Will RF Radiation From Your Cell Phone Kill You?

Maybe the NCI study is wrong. Maybe the animal studies are wrong. Maybe physics is wrong, and there is some as yet undiscovered mechanism by which these low-energy rf radiation fields do damage to DNA. How big a cancer problem would exposure to radiation from power lines be? It is a tragedy, obviously, for a child to develop leukemia, although thanks to medical advances over the last fifty years, the disease is now curable in 70 to 80 percent of cases. But from a public health perspective, how big a problem is low-energy electromagnetic radiation from power lines?

Each year in Britain there are five hundred cases of childhood leukemia. It is estimated that even doubling the risk of leukemia for children who live near power lines would increase the number of cases of childhood leukemia by two to five. An independent body studying the problem–and funded jointly by the British government, the electric industry, and the charity Children with Leukemia–concluded that even if all precautionary measures were taken, even if families and schools were moved away from power lines, and power lines were relocated and redesigned to reduce low-energy radiation emissions, “it would be impossible to evaluate the effectiveness of this intervention, as the small reduction in the number of cases would be undetectable.” That is, such a small number of cancer cases would be prevented that it would be drowned out by the fluctuation of cases of childhood leukemia from year to year. I have not seen comparable numbers of cancer reduction in the United States; but extrapolating from the British data, each year there might be a reduction of twenty cases among the 3,900 or so childhood leukemia cases in a population of more than sixty million children under fifteen years of age.

In recent years, similar controversies have emerged concerning cell phone towers and base stations. The data are much the same. As Environment, Health and Safety Online, a reliable and responsible website, puts it, “The strength of these fields can decrease to almost undetectable levels at the site property line. Even the peak levels seen are thousands of times lower than the limits set for human exposure to radiofrequency EMFs (electromagnetic fields)…. Currently, there is no significant indication that chronic exposure to the EMFs around cellular sites has any potential to be hazardous to human health.”

The concern about cell phone handsets is more plausible. They do emit microwave rf radiation, and they are used close enough to the body to heat up cells that could cause damage, and possibly cancer. So what do we know about cell phones and cancer? There are many studies of the issue. The best of them come to opposite conclusions, although the preponderance of evidence is against the link with cancer. A Swedish study followed 905 adults with brain cancer, and reported that those with more than 2,000 hours of total talk time had a higher rate of brain cancer on the side that they held their phone. Unfortunately, they interviewed people with cancer and asked them about their cell phone use: recall bias–the “why me?” problem–could easily color their reporting. Two other studies, one from Britain following brain cancer patients and one involving more than 420,000 cell phone users in Denmark, showed that there was no association between cell phone use and brain cancer. As one researcher put it, “As the body of evidence accumulates, people can become more reassured that [cell phone handsets] are safe, but the final word is not there yet.”