It’s a whispered claim that circles the Internet every few years: Cell phones cause brain cancer. It doesn’t, and in fact, we’ve got the increasing weight of proof to show that it doesn’t. But why was this even a theory in the first place?
The basic theory boils down to something simple to understand. Cell phones emit radiation, and the closer you hold them to your head, the more radiation your brain is exposed to. Combine that with a “rising incidence of brain cancers” and case closed, right? Wrong.
How Common Is Brain Cancer?
The first, and most glaring, problem here is brain cancers are an incredibly rare disease. Brain cancer makes up just 1.4 percent of all new cancer cases, and in fact, reported brain-cancer cases have slightly declined in America since 1992. Tragically, brain cancers disproportionately strike the very young, for reasons that are not entirely clear. But unless Apple has been issuing iPhones in utero, heavy cell phone use isn’t a factor.
Another question worth asking is why cell phones don’t give us bone cancer. After all, a cell phone spends a lot of time on or near your body, in your pocket, on your desk, in your bag, in your hand, and radiation sources aren’t discriminatory. They’re just as likely to damage bone tissue as brain tissue. And, yet, bone cancer is, if anything, more rare than brain cancer.
But, let’s set all that aside for now. Perhaps we’re just going to see a sudden spike in brain cancers in the near future that we haven’t seen yet, because cell phones are relatively new. Or perhaps a shift in frequencies could potentially cause a problem. Could the mechanism be a cause for concern?
Do Cell Phones Emit Radiation?
In a narrow, technical sense, a cell phone does indeed emit radiation. But any form of energy that can be emitted is “radiation” in the scientific sense. The computer you’re reading this article on, the lights above your heads, the microwave you just heard ding, all of these are emitting radiation. But all radiation is not created equal. All radiation is on the electromagnetic spectrum, and we know low-frequency radiation is harmless. If it weren’t, we would know by now; radio towers would, essentially, be death rays.
The dangerous kind of radiation is ionizing radiation, extremely high frequency energy that’s pretty hard to generate in the first place. An X-ray machine, for example, emits ionizing radiation, which is why you have to wear a lead apron, and it requires 440 volts to operate. That is, roughly, the voltage from one hundred or so cell phone batteries, and that’s before you get into the necessary amperes, or flow of electricity, required to power the thing. Even if, for some baffling reason, a cell-phone company wanted to create a phone that emitted ionizing radiation, we wouldn’t have the battery technology to make it happen.
What Does The Historical Data Tell Us?
Still, the only way to completely close the book on this would be to conduct a long-term study that compares cancer statistics historically with modern day results. And, fortunately, we have a study that does just that. Australia, since 1982, has required every person with cancer to register with the government, and cell phones were first introduced in Australia in 1987. So, if cell phone use, which rose steeply, were going to cause brain cancer, we’d see a rise starting somewhere around, say, the mid-’90s.
It not only didn’t find that rise, it underlined another factor worth considering. The researcher did, in fact, find an increase in diagnosed brain cancers, but it was among the elderly. The team believes that this increase can be chalked up to the fact that our ability to detect brain cancers has improved dramatically over the last thirty years. So our ability to find brain cancers has improved, but we’re not finding more of them.
Of course, there are still arguments to be made. Perhaps even non-ionizing radiation somehow causes a health risk when it’s close to your head, some will argue. Others will argue that a brain cancer spike is all but inevitable, it just hasn’t arrived yet. But the fact of the matter is, brain cancers are rare, there’s no clear scientific theory for how cell phones could cause brain cancers, and there’s no evidence brain cancers are rising. So dial with confidence; you may not always like what you hear out of your cell phone, but it won’t give you cancer.