Concerns over the potential cancer risk associated with cell phones is nothing new. Scientists and health experts have been trying to figure out just how worried we should be about the possible link since cell phones first took off in the U.S. in the 1990’s.
Last week, yet another study sent up red flags in the minds of researchers and health experts. The new research, conducted by the U.S. National Toxicology Program, involved exposing rats to radiofrequency radiation that comes from cell phones for about 9 hours a day, for 7 days a week. The researchers found that the exposed rats were more likely to develop cancers, specifically malignant gliomas – a type of brain tumor – and tumors in the hearts of male rats. 
There was no increase in cancer among exposed females, which represents “partial findings” of a larger project that includes experiments in mice.
About 2% of the exposed rats – 11 out of 540 – developed malignant gliomas. About 3.5% of the exposed rats – 19 out of 540 – developed a type of tumor known as schwannoma of the heart. Schwannomas can also develop in the acoustic nerve, which affects hearing.
None of the unexposed rats in the control group developed cancer. Oddly enough, however, they lived shorter lives than the exposed rodents.
When people think of radiation, they tend to think of the atomic type, like the kind found in nuclear weapons or nuclear power plants. Cell phone radiation is completely different, however. The devices emit non-ionizing radiation which is too weak to damage DNA. Many scientists dismiss the notion that cell phones cause cancer for that very reason. Nonetheless, in 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified mobile phone use “as a possible carcinogen.”
Some cancer experts believe this latest study could change that thinking. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society, who was not involved in the study, said in a statement to USA Today:
“The findings are unexpected; we wouldn’t reasonably expect non-ionizing radiation to cause these tumors. This is a striking example of why serious study is so important in evaluating cancer risk.”
Except that they shouldn’t be wholly unexpected, since this is not the first study to suggest that cell phones may cause cancer, although previous studies focused on a different mechanism, which I’ll explain later.
Other Research Came to Similar Conclusions
A study published in 2014 in the journal Pathophysiology showed that brain tumor rates nearly triple after 25 years of cell phone use. The scientists behind the research found that, overall, people who used wireless phones for more than a year had a 70% greater risk of brain cancer as compared to those who used wireless phones for a year or less. Though that doesn’t necessarily mean that the risk is considered ‘high.’
In 2015, a huge study found that people who used a cell phone for just 20 minutes a day for 5 years increased their risk of 1 type of brain tumor threefold, and using a cell phone for an hour a day for 4 years upped the risk of some tumors 3 to 5 times.
More Data is Needed, Especially on Risk to Humans
To be fair, there have been numerous studies that found no link between cell phone use and cancer.
The newest study was reviewed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the authors say more data on the link will emerge in the coming years. While a study in rats is not directly relational to humans, it does give researchers evidence that can lead to further research into the effect of cell phone radiation on people.
It will be interesting to see what, if any, impact the results may have on the government’s cell phone safety recommendations. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which oversees safety guidelines for U.S. cell phone use, has been briefed on the findings. An FCC spokesman told The Wall Street Journal:
“Scientific evidence always informs FCC rules on this matter. We will continue to follow all recommendations from federal health and safety experts including whether the FCC should modify its current policies and RF exposure limits.”
Current cell phone safety standards focus on the heating effects from radiofrequency energy – the same type of energy that cooks food in a microwave. Earlier studies revolved around radiofrequency energy – the aforementioned “different mechanism.” Tests for safe use of cell phones were designed in the 1990’s around this heating effect.
Julie Fidler is a freelance writer, legal blogger, and the author of Adventures in Holy Matrimony: For Better or the Absolute Worst. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two ridiculously spoiled cats. She occasionally pontificates on her blog.