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Do Cell Phones Cause Brain Cancer?

I was alarmed to hear that the World Health Organization has concluded that cell phones can cause brain cancer. So many people depend on their mobile phones. What should we do?

Answer (Published 6/3/2011)

Not so fast. The World Health Organization hasn’t concluded anything yet on this issue, but its International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has just classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields from cell phones as "possibly carcinogenic to humans." This occurred after a working group of 31 scientists from 14 countries reviewed available research, including some not yet published, and found "limited evidence" of a positive association between cell phone usage and glioma, a type of malignant brain tumor. While the group found the association "credible," it could not rule out that "chance, bias or confounding" could be responsible for the findings. In other words, the group saw a "possible" link between cell phone usage and gliomas but didn’t view the association as strong enough to be considered "probable." It has not concluded that cell phone emissions cause cancer in humans.

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The chairman of the Working Group, Jonathan Samet, M.D., M.S., of the University of Southern California, stressed the need for more research, especially on the long-term, heavy use of mobile phones, and suggested that in the meantime consumers can take such precautions as texting or using hands-free devices in order to reduce their exposure.

Because brain tumors take many years to develop, we may not know for some time whether or not cell phone use really is associated with these malignancies. In the meantime, I think it makes sense to implement the precautions I’ve recommended in the past:

  • Use landlines when available, especially for lengthy conversations.
  • In your car, use a cell phone that has a remote antenna outside the vehicle.
  • Always use a headset and keep the phone itself away from your body.
  • Find out how much radiofrequency energy your cell phone emits. (This measurement is called the Specific Absorption Rate or SAR; find the SAR for your cell phone. The SAR permitted in the United States is 1.6 watts per kilogram.) The Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that advocates for health-protective policies, has a cell phone radiation database that may be easier to use to check on your phone’s emissions.

To eliminate the most immediate danger of cell phone use to yourself and others, don’t talk or text while driving.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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