Should We Still Be Concerned About Cell Phones and Brain Cancer?

Once a mainstay of panicked internet fodder, cell phones and brain tumors don’t make much headline news these days. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has overtaken many hot health topics, there’s likely more to it in this case, experts said.

Perhaps even if there were a link between radiofrequency radiation (RFR) and cancer, people just lost interest and are unlikely to give up their phones. Or maybe research limitations have stifled conversations.

Another possibility is that while animal studies worried some experts in the field, others believe human studies have all but eliminated their worries. Still others state that among the many cancer risks, cell phone use is simply not one of them.

Nevertheless, there are still research areas that could be ripe for future insights, such as cell phone use by children or the switch to 5G. The public health lessons from cell phones and brain tumors can also prove useful beyond the research itself.

To find out if people might still have concerns about cell phones and the risk of cancer, MedPage today met with several experts familiar with the research and possible considerations for the future.

“It’s becoming more of a quiet area,” said Emanuela Taioli, MD, PhD, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. “5 to 10 years ago it was very intense and controversial.”

One reason for the drop is that some of the large studies that are being done show no real link between cellphone use and brain cancer, she added.

Notably, the Interphone study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer was conducted in 13 countries and found no increased risk of brain tumors from cell phone use in 2011.

Other large-scale studies included a nationwide cohort study in Denmark that found cell phones do not cause brain tumors, and the UK Million Women Study, which also concluded that cell phone use under normal conditions does not increase the incidence of brain tumors.

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When these studies were initiated, there was interest in large-scale research that would cost many millions of dollars because even if the risk were low, “the public health relevance would be very high since we are all exposed,” he said Taioli said.

There were many concerns in those early days, she noted. Phones would generate heat and that was taken as a possible sign of radiation entering the body.

Scientists worried about what the overall effect would be across the board, she said. Years later, however, the results of a number of studies and the fact that the incidence of brain tumors in adults is declining may have contributed to a waning interest.

It should be noted that cell phone usage research is inherently difficult to conduct.

So much of this is self-reported, Taioli explained. It also includes trying to measure cellphone usage directly while it’s on the head, she said. Other questions include whether the phone is pointed at another organ, how many hours a day the phone is held directly to the head, and how long the phone has been used in this way.

Although Timothy Rebbeck, PhD, of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health in Boston agreed with certain limitations of large human studies, he said he believes experts in the field consider the issue to be largely resolved.

“In my opinion, once you reach a certain amount of human data, the risk that could be transmitted through the use of cellphones is so small,” he noted.

There are experts who favor animal studies because they argue that human epidemiological studies have limitations that could prevent researchers from seeing certain results, he acknowledged.

Leeka Kheifets, PhD, of the UCLA School of Public Health in Los Angeles, pointed out that while epidemiological studies don’t actually point to a risk, there have been animal studies that are “a bit worrying.”

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The National Toxicity Program reported that its studies found that high RFR exposure was associated with clear evidence of tumors in the heart of male rats, as well as some evidence of tumors in the brain and adrenal glands of male rats.

“To better understand the biological basis for the cancer findings reported in the National Toxicology Program’s earlier studies of radiofrequency radiation from cell phones, the NIEHS [National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences] built smaller RFR exposure chambers capable of using a broader range of frequencies, allowing scientists to evaluate newer telecommunications technologies. Studies are being conducted to test the performance and operation of the smaller exposure chambers,” a spokesman for NIEHS wrote in an email MedPage today.

In terms of timing, “some technical issues were identified with the exposure system and this delayed the start of both the mouse and rat studies,” the spokesperson added. “Some pilot studies in the newly constructed systems have now been completed and manuscripts are being developed to share the results. One of the first works to be developed will focus on the exposure system used for the studies.”

Kheifets also noted that it could be important to study the impact of moving to 5G and how that may affect exposure as more masts and more information are transmitted.

Even so, Rebbeck said, there are others who continue to believe that what is seen in animal models does not reflect what is seen in humans.

Likewise, there are limitations in studying pesticides and exposure to chemicals — they can be difficult to measure in humans, he noted. However, enough of them have been done well in cellphone studies and “we can be pretty sure we’re not missing anything,” he added.

“I think based on the summary of the evidence, we can make a political or public health decision that cell phones don’t cause cancer,” Rebbeck said.

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In addition, it is important to convey messages on the subject to put everything in perspective, he continued. It’s important to consider the things that really matter when it comes to cancer risk, such as: B. smoking.

There are things people can do — cancer screening, prevention and vaccines — that “really make a big difference,” he said. “If you’re worried about cancer, there are many other things you can do to reduce your risk of cancer that are real.”

Another area of ​​study that hasn’t been thoroughly explored is cell phone use among children, experts say.

“They’re generally more vulnerable,” Taioli noted. “General radiation for diagnostic X-rays, we try to avoid it in children because the organs are developing.”

Children from a very young age are now exposed to cellphones, she said. And that alone might be worth studying.

One thing that all experts agreed on is that much of the concern about cell phones and brain tumors has all but been erased. It’s certainly not that often anymore that any of them see people with phones pressed to their heads.

Between headphones/earbuds and text messaging, cell phone use as society once knew has all but disappeared.

The move could be more important than meets the eye from a public health perspective, Taioli said.

“This is an example where people adopted healthier behaviors without having any official direction or guidance,” she noted. “But people have adopted a healthier way of using the phone just by reading and watching. I can’t think of any other example in this area.”

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    Jennifer Henderson joined MedPage Today in January 2021 as a corporate and investigative writer. She has covered the NYC healthcare industry, life sciences and business law, among others.

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