused a greater concern and worry among their readers. The Washington Post-credited article was titled “Massive Study on Health Effects of Cell Phone Radiation Has Left Scientists Confused.” But it would rather be apt to say this research study on the rats left journalists confused.

This government study failed the salient test as it was irrelevant to humans. Yet, the preliminary study on rats and not humans received all the media attention, which it really didn’t deserve at all. The media couldn’t simply resist using worry and concern as clickbait.

This is a transcript from the video series The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Caveats Ignored in the Cell Phone Study

Ars Technica, a science-oriented site, published an article on the inadequacies of the study titled “Study That Found Cell Phones Cause Cancer in Rats is Riddled with Red Flags.” Ars Technica pointed out that the data released by the researchers was only partial and that too preliminary results were published from a rat study in a press-release style. Secondly, the control rats (rats not exposed to cellphone radiation) died younger than the special species of rat developed for lab use that developed cancer. So, the control rats were not exposed to cellphone radiation over a long period of time. Now, this should have been emphasized in every headline as the risks associated with cellphone relates to long term exposure. Thirdly, only male rats of the special species developed cancer. For the kind of cancers observed, this development was rather odd, making one wonder the authenticity of the results. The large media houses which circulated more-widely read magazines did not include any of these important caveats related to this study in their articles.

Learn more about health risks in our environment.

Stronger Human Studies on Cell Phone Usage Ignored

Other research by the University of Sydney headlined “No Increase in Brain Cancer from Mobile Use in Australia: New Study” was published in the journal Cancer Epidemiology in 2016. The study centered around 35,000 people in Australia, diagnosed with brain cancer between 1982 and 2012. Neither was there an increase in cancers nor did the age-adjusted brain cancer rates change five to ten years after cell phones became popular. Thus, the study concluded that there was no relationship between the use of cell phone and the occurrence of brain cancer. The study also referenced several other articles from other countries, where studies on human beings could not establish a relation between cell phone usage and cancer.

An infographic showing people of different age groups using cellphones.
Due to the media outrage over brain cancer and cellphone usage, many studies were carried out to find out the connection between the two. (Image: vector illustration
jehsomwang/Shutterstock)

Ironically, in spite of the study focusing on humans and not rats, it received little attention from the mainstream media. None of the media outlets in the United States published it. Thus, a stronger, well-executed and salient study with a large sample size of humans received much lesser attention from the media compared to a preliminary study on rats. This demonstrates the need to ask relevant questions such as the strength of evidence, sensibility, and salience of a study before we make decisions rather than rely on newspapers which go astray with their own conclusions.

We know the use of cell phones is risky as in they contribute to a higher number of deaths in the United States by distracted driving but definitely not by causing cancer. The objective of health news must be to minimize risk but let us be aware of misleading stories that create panic with exaggerated and fake risks.

Learn more about does cancer screening work?

Common Questions about Cell Phones and the Cancer Myth

Q: What is the radio frequency radiation emitted by cell phones?

Cell phones emit very low levels of a form of a non-ionizing radiation called radiofrequency radiation. There is no evidence of any harmful effects from this radiation to humans and the only recognized effect is heating.

Q: What are the possible risks related to cell phone usage?

The known risk of using a cell phone is distracted driving, which contributes to a number of deaths every year in the United States. The New York Times reported in 2010 that a Harvard study estimated about 2,600 traffic deaths a year caused by drivers distracted by their cell phones.

Q: What should be the ideal way of reporting health news?

It is important that health stories are driven by science-related studies and the media’s job is to cover science accurately. The ideal way of reporting health news would be to assist in minimizing risks as well as not create panic with exaggerated risks.

Q: What are the factors that influence media coverage on health news?

The typical factors that influence media coverage of health news include government, advertisers, interest groups, and competition from other media houses.

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