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ARTICLES ›› Mobile phones and cancer

So far, the scientific evidence shows it is unlikely that mobile phones could increase the risk of cancer. But we do not know enough to completely rule out a risk.

In 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified mobile phones for the first time in their 'gold-standard' rating system. They rated the devices as 'group 2B' - meaning that they could 'possibly' cause cancer in humans. Read more about the new classification on our Science Update Blog.

What does the evidence say?

Looking at all the evidence together suggests that mobile phones do not increase the risk of brain tumours, or any other type of cancer.

The largest study so far on mobile phones and cancer is part of the Million Women Study and included around 790,000 women. It found no link between use of mobile phones and brain cancer in general or 18 other types of cancer. The researchers found no link between mobile phone use and risk of the two most common types of brain tumour (glioma and meningioma), but did see a raised risk of one rare type of brain tumour (acoustic neuroma) for women who had used mobile phones for at least five years. The scientists who ran this study think this result could be down to chance, because they investigated many different types of cancer. They also think that if there truly was an increased risk of acoustic neuroma with mobile phone use, this would cause a rise in rates of the disease in the general population. There has been no such rise over the last decade, when long-term use of mobile phones increased substantially. So for now there is some uncertainty over whether mobile phones might increase the risk of this rare type of tumour.

A Danish study, which looked at over 420,000 people, found no link between mobile phones and any type of cancer including acoustic neuroma, other brain tumours and leukaemia. Reports from the Interphone study, which included over 6,000 people with brain cancer from 13 countries, have also found that brain cancer is not more common among mobile phone users.

Some studies have suggested that people with brain cancer are more likely to have tumours on the side of their head that they say they hold their phone to. But in these studies, their overall risk of brain cancer is usually not any higher. And in some cases, they were less likely to develop a tumour on the opposite side of their head.

This strange side-of-head effect is probably due to problems with the way the research studies were designed. These studies ask people with cancer to remember how they used their phones, often many years ago.

But they may not be able to accurately remember the details about their phone use. And, more importantly, some peoples answers may be biased if they had previously heard about a connection between phones and cancer in the media. Their tumours could also affect their memory.

Research in this field is still ongoing and Cancer Research UK will continue to look for any new evidence.

Mobile phones and cancer incidence

The use of mobile phones has skyrocketed since the 1980s. If mobile phones increase the risk of brain cancer, more and more people should now be developing this disease.

But studies in the USA, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland have found that the numbers of people with brain cancer have not changed very much. And in the UK, the incidence of brain cancer has been constant for years. However, brain cancers can take many years to develop, so it is possible that these trends would only start rising after more time.

Is the radiation from mobile phones dangerous?

There still aren't any good explanations for how mobile phones could cause cancer. The microwave radiation they transmit and receive is very weak. This radiation does not have enough energy to damage DNA, and cannot directly cause cancer.

Mobile phones also produce small amounts of heat in the brain, but again, not enough to pose a health risk. Scientists have put forward other theories, but, so far, none of them have been conclusively proven, despite a lot of research.

In 2000, the UK signed up to a set of international safety standards, which set a limit on the amount of radiation given off by phones. These limits have a very large safety margin to protect people who may be more sensitive to phone radiation, such as children.

Masts and base stations

Mobile phone masts and base stations are unlikely to increase your cancer risk either. The exposure you would get from a base station is usually at least a hundred times below international guidelines. And it is much less than the exposure you would get from a phone.

There is a health risk...

So far, the only health issue firmly associated with mobile phones is an increased risk of car accidents! People who use mobile phones while driving, even with a hands-free kit, are easily distracted and are four times more likely to be involved in an accident.

Taking precautions

Mobile phones are a recent invention. So far, studies have indicated that using these phones for about 10 years is safe. But we cannot be completely sure about their long-term effects. There have not been enough studies looking at how mobile phones could affect the health of children.

Research is underway to fill both of these gaps in our knowledge. Until we get a conclusive answer, the Government recommends that people take precautions.

It says that if adults want to use a mobile phone, they could choose to minimise their exposure by keeping calls short. And children under the age of 16 should only use mobile phones for essential calls, because their head and nervous systems may still be developing.

You can read the Government recommendations in full at the Department of Health website.

Cancer Research UK
8 May 2013