On Call: Cell phone radiation? There's no easy answer

Though studies on the subject abound, none can tell us conclusively whether mobile radiation does or does not adversely affect your health.

Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Kent German
5 min read

Last December, just as I returned from covering the first flight of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner in Seattle, I learned that a longtime friend was diagnosed with brain cancer. He had collapsed that day at work and was in the hospital awaiting immediate removal of his tumor. Needless to say, it was a distressing few days, but the surgery was successful and he was back home by Christmas.

About a month later he called me with a question. He hesitated before asking and, frankly, I felt a lump in my throat, because I knew what was coming. "So, do you think there really is a connection between cell phones and brain cancer?" he asked. "I figured that you'd know more about this than I do." Unfortunately, I couldn't answer him, and I may never be able to do so.

For background on cell phone radiation, see CNET's cell phone radiation charts

Though he was hardly the first person to ask that question, this time it came from someone who really cared about the answer. He was searching for an explanation for what had happened to him; he wanted to make sense of it and understand how cancer had come into his otherwise carefully organized life. I felt bad that I couldn't reply, but I just don't know if there is any link between cell phone radiation and cancer risk. Though studies on the subject abound, none can tell us conclusively whether mobile radiation does or does not adversely affect your health.

I realize that may not be what you want to hear, but science can't conform to human emotion and our desire to find an answer quickly. Single scientific studies (the good ones, at least) investigate and often suggest causal relationships between one thing and another based on their findings, but it can take years of exhaustive research before studies actually prove anything (if they do at all). And when you throw in a bunch of studies that seem to contradict each other, you wind up with a lot of confusion.

Just take the Interphone study, for example. Started in 2000 by a group of 13 countries, to date the study remains the largest body of work on the subject. Many hoped that it would offer some solid guidance, but that hasn't been the case. Not only did researchers disagree on how to interpret the data, some health advocacy groups decried that the mobile industry had partially funded the effort. Some participating have reported that the study found a link between long-term cell phone use (10 years or more) and increased brain cancer risk, but the final results have yet to be published.

Consider also Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, who published a controversial memo in 2008 that cautioned his staff against frequent cell phone use. Herberman acknowledged that the ongoing research remained controversial, but said there was sufficient data to be concerned. He was criticized, however, for basing his conclusions on unpublished data from the Interphone study.

Perhaps not
The cell phone industry continues to point to other studies that show no risk. According to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA), the industry's lobbying group in Washington, "impartial groups, such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the World Health Organization (WHO), the American Cancer Society, and the National Institute of Health, have all concluded that the scientific evidence to date does not demonstrate any adverse health effects associated with the use of wireless phones."

That may sound better, but keep in mind that the industry has an interest in assuring you that cell phones are safe. Similarly, studies can be flawed and can be published by someone eager to get their name in print. So again, think about the issue carefully; we don't know with certainty that there is a risk, but we don't know that there isn't one. So don't panic and don't bury your head in the sand. You may scoff that I'm even writing this column, but I'd be irresponsible not to. Research has to continue, and I hope that we get it from impartial sources (if they exist).

In Washington
The federal government has largely stayed outside the issue, though Congress held hearings and participated in an intentional conference last year. The Federal Communications Commission, which tests cell phones sold in the United States for their specific absorption rates (SAR), maintains that results have been inconclusive so far. According to the agency's Web site, "while some experimental data have suggested a possible link between exposure and tumor formation in animals exposed under certain specific conditions, the results have not been independently replicated...Many other studies have failed to find evidence for a link to cancer or any related condition."

What you can do
In the absence of an answer--and I wish I could give you one--I urge you to decide for yourself how you feel about cell phone radiation. I'm not a trained scientist, but if you're not concerned, I recommend only that keep yourself informed of ongoing developments. If you are concerned, here a few steps you can take to limit exposure. Just remember that we encounter many things in modern urban life--pollution, food additives, and stress, to name a few--that may or may not be harmful to your health. So don't think about cell phones alone.

  • Buy a phone with a low SAR. The FCC's limit is 1.6 watts per kilogram, and the lower the number, the better. A phone's SAR will be listed in its user manual, but the information may not be available at the sales counter, depending on the carrier. The Environmental Working Group and some local and state governments have called for carriers and manufacturers to list SARs at the time point of purchase, but they're still not required to do so. In the meantime, CNET lists the SAR for all current phones in our radiation charts.
  • Limit cell phone use in young children, who may be more susceptible to any adverse effects.
  • Don't sleep with your cell phone next to your head when it's powered on.
  • Text when you can since it uses less power than a voice call.
  • Keep your phone away from your body when on a call by using the speakerphone or a headset. Though debate exists on whether Bluetooth headsets are safe, they use much less power than cell phones and have a range of only 30 feet.
  • Don't bother with anti-radiation shields or cases.