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Cell phones and cancer


Cells phones emit a small amount of microwave radiation.


When held against the head for long periods of time, a person’s head absorbs some percent of this energy. Microwaves are non-ionizing, meaning that they don’t break DNA bonds, and as such are not carcinogenic (cancer causing.)

However, decades ago, a few preliminary studies suggested that use of cell phones might cause cancer.  Since then, no further studies have clearly shown this. Although the use of cell phones went up by a factor of 100%, then 1000%, and then 10,000% percent, the number of head or brain cancers has not changed. If there was a connection between cell phone microwave radiation and cancer, then this massive increase in cell phone use would have caused a noticeable rise in cancers. Yet this did not occur.



Can You Hear Me Now? The Truth about Cell Phones and Cancer: Physics shows that cell phones cannot cause cancer. By Michael Shermer on October 1, 2010

… Cell phones cannot cause cancer, because they do not emit enough energy to break the molecular bonds inside cells. Some forms of electromagnetic radiation, such as x-rays, gamma rays and ultraviolet (UV) radiation, are energetic enough to break the bonds in key molecules such as DNA and thereby generate mutations that lead to cancer. Electromagnetic radiation in the form of infrared light, microwaves, television and radio signals, and AC power is too weak to break those bonds, so we don’t worry about radios, televisions, microwave ovens and power outlets causing cancer.

Where do cell phones fall on this spectrum? According to phys­i­­cist Bernard Leikind in a technical article in Skeptic magazine (Vol. 15, No. 4), known carcinogens such as x-rays, gamma rays and UV rays have energies greater than 480 kilojoules per mole (kJ/mole), which is enough to break chemical bonds. Green-light photons hold 240 kJ/mole of energy, which is enough to bend (but not break) the rhodopsin molecules in our retinas that trigger our photosensitive rod cells to fire. A cell phone generates radiation of less than 0.001 kJ/mole. That is 480,000 times weaker than UV rays and 240,000 times weaker than green light!

Even making the cell phone ra­di­a­tion more intense just means that there are more photons of that energy, not stronger photons. Cell phone photons cannot add up to become UV photons or have their effect any more than microwave or radio-wave photons can. In fact, if the bonds holding the key mole­cules of life together could be broken at the energy levels of cell phones, there would be no life at all because the various natural sources of energy from the environment would prevent such bonds from ever forming in the first place.



“Oh no! My cell phone’s going to kill me!” by Orac on May 19, 2010

… there has not been a large increase in brain cancer or other cancers claimed to be due to cell phone radiation in the 15 to 20 years since the use of cell phones took off back in the 1990’s, nor has any study shown a convincing correlation between cell phone use and brain cancer.

Of course, one would not expect a priori, based on what is known about basic science, that cell phone radiation would cause cancer. After all, the development of cancer in general ultimately requires mutations in critical genes regulating cell growth and development. For an outside treatment to cause such mutations, as far as we know, requires the ability to cause DNA damage through the breaking of chemical bonds. Ionizing radiation can do this, as can certain cehmicals and chemotherapeutic agents. Indeed, that’s how these agents work against cancer because cancer cells tend to be more sensitive to DNA damaging agents than normal cells due to defective DNA repair mechanisms.

Thus, it is highly implausible based on basic science that cell phone radiation could cause cancer. It’s not homeopathy level-implausible, but it’s pretty implausible. Nor is it impossible, as has been claimed, because there may be biological mechanisms behind cancer that we do not yet understand, and it’s almost always physicists with little knowledge of epigenetics and other mechanisms of cancer development who make such dogmatic claims. Still, such physicists are not too far off; if cell phones could cause cancer, it would have to be through a previously unknown physiological or genetic mechanism. Absent compelling evidence of a link between cell phones and cancer, then, it is not unreasonable to rely on the basic science and consider the possibility of such a link to be remote.

Still, anything having to do with “radiation” causes fear, because most people don’t understand the different wavelengths and varieties of radiation. There’s also a cottage industry that’s sprung up to take advantage of people’s lack of knowledge about basic physics and chemistry by selling useless “cell phone radiation shields.” Much like research into various highly implausible forms of “alternative medicine,” though, research into a possible link between cell phone use and brain cancer continues unaffected by considerations of prior plausibility. So does the hysteria, sometimes even infecting prominent, high-ranking cancer researchers who really, really should know better.



Mobile phones and cancer – the full picture

The Guardian (UK newspaper,) David Robert Brimes, 7/21/18

Last week the Observer published an article by Mark Hertsgaard and Mark Dowie on a disturbing topic – the idea that telecoms giants might collude to suppress evidence that wireless technology causes cancer.

The inconvenient truth about cancer and mobile phones: We dismiss claims about mobiles being bad for our health – but is that because studies showing a link to cancer have been cast into doubt by the industry?”, Mark Hertsgaard and Mark Dowie, The Guardian, 7/14/18

The feature was well written, ostensibly well researched, and deeply concerning. Its powerful narrative tapped into rich themes; our deep-seated fears about cancer, corporate greed, and technology’s potentially noxious influence on our health. It spread rapidly across social media – facilitated by the very object on which it cast doubt.

Yet as enthralling as Hertsgaard and Dowie’s narrative might be, it is strewn with rudimentary errors and dubious inferences. As a physicist working in cancer research, I found the authors’ penchant for amplifying claims far beyond that which the evidence allows troubling. And as a scientist deeply invested in public understanding of science, I’ve seen first-hand the damage that scaremongering can do to societal health. While it is tempting to rage into the void, perhaps this episode can serve as a case study in how public understanding of science can be mangled, and what warning signs we might look out for.

Mobile phones and cancer – the full picture, David Robert Grimes

Dr David Robert Grimes (@drg1985) is a physicist, cancer researcher, and science writer based at Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Oxford, and is also a recipient of the Sense About Science/Nature Maddox prize

Learning Standards

Math Curriculum Framework

Probability and statistics/risk assessment: Construct and interpret scatter plots for bivariate measurement data to investigate patterns of association between two quantities. Describe patterns such as clustering, outliers, positive or negative association, linear association, and nonlinear.

Algebra II: Statistics and Probability
Making Inferences and Justifying Conclusions
• Understand and evaluate random processes underlying statistical experiments.
• Make inferences and justify conclusions from sample surveys, experiments and observational studies.

Standards for mathematical practice:
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4. Model with mathematics.
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8. Look for an express regularity in repeated reasoning.

2016 Massachusetts Science and Technology/Engineering Curriculum Framework

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