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Cell phones and cancer

Cells phones emit a small amount of microwave radiation.

Do they cause cancer, or any other health problems?

Before answering the question, let’s make sure that we phrase the question clearly: Are all cell phones the same? No. Do they all use the same wireless technologies? No.

So at the outset we must first consider the possibility that most cell phones may have safe so far, but perhaps new technologies – such as the new 5G standard, or wireless charging – may not be as safe.


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.

On the other hand, most of this data concerns cell phones that were using old-fashioned, wired chargers, and 2G, 3G or 4G data transmission standards. With the development of various wireless technologies, and the new 5G standards, could these possibly have more risk?

5G is not going to microwave your brain:

All the myths, debunked (Updated)

By Robert Triggs, Android Authority, 7/30/2019

Let’s quickly look at the historical statistics of cancer incidence rates. The coverage of cellphone networks and the number of bands dedicated to its use have expanded rapidly over the past decade, surrounding us with more wireless networks than ever before. If the radiation is dangerous, cancer rates should definitely be increasing.

SEER Cancer Incidence data for the U.S. population is at odds with this line of thinking. Plotting U.S. cellular subscriptions alongside this data reveals cancer rates were actually increasing well before even a small percentage of people had cellphone plans. Since then the trend has reversed — cancer incidence rates have actually fallen as feature and smartphone usage increased. Brain cancer rates remain virtually unchanged over the last four decades.

… There is no compelling evidence linking cellular networks cancer, but what about upcoming 5G technologies. Most of these frequencies occupy existing low frequency and Wi-Fi bands, so there aren’t really any new risks. Higher frequency mmWave technologies still don’t reach close to ionizing wavelengths and the technology actually extends further away from the maximum human RF absorption frequency of about 70MHz.

MmWave will mostly deploy in the 24 to 29GHz spectrum, which suffers from very high reflection rates. Therefore, energy absorption is confined to the surface layers of the skin rather than deeper tissue touched by lower frequencies. Penetrating bones or the skull is out of the question, so you can throw out those brain tumor arguments.

… Scare stories make for popular headlines, but the reality is that small pieces of potential evidence are often quickly blown out of proportion. The most popularly cited research papers on the issue have major faults. Numerous long-term high-quality studies find no link between cellphones and cancer, including ones from the Danish Strategic Research Council, the National Science Council in Taiwan, and Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, amongst others.

U.S. incidences of cancer and cellular subscriptions

Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results Program. SEER is an authoritative source for cancer statistics in the United States. The Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program provides information on cancer statistics in an effort to reduce the cancer burden among the U.S. population.


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

Why 5G Makes Me Reconsider the Health Effects of Cell Phones

Usan Crawford, Wired Magazine, 4/1/2019

I see a parallel in another big news story: the hype and enthusiasm about 5G wireless as the “thing that will make the existing [communications] model obsolete.” 5G is touted as the solution to all our problems—which sounds pretty unrealistic, as I’ve written in the past. (We’ll still need fiber wires everywhere, including deep in rural areas, to make 5G serve everyone, and there’s a real risk that we’ll end up with local 5G monopolies absent wise government intervention.)

And there’s a new (to me) angle to 5G that I’ve resisted in the past: What if transmissions to and from 5G cells, which will need to be everywhere, and much closer to us than traditional cell towers, pulsing out very-high-frequency radio waves at high power levels, pose real risks to human health?

I’ve been impatient for years with people complaining about the health effects of wireless communications. The phrase “tinfoil hat” leaps to mind, I readily concede. But I am learning that hundreds of scientists and tens of thousands of others believe that the intensity of 5G represents a phase change and that 5G’s effects on mankind should be studied closely before this technology is widely adopted.

So far, the European Commission, focused on ensuring its market players lead the way in advanced wireless services, has rejected pausing to consider the human health effects of 5G. The Federal Communications Commission has acted similarly.

But what if the FCC is measuring public health effects against a decades-old standard that (a) measures the wrong thing and (b) was based on the work of an insular, private group, half of whose initial funding came from the power and telecom industries and that elects its own members? I am bothered enough to suggest that we need better, more neutral standards based on widely accepted science.

Here’s the quick summary: The FCC standard for measuring the health effects of electromagnetic radiation is based on whether the exposure, on average, will heat human tissue over short periods (6 minutes for occupational work and 30 minutes for public exposure). That standard was adopted in 1996. (The FCC launched a process in 2013 to re-examine this standard, but its review doesn’t seem to be progressing.)

But some very persistent scientists say that’s the wrong standard, for at least two reasons: Human cells can be disrupted by mechanisms that don’t necessarily involve heating, and the standard measures average exposure rather than potentially harmful peaks. They’re particularly worried about effects on the skin and eyes of bursts of 5G transmissions that may lead to short, harmful temperature spikes in exposed people. But that’s not the only concern.

Other scientists worry about mental health effects, sterility, cancer, and a host of other problems they say can be triggered by long-term exposure to base stations and handheld devices. Canadian scientist Magda Havas, who studies and writes about electromagnetic radiation and teaches at the University of Trent, asserts that the governmental bodies and agencies that say that “non-ionizing” (effectively, non-heating) radiation is safe and can’t cause cancer below existing heat guidelines are wrong; she points to what she calls “sufficient scientific evidence of cellular damage” caused by these transmissions.

…the FCC’s 1996 rules don’t account for long-term exposure or cellular/biological effects that don’t involve heating. And the FCC’s standard is based in turn on standards adopted 30 years ago by a private group based in Germany called the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP). ICNIRP has been described as loyal to both the telecom and energy industries, elects its own members, and is accountable to no one.

As an outsider, it feels to me that the scientific concernabout 5G health effects is relatively underfunded and that there’s a lot of denial and confusion about the health risks. To his credit, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) asked about scientific evidence on the health effects of 5G during a hearing a couple of months ago, titled Winning the Race to 5G and the Next Era of Technology Innovation in the United States. “I believe that Americans deserve to know what the health effects are,” Blumenthal said. “Not to prejudge what scientific studies may show. They deserve also a commitment to do the research on outstanding questions.“ Told there were no industry-funded studies on the health effects of 5G, Blumenthal said, “So, we are flying blind here on health and safety.” At least he’s asking.

Petition: 26,000 Scientists Oppose 5G Roll Out

by Arthur Firstenberg, January 29, 2019

… If the telecommunications industry’s plans for 5G come to fruition, no person, no animal, no bird, no insect and no plant on Earth will be able to avoid exposure, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, to levels of RF radiation that are tens to hundreds of times greater than what exists today, without any possibility of escape anywhere on the planet. These 5G plans threaten to provoke serious, irreversible effects on humans and permanent damage to all of the Earth’s ecosystems. Immediate measures must be taken to protect humanity and the environment, in accordance with ethical imperatives and international agreements.

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:
1. Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
2. Reason abstractly and quantitatively.
3. Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.
4. Model with mathematics.
5. Use appropriate tools strategically.
6. Attend to precision.
7. Look for and make use of structure.
8. Look for an express regularity in repeated reasoning.

2016 Massachusetts Science and Technology/Engineering Curriculum Framework

High School: Overview of Science and Engineering Practices

By the end of high school, students should have an understanding of and ability to apply each science and engineering practice to understand the world around them. Students should have had many opportunities to immerse themselves in the practices and to explore why they are central to the applications of science and engineering. Some examples of these science and engineering practices include… Apply concepts of statistics and probability (including determining function fits to data, slope, intercept, and correlation coefficient for linear fits) to scientific and engineering questions and problems.

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