Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer?

On May 31st the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (WHO/IARC) classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields – such as those emitted by cell phones – as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

This change was made based on the reported increased risk of a rare, malignant brain tumour associated with heavy long-term cell phone use.

While its classification by WHO/IARC as a 'possible' carcinogen means that the evidence is inadequate to classify mobile phone use as a 'known' or even a 'probable' carcinogen, the  classification has understandably reignited concerns over the safety of cell phones and has resulted in calls for changes in regulations, the lowering of exposure levels, and the restriction of use by children.

Given that cell phones, wi-fi and smart meters all transmit information with radiofrequency waves, some members of the public have also argued that these devices, as well as baby monitors, and FM radio, which also use radiofrequency transmission, be curtailed or banned.

Dr. Perry Kendall, British Columbia’s provincial health officer, recognises these concerns. Dr. Kendall and his colleagues across the country regularly review information and new science as it becomes available, and have established ongoing review mechanisms to ensure that new knowledge is assessed quickly.

Given the current scientific evidence, the consensus of public health practitioners is that at current exposure levels these electromagnetic fields do not constitute a threat to the health of the public.

The possible association between mobile phone use and cancer risk, particularly among long-term heavy users of cell phones, does warrant further study – research is continuing and will be monitored.

It is also important to note that there are a wide variety of everyday items which have been given the classification "possibly carcinogenic to humans" by the WHO/IARC, including coffee, pickled vegetables (Asian style), engine exhaust and certain oral contraceptives.

Q - Does the classification of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic mean that new information has become available?
A - No. The group of studies on which this classification was based  was released about 16 months ago. They reported an increased incidence of specific brain tumours for cell phone users reporting the most use (greater than or equal to 1640 hours over life). Past studies have also shown an increased risk of tumours on the same side as cell phone use in heavy users who used cell phones for 10 years or longer.  However, these findings are based on self-reported use, which can cause “recall bias” – when someone who has experienced a negative outcome is more likely to remember possible exposures than someone who has not had that outcome.

Q - Are these findings applicable to modern cell phones?
A - Past studies have included older cell phones that produce higher levels of radiofrequency radiation (RF).  Modern cell phones also emit RF, but often at much lower levels, and they also carry manufacturers’ warnings about keeping them a certain distance from the body.  In addition, as the cell phone network is enlarged with more and more antennas installed, the power that an individual cell phone uses to reach the network decreases, lowering the user’s radiation exposure.

Q - I am worried about my time spent using a cell phone. What should I do?
A- There are many ways you can limit your exposure to radiofrequency waves if you are concerned. For example, you can:

  • Spend less time on the phone
  • Use the speaker option
  • Use blue tooth technology
  • Use an earpiece
  • Use the texting option

Q- What should I do about my children’s exposure?
A- There are no epidemiological studies carried out thus far that have specifically looked at children. However, the same methods for reducing exposures as listed above can be applied to children.

Q - How do wi-fi exposures compare with cell phone exposures?
A - Wi-fi exposures are a small fraction (less than 1%) of radiation received during typical cell phone use. There is no convincing evidence that wi-fi exposures constitute a threat to the health of B.C. residents.

Q – What about electro-magnetic hypersensitivity?
A - A review of 46 blind and double blind studies concluded that despite the belief by sufferers that their symptoms were triggered by exposure to electromagnetic fields, researchers were unable to confirm a connection between their symptoms and radiation exposure. Repeated experiments have been unable to replicate these phenomena under controlled conditions.  While we are not questioning people’s symptoms, there is considerable uncertainty in the medical profession as to their cause.

Q - Where can I go to seek more information?
A – The IARC news release and WHO reviews on radiofrequency exposure can be found at: (PDF, 250KB)
In addition, the BC Centres for Disease Control are conducting a further review of published studies and will be issuing a report in Fall 2011.

For more information on wi-fi safety, watch this video from Health Canada

Wi-Fi - Health Canada