Meta cell phone analysis: Text more, talk less

While it remains unclear exactly how microwave radiation from cell phones may increase brain cancer risk, researchers advise reducing exposure until longer-term effects can be tested.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
3 min read

The "do cell phones cause cancer?" debate rages on, and it will likely continue until truly long-term use can be measured. In the meantime, researchers who published a meta analysis on the risks of cell phone radiation suggest texting over talking.

Their paper, based on an analysis of pooled data from various studies with long-term follow-up and published in the Journal of Computer Assisted Tomography, suggests that there is a correlation between hours of cell phone use over time (as well as level of power from the device, years since first use, and age when wireless use began) and a higher risk of developing brain tumors.

Cigarettes and cell phones: partners in crime? liber/Flickr

"Long-term cell phone usage can approximately double the risk of developing a glioma or acoustic neuroma in the more exposed brain hemisphere," conclude the study authors, led by Rash Bihari Dubey of Apeejay College of Engineering in India. "We conclude that the current standard of exposure to microwave during mobile phone use is not safe for long-term exposure and needs to be revised."

At this point, less than a dozen published studies provide data on brain tumor risk among users over a period of 10 or more years. The largest data source comes from the Interphone studies, funded largely by the wireless communications industry, which concluded that, based on results across 13 countries, exposure to cell phones was not shown to increase brain tumor risk.

But another series of studies, this one not funded by the cell phone industry and led by Swedish cancer specialist Lennart Hardell, looked at a larger population of long-term users and found that more hours of use over 10 or more years does lead to a greater risk of developing brain tumors.

Of particular concern to some is that radiation, which penetrates up to two inches into the brain, goes further into the brains of children than adults.

While the authors join a larger chorus admitting that more data is required to conclusively prove that cell phone radiation increases brain cancer risk, they suggest that people reduce exposure in the meantime. They suggest limiting talking time, texting when possible, restricting use among children, and wearing an "air tube" headset (not a regular wired one) when talking is required.

"The precautionary principle clearly applies in this case, since the problem is possible but not certain and low-cost ameliorating actions are easily implemented by industry," the authors conclude. "With over 3 billion people using cell phones and with children among the heaviest users, it is time for governments to mandate precautionary measures to protect their citizens."

The National Cancer Institute reports that brain cancer incidence and mortality rates have changed little in the past decade. In the U.S. in 2009, there were an estimated 12,920 deaths due to brain cancer and 22,070 new cases diagnosed.

Meanwhile, a series of apps are attempting to address radiation concerns, including Tawkon, which purports to measure a user's specific absorption rate, and Cancerblock, which allows users to turn off all four cell phone radiation energy sources--antenna, Wi-Fi, GPS, and Bluetooth--at customizable intervals.

In other news, the nonprofit Environmental Health Trust, which "educates individuals, health professionals, and communities about controllable environmental health risks," is calling on the FCC to mandate safety warnings about microwave radiation on any new cell phones sold in the U.S. and require new standards based on lowest feasible levels of microwave radiation.