Mobiles Phones and Brain Cancer Claims

The mobile phone industry relies on expert advice from national and international health agencies on mobile phone safety.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and other health agencies conduct ongoing reviews into mobile phones, base stations and health and consider all of the available scientific research.

Specifically on mobile phones and health, the WHO currently says:

…overall evidence available to date does not suggest that the use of mobile phones has any detrimental effect on human health. (WHO What is EMF? p.3)

With respect to brain cancer risks, the most recent update from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the WHO, says:

With reference to radio frequency, available data do not show any excess risk of brain cancer and other neoplasms associated with the use of mobile phones (IARC World Cancer Report 2008)

This is backed by the European Union’s expert scientific group (SCENIHR), which says:

It is concluded from three independent lines of evidence (epidemiological, animal and in vitro studies) that exposure to RF fields is unlikely to lead to an increase in cancer in humans. However… further studies are required to identify whether considerably longer-term (well beyond 10 years) human exposure to such phones might pose some cancer risk. (SCENIHR, Health Effects of Exposure to EMF p.8)

The long-term trends for brain cancer incidence also support the conclusions of the health experts about the unlikely risk of mobile phones and brain cancer.

According to the IARC World Cancer Report 2008, the incidence of brain tumours following widespread mobile phone use has remained relatively stable:

After 1983 and more recently during the period of increasing prevalence of mobile phone users, the incidence has remained relatively stable for both men and women. (IARC World Cancer Report 2008 p.461)

The International safety guidelines for mobile phones are designed to protect people of all ages – including children – and incorporate large safety factors. However, recognising that some parents may be concerned about children’s mobile phone usage, the WHO advises the following:

Present scientific evidence does not indicate the need for any special precautions for the use of mobile phones. If individuals are concerned, they might choose to limit their own or their children’s RF exposure by limiting the length of calls, or by using ‘hands-free’ devices to keep mobile phones away from the head and body.

AMTA takes all aspects of mobile phone safety very seriously and supports ongoing research into this important area.

Frequently Asked Questions

What do Australian health authorities say?

The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), part of the Federal Health Department, agrees with international health authorities and concludes: 

There is essentially no evidence that microwave exposure from mobile telephones causes cancer, and no clear evidence that such exposure accelerates the growth of an already-existing cancer. More research on this issue has been recommended. (ARPANSA - Mobile Telephones and Health Effects)

Are children more at risk?

It is entirely understandable that parents are concerned about their children’s use of mobile phones because young people will use mobile phones for most of their lives and, therefore, might be more vulnerable to potential long-term health effects.

These concerns are also understandable because it has been recognised for some time that children are more susceptible than adults are to health risks associated with overexposure to infrared and UV radiation.

However, a number of independent reviews of all the available science by international health authorities and governments have carefully considered this concern and found no evidence of any additional risk to children from mobile phone technologies.

For example, a recent scientific review of all the science on children’s use of mobile phones published by the Irish Government Expert Group found no evidence of any risk to children:

There is no data available to suggest that the use of mobile phones by children is a health hazard. (Health Effects of Electromagnetic Fields p. 15) 

Also, international safety standards have taken these concerns and potential risks into account when setting safe exposure limits. The guidelines have been developed using worst-case scenarios and include added safety margins to ensure children are protected.

For example, the Chairman of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), which developed the international safety standard, has concluded:

The protection system using basic restrictions and reference levels makes the ICNIRP guidelines flexible and applicable to virtually any exposure condition, and any group of population. Therefore, there is no need, or justification, for a special approach to the protection of children. (WHO Workshop - Sensitivity of Children to EMF Exposure: The approach of ICNIRP to protection of children –Dr Paolo Vecchia p. 25)

What about the Australian brain surgeons who claim tumours are increasing at an alarming rate in young people?

Doctors, especially brain surgeons, command great respect from the public as a result of their years of study relating to cure and prevention of illness. The medical model of illness prevention inherently supports precaution and moderation.

Brain surgeons, Doctors Teo and Khurana, have expressed strong personal opinions in the media and publicly about mobile phones and brain cancer and advocate precaution based on their concerns. This advice does not differ from the World Health Organisation’s current advice, which says:

If individuals are concerned, they might choose to limit their own or their children's RF exposure by limiting the length of calls or by using "hands-free" devices to keep mobile phones away from the head and body. (WHO Fact Sheet No. 193).

However, where the WHO differs in its opinion from the doctors, is on the basis for the advice. The WHO states:

Present scientific evidence does not indicate the need for any special precautions for the use of mobile phones.

Brain cancer is a very rare disease, so small that random changes in numbers of cases can cause large changes in incidence rates. For this reason, multi-national studies have been conducted to study large numbers of brain cancer cases to try to identify possible risk factors.

The results of a 13-nation study looking at risks of head and neck cancers and mobile phone use, called the INTERPHONE project, are expected to be published soon.

Furthermore, such statements are at odds with the overall views of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) which says: 

After 1983 and more recently during the period of increasing prevalence of mobile phone users, the incidence has remained relatively stable for both men and women. (IARC World Cancer Report 2008 p.461)

Isn’t there now increasing evidence of a link between brain cancer and regular long-term mobile phone use?

Although the overall results of papers published so far have concluded that mobile phone use is not associated with an increased risk of brain cancer, some papers have hinted at a risk for long-term use. However, these results were based on small numbers and the co-ordinators of the project have said they could be causal or non-causal (artifactual) and related to differential recall between cases and controls.

It is also important to note the project was designed to look for cancers only up to 10 years of use because there were relatively few people with brain cancer, a rare disease usually of the elderly, who had used a mobile phone for that long.

Therefore, the data collected through the project is likely to be insufficient for a clear interpretation of possible risk for mobile phone use longer than 10 years. Any results beyond 10 years need to be interpreted with caution; however, they will provide an indication of future research needs.

Also, IARC has reviewed all the relevant studies and recently concluded:

Radiofrequency radiation emitted by mobile telephones has been investigated in a number of studies. There is some evidence that long-term and heavy use of mobile/cellular phones may be associated with moderate increased risks of gliomas, parotid gland tumours, and acoustic neuromas; however, evidence is conflicting and a role of bias in these studies cannot be ruled out. (IARC World Cancer Report 2008 p.461)

What about evidence of people getting brain tumours on the side of the head they used their mobile phone?

Although the overall results did not show a link with brain cancer, two of the analyses of data from individual countries also reported increased risks of brain cancer for a period of 10 years or more on the side of the head where the tumour developed.

Population studies such as those used in the INTERPHONE project look at a country’s medical database and identified patients with brain cancer and compare their mobile phone use with subjects who do not have brain cancer and/or do not use a mobile phone.

Trained interviewers conducted personal interviews with all subjects and gathered information about their patterns of mobile phone use, medical history, level of education and family history of cancer.

However, patients diagnosed with a brain tumour might over-report that they used their mobile phone on the same side of the head as their tumour was found.

This type of recall bias would be more likely to occur if a subject perceived that mobile phone use was associated with brain tumours and this has been widely speculated in the media.

Furthermore, no single study can answer any scientific question and, this study, like all others, must be viewed not in isolation but against the backdrop of significant previous research.

While population studies, like INTERPHONE, are used to find possible links to disease, they need to be supported by test tube and animal studies. This is why experts look at the ‘weight of scientific evidence’ available to them. There are around 2500 research publications on radio waves and health, including more than 600 studies specifically on mobile phones, in the international research database.

Therefore, no single study is likely to change significantly the current view.

Are mobile phones just like cigarettes and asbestos and we won’t be told the truth until it is too late?

It’s understandable that people might have similar concerns about mobile phones because of their experience with other health controversies, like tobacco and asbestos.

Therefore, we do not expect everyone to accept our assurances about mobile phone safety; we have an undeniable self-interest in the issue.

We rely on the advice of independent international health authorities around the world, who continue to review the scientific evidence available to them, which will include the combined INTERPHONE results when they are published.

However, if people are still concerned there are some practical steps people can take to reduce their children’s exposure:

  • Use a hands-free kit or loudspeaker so the mobile is away from the head and body
  • Use text messages when practical
  • Limit the length or number of calls