Are Cellphones Safe for Your Brain?

The jury is still out when it comes to the question of whether cellphone use leads to brain cancer?

Credit: Ed Yourdon

Experts say cellphones are safe for adults, but set limits for children and teens

The question has long been debated: are cellphones safe or are they linked to brain tumours?

Today, some 70 per cent of Canadians use a cellphone and stats show we spend an average of 6.7 hours a month on our mobile devices.

That’s why results from the Interphone Study — the largest study to examine the link between cellphones and brain cancer — was so highly anticipated. It involved 13 teams of researchers from across the globe, tracking 10,000 people for a decade or longer. However, the findings were inconclusive, stirring up even more controversy. Overall, the study found no apparent cancer risk.

“That is comforting from a public health perspective. We don’t have an epidemic of brain cancer linked to cellphone use,” says Dr. Daniel Krewski of the University of Ottawa, one of the study’s Canadian researchers.

Heavy Cellphone Users at Risk of Brain Cancer

But there was concern about heavy users. Those who held their cellphones to their ears, logging 1,640 hours of use (about half an hour a day) over a decade, had a 40 to 80 per cent higher risk of gliomas (a deadly form of brain cancer) and the relatively more benign meningiomas. The tumours were more often found to develop on the same side as a person’s cellphone use.

“If there is a risk, that is where we would expect to see it. So to me, this is an interesting finding that tells me maybe there is something going on,” says Elisabeth Cardis, the study’s lead author.

Paradoxically, the study also found low levels of cellphone use were linked to a lower risk of brain cancer; a finding researchers say is inexplicable. This is just one of the reasons why many critics say the study is greatly flawed.

Cellphone Study Results Difficult to Interpret

The findings have been so difficult to interpret, in fact, that these partial results were only released four years after the study concluded. Also, the users surveyed had used analog phones, not the current digital handsets, resulting in a different pattern of exposure and potential risk.

Participants were also asked to recall their use, leading to questionable results. And given that those considered the heaviest users then wouldn’t be considered heavy users by today’s standards, researchers say more studies are necessary. The good news is the latest mobile devices have lower emissions.

How to Protect Yourself from Cellphone Emissions

More research is underway, but meanwhile, how can you protect yourself? The jury on cellphone safety is still out. For now, public health experts say cellphones are safe for adults, but it would seem prudent to limit the time that children and teens spend on them.

For those looking to reduce electromagnetic radiation, experts suggest using hands-free devices and texting. But what about radiation from Bluetooth devices? “There have not been detailed studies on Bluetooth,” says Dr. Krewski. “However, the power output is less than from cellular devices…1,000 times lower than a handset. So from energy output there should be less of a concern.”

Originally published in TV Week. For daily updates, subscribe to the free TV Week e-newsletter, or purchase a subscription to the weekly magazine.