Why Your Cell Phone Is Probably Not Giving You Brain Cancer

Senior Contributor
04.01.13 4 Comments

Not pictured: Anything likely to give you cancer.

The FCC is officially opening a review of cell phone safety standards, and that probably means every conspiracy theorist on your Facebook is screaming about the secret ways your cell phone can give you brain cancer because they’re radioactive and how it can happen to yooooouuuu.

And it might. But the jury is still out, and when it does come back, odds are pretty good cell phones won’t be on the hook for any cancers. Here’s why.

So, wait, do cell phones emit radiation?

In the narrow technical sense that they emit energy, yes. Specifically, they emit radio waves.

Hey, that’s not radiation! Radiation is, like, nuclear and stuff!

What’s more likely to sell a newspaper: “Pressing a radio to your head for an extended period of time may not be the greatest idea” or “CELL PHONES MAY ROT YOUR BRAIN WITH RADIATION GUYZ OMG!”

Why do you say “It might?” Didn’t the World Health Organization say that cell phones were a carcinogen?

They did. But they came to that conclusion based not on any research, but by reviews of research. And mostly that research has boiled down to “Hey, you with brain cancer! You use your cell phone a lot? Yes? Great, which side?”

The WHO, along with every other respectable organization, has been a bunch of mature scientists about all this and said “Yeah, we could really use some long-term, carefully designed research that shows the effects of these tissues over time. Somebody should do that!”

…Nobody’s done that, have they?


So, basically, cell phones could be giving us all AIDS right now, for all we know.

Pretty much! Isn’t science fun?

So why are you skeptical of the cell-phone/cancer link?

Man… where to start?

First of all, you have a less than one percent chance of developing a brain tumor. They’re incredibly rare, as cancers go.

We’re also in the center of a perfect storm of scientific ignorance. As we mentioned, it’s not really clear what long-term exposure to electromagnetic fields does to any part of the body, let alone the human brain. Adding to this is the fact that the human brain is not an organ we understand very well. And on top of that, malignant brain tumors are so rare we don’t know as much about them as we’d like. No scientists worth listening to is willing to make a call with such an overwhelming lack of data.

One thing we do know, however, is the effects of radio on the human body. As in, there aren’t any.

And that’s, at root, all any cell phone is: A radio. Yes, it operates on different frequencies, but it’s still a radio, and honestly, if radio caused cancer, we’d know by now. We’d see higher rates of cancer among heavy radio users like truckers, police officers, firemen, army communications specialists, and so on, directly connected to radio use.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility, but it’s highly unlikely. So tell your Facebook friends to calm the hell down and actually read a few scientific papers for once, instead of scare headlines.

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Dan Seitz is a grad student and freelance writer. He currently lives in Boston.

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