Do mobile phones increase the risk of brain cancer?

Time Square, Jan 2013 - 01

This week some really interesting research has been published, stating that long-term use of mobile phones and cordless phones can increase the chance of developing glioma, the most common type of brain tumour. YIKES!!!!!!

Now, before you go and throw your phones away, let’s have a closer look. If you want to read the research paper yourself, you’ll need to go here, where you can purchase a copy, or instead, you can read my little summary below.

Why are we concerned about mobile phones and cordless phones?

The wireless technology is the problem really, with these phones emitting radio frequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF) with the brain being the main target for these because we hold these devices up against our heads. Concern about the increased exposure to RF-EMF has been expressed for a long time but up until this point there has been no conclusive evidence that it can increase the risk of cancer. Having said that, given how new the technology is and how frequent our exposure has become over the past two decades, it’s early days yet and there is no conclusive evidence to say that it does not in fact increase the risk of cancer.

So, how serious is the risk?

“This new study shows that the risk for glioma was tripled among those using a wireless phone for more than 25 years and that the risk was also greater for those who had started using mobile or cordless phones before age 20 years.”

Note the second point about using the phone before the age of 20 years. Dr Hardell from the study explains his concerns here:

“Children and adolescents are more exposed to RF-EMF than adults because of their thinner skull bone and smaller head and the higher conductivity in their brain tissue. The brain is still developing up to about the age of 20 and until that time it is relatively vulnerable,” he said.

1193636560_e4bcfe9cc4_bPhoto Credit: Len Matthews on Flickr

The researchers also noted an increase in risk in people using 3G or above but there were relatively low numbers of users of 3G or above in this study, so we can not be sure the risk does indeed increase.

Dr Hardell is calling for the International Agency on Cancer Research (IARC) to urgently review its guidelines and consider listing wireless technology as carcinogenic. According to a report by IARC in 2013, the risk of developing a glioma as the result of using mobile phones and cordless phones is, “possible.”

So why aren’t we doing something about this now?

Well firstly, change happens very, very slowly, particularly with something like exciting new mobile phone technology. You’ve just got to look at x-rays and pregnant women. Dr Alice Stewart discovered in the 1950’s that if you x-ray pregnant women, there is a huge risk that these babies will go on to develop, and very often die, from childhood cancer.   In spite of her findings from excellent research, it took us another 25 years to stop this practice. Yup, you read that correctly: excellent research, conclusive findings, and yet a child a week died for another 25 years until the medical establishment ceased performing x-rays as routine practice on pregnant women.

Most of us love our mobile phones. We love the technology. We love the convenience. And they save lives, too. Just think of people who are away from a landline but can call an ambulance when a person has had a cardiac arrest and drastically increase the response time of emergency services. So why would we give them up too easily when we don’t have conclusive results that they are a problem?

You see, there is other research that disagrees with the findings discussed above.  The largest study of the link between cancer and mobile phone use, the Interphone Study (which you can find here) found no link. Mind you, this study was heavily criticised for its methodology and complexity, which made it difficult to interpret the results as well as the risk of bias in the subjects.

Unfortunately this recently published study has become subject to some similar criticisms. Professors Lunsford and Leksell from the Centre for Image Guided Neurosurgery and the University of Pittsburgh said that the study provides useful additional information and can’t be completely dismissed, but that it was essentially “unconvincing.”

163450213_18478d3aa6_bPhoto Credit: Brian Talbot on Flickr

So where to from here?

Well, given that the International Agency on Cancer Research (IARC) have stated clearly that it is “possible” that there is a link between brain tumours and mobile phone use, and given that even the studies that found no link warn us that we need to continue researching this very new area before we can be completely convinced of their safety, I think we definitely need to err on the side of caution.

Ask yourself, “Do I really need to talk to you on my mobile right now?” Are there alternatives, like hands free, face to face, Skype, or using a landline? (old fashioned I know, but people still do it you know).

It seems to me that unless we can be really, really sure, I don’t want to take that risk. The idea of a surgeon cutting in to my skull to remove a tumour from my brain followed by radiation therapy or chemotherapy is completely unpalatable, and all for what? Convenient communication!

It makes you think, doesn’t it.

Feature Photo: Ed Yourdon on Flickr

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