Being Well

Do Cellphones Cause Cancer? Assessing the Risks of Everyday Technologies

Even though cellphones emit radiation, research does not support the theory that they cause cancer.

As much as we use cellphones and other devices that emit radiation, many people still wonder whether cellphones cause cancer. And it’s not just cellphones people wonder about, but also microwaves and the full-body scanners you walk through at the airport, which emit similar radiation.

A Primer on Radiofrequency Waves

Cellphones, microwaves and millimeter wave scanners at security points emit a type of radiofrequency (RF) radiation. RF radiation is low-energy; it’s called “non-ionizing” because it doesn’t have enough energy to directly damage your DNA cells the way that X-rays or UV rays from the sun can.

Although RF radiation can’t directly cause cancer by damaging DNA, there’s still concern that exposure can alter the body and allow cancer to develop more easily. Researchers around the world are seeking answers about the risks of cellphones and other devices in everyday life.

Do Cellphones Cause Cancer?

For now, it seems unlikely that cellphones cause cancer, but research continues as our use of cellphones evolves. The American Cancer Society (ACS) has reviewed existing research and found that people who use cellphones are not more likely to develop tumors than people who don’t use them or use them infrequently.

The ACS also notes that microwaves are generally safe because the radiation stays contained within the device. Similarly, full-body scanners likely do not cause cancer. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration states that these scanners have no negative health effects. The radiation exposure is so low that an occasional flight is probably not something to worry about.

Although research hasn’t conclusively established a link between RF radiation and cancer, there are lingering questions. As the ACS reports, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has labeled RF radiation as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” a decision based on limited evidence from select studies. One recent study published in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health suggests that radiofrequency electromagnetic fields promote oxidative stress in the body, a condition that can lead to cancer or chronic diseases.

One of the lingering concerns about RF radiation and cancer is that radiation is cumulative, meaning it builds up in the body over time. Cellphone use now starts in childhood, with many kids using their devices for prolonged periods. We don’t yet know the long-term effects of prolonged, consistent cellphone use.

What Precautions Can You Take?

If you’re concerned about radiation exposure, you can take a few precautions. First, the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) generally lets you undergo alternative screening measures if you object to the full-body scanner.

Second, limiting cellphone use, for yourself and your kids, is one of the first steps you can take. When you do use your cellphone, use speakerphone or a hands-free set to keep the phone farther away from your body.

The body tissue closest to the phone, usually your ear, absorbs the highest amounts of radiation. Exposure decreases the farther away you are from the phone. So, your kids’ preference for texting over talking might actually reduce their radiation exposure.

Overall, it’s normal to be concerned about whether cellphones cause cancer or about the risks of other environmental factors. So far, cellphones generally appear safe. You can talk to your doctor about any concerns and to make sense of emerging research.

If you have questions about the causes of cancer and want to learn more about the risk factors, talk to your doctor.

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Patricia Chaney
Patricia Chaney