More on cell phones and the lack of harm

By Phil Plait | December 12, 2010 7:00 am

I recently wrote a post about the lack of any evidence that cell phones cause cancer. Not too surprisingly, a lot of alarmist comments followed, many of which actually proved one of my points that the threat is exaggerated: at the very best studies show a very tenuous link between cell phones and health issues, yet people are claiming the relationship is obvious. Clearly, that’s not the case.

I’ll admit my title, "Repeat after me: cell phones don’t cause brain cancer", was overzealous. It’s very difficult to prove that with 100% accuracy. As a skeptic I have to admit that there is some slim chance of a causational relationship, even though study after study show there isn’t.

So it was interesting to me to see Michael Shermer write a post about this for the Skepticblog: Cell phones and cancer. It’s a well-written and clear article with references, links, and quotations from doctors showing that, despite the claims by many people, there is very little or no reason to think cell phone radiation causes brain damage.

Of course, if you’re using one to text while driving, brain damage is far more likely in the form of sudden catastrophic deceleration. So that’s a good time to avoid cell phones. But in ordinary use, I’m not worried, and I’ll continue to use mine. Especially if I finally do start playing Angry Birds.

Comments (63)

  1. DrFlimmer

    […]brain damage is far more likely in the form of sudden catastrophic deceleration[…]

    That is the way a physicist says “accident”. :-D

  2. Georg

    Hello,
    of course cell phones cause some kind of cancer, a kind
    of “social cancer”.
    The symptoms are: I want/have/must/ should/ be always
    connected, to be able to babble day and night.
    So this modern slave chain is worn voluntarily.
    Georg

  3. Jason

    Stay away from angry birds! The game will consume all your time and we won’t get any more blog posts. There is a compulsion to try again and again because those pigs just won’t die! .. I’d write more but I have to beat stage 9-9!

  4. Chief

    I laugh every time I see stickers banning cell phone use near gas pumps, as if they can cause a spark when used.

    I’m not worried about effects from using cell phones as the amount of energy is too small to cause any disruption to tissues. If cell phones did have an affect, then people living or working around high voltage lines would have more media coverage

  5. Father Tyme

    Are these the same people who, after spending an evening having a “meal” at McDonald’s, ingesting all that good stuff for their body and their childrens bodies, who then have the after meal cigarette (in the closed car with the aforementioned children because smoking in McDonald’s MAY be harmful, but that second hand stuff is conspiracy theory), who then drop the kids off with a baby sitter and go to a party to drink and eat and drink and smoke and drink then drive home without their full faculties (after picking up their children), then stuffing more of the “swell”, sort of FDA approved Monsanto’d food into their gullets before going to bed; are these the ones who complain there MIGHT be a possible risk to whatever is left of their brain by using cell phones?
    Is it time to ban thinking?
    Oh, wait! The Right is already on it! Good for them!

  6. Fraser

    We are being bombarded every day with much higher energy electromagnetic radiation, in the 400-790 TERAHERTZ range. Why don’t we ever hear anything about that? Sounds like Big Solar just wants everybody to ignore it.

  7. Gary Ansorge

    4. Chief

    Typical power output is around 100 milliwatts, depending on how close you are to a tower. It’s not however, the power out that might have an effect so much as it is the frequency. The radio wave frequency is way too low to damage DNA. Ionizing radiation doesn’t even start until you get to the UV range(a LOoong way from RF). The problem is, people associate ANY micro wave with the cooking effects of an oven. The idiot that named these ovens “micro wave” should have been beat with a large sausage. “Dielectric heaters” would have been much more accurate, w/o complicating things for later tech, like cell phones and Power Sats.

    Associative thinking is a powerful tool. Unfortunately it can also screw the pooch,,,

    6. Fraser

    LOL!!!

    Gary 7

  8. I have a lot to say on this subject, but I can’t write right now. …got a headache…

  9. The Captian

    @Chief

    Actually there is another very good reason not to use a cell phone at gas pumps. A few weeks ago I watched as a guy yapped away on his cell at a pump, who go so caught up in the conversation he just go in his car and took off with the nozzle still in his tank.

  10. MadScientist

    It was only a few months ago that yet another study was released showing that there is no correlation between increased cell phone use and brain cancer. It was quite a comprehensive report. At the time of course the various news articles had headlines such as “cell phones linked to cancer” when in fact the report claimed that there was no link whatsoever.

  11. Cell phones don’t cause cancer, but apparently they can cause lacerations of the ear:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oqBeUA1QYYo

    This seems hinky to me, though.

  12. Gary Ansorge

    10. MadScientist

    ,,,but IF cell phones caused cancer anywhere, wouldn’t it first show up as increases in EAR cancer? I mean, the brain is shielded by bone and fluid but the ear is right there with all the “radiation” from the cell phone hitting full bore,,,

    ,,,just saying,,,

    Gary 7

  13. John Baxter

    If I were to spend several hours a day talking on a cell phone, I would likely use some method to keep the phone away from my head (and at that point I wouldn’t be happy with a bluetooth headset either, although those seem even less potentially problematic).

    I have an addon bluetooth speakerphone system in the car, but I don’t use it routinely–the only place it works sensibly for me in on the visor a few inches from my head. I turn it on when I expect a call I have to take, then turn it off. [I don’t have to take calls in general.]

    But I am pretty sure I’m being overly cautious.

    Unlike the DEA undercover agent I saw standing bow watch on the undercover DEA boat in the entrance channel to San Diego Bay around 1987. He was about 3 feet forward of the radar antenna, with his head neatly aligned with the antenna. I do hope the radar was off or in standby. (DEA is more undercover now…but that particular series of boats was well known and easy to identify–surplussed Army river patrol boats.)

  14. dude

    Cell phones ARE harmful and I have first-hand anecdotal evidence backing up my claim!

    One time I dropped my cell phone on my toe and it hurt really bad. WHERE IS YOUR SCIENCE GOD NOW, HUH?

  15. OK, what -IS- this Angry Birds thing I keep hearing about?

  16. Phil, you and the readers might be interested to know that we’ve covered the whole cell phones / wifi paranoia in great detail over at Skeptic North.

    We’ve got plenty of articles written about the specious linkages between EMF and cancers, about the background and motivations of the people making the specious claims, we’ve got thorough literature reviews, and we even have some authors that tried to replicate a particular study, and got laughably different results.

    This is a good place to start, but there are many articles to chose from.

    Cheers,
    Steve

  17. kurt_eh

    If you thought cell phones are bad enough…

    Parents in Ontario are blaming WiFi for their kids getting sick at school:
    http://www.cbc.ca/canada/toronto/story/2010/08/15/ontario-wifi.html

    Funny how the symptoms go away when they get home.

  18. John Sabatino

    Phil, I think it is good of you to retract/qualify your statements in your earlier post. I appreciate that.

  19. Gary Ansorge

    ,,,and in other silliness, this just tickles the heck out of me,,,

    http://www.livescience.com/strangenews/lightning-strikes-religious-symbols-100630.html

    Jesu statue turned into a crispy critter by lightening.

    ,,,ooh, the irony,,,

    Gary 7

  20. Personally I’m much more concerned about the harm cell phones do to privacy. It’s well known that they can be used to track your movements (parents can even pay to spy on their children’s whereabouts), and the US government has admitted to using them to listen in on everything happening near them. I haven’t seen anything about a government admitting to doing it yet, but it would certainly be possible to remotely activate the camera as well as the microphone and watch what’s happening if you’ve got it out of your pocket.

  21. NAW

    Did yall’ read the one about mother cell phone use can cause behavioral problems with children? It would have been a funny article if it weren’t on CNN.com. I don’t it said anywhere that the problems may be caused by the mother yammering on the phone all day and not paying attention to their kids.

  22. John Paradox

    1. DrFlimmer Says:

    […]brain damage is far more likely in the form of sudden catastrophic deceleration[…]

    That is the way a physicist says “accident”. :-D

    Actually, wouldn’t a physicist refer to ‘negative acceleration’ instead of ‘deceleration’?
    It reminds me of the so-called ‘reverse racism’ used in many political blogs, but actually since ‘racism’ can be translated to “believing that one [my] race is superior to others”, then reverse racism would mean “believing that other races are superior to mine”.

    J/P=?

  23. Mike Saunders

    Thank you for reversing your view that that part of the electromagnetic spectrum is essentially harmless.

    One time in judging a high school science fair, I saw one project, “Reducing the size of microwave ovens”. The student had taken all of the electronics out of a microwave, and rebuilt it into a Plexiglas box. It still turned on and everything. It was pretty worrisome.

  24. Chief

    A lot of good comments and got me thinking, wouldn’t the first thing to show if any symptoms were to show, be problems with the inner ear. ie loss of balance. See the ad for a rival company, Don’t use X’s phone cause you will wind up on your ass.

  25. Daniel J. Andrews

    Father Tyme makes a good point regarding perceived risk and actual risk. People worry about cell phones causing cancer but have no trouble ingesting highly carcinogenic items such as alcohol, or smoking cigarettes, or eating fatty high sodium high caloric transfat laden fast food–deep-fried hamburgers loaded with different meats(?) What is wrong with you people?!

    I always liked this item regarding a cigarette smoking pregnant woman who was worried about how the jack hammer noise might affect her unborn child.
    funnyandjokes.com/mother-worries-noise-from-jackhammers-may-harm-her-unborn-child.html

  26. John McBryde

    Moible phenos dnot cusae barin cecanr
    I use mnie all the tmie and it has nveer affteced me.

  27. Gary Ansorge

    23. Mike Saunders

    A plexiglas box? Yes, that would be worrisome since, as far as I know, plexiglass is transparent to microwaves.

    Gary 7

  28. Tobin Dax

    @ 22. John Paradox

    Positive or negative acceleration indicates the direction in your coordinate system (i.e. north vs. south). Deceleration means slowing down.

    A south-bound car (with negative velocity) could have a accelerate in the southern direction (negative acceleration) and it would not slow down.

    I’m still trying to decide whether racism is a vector quantity or a scalar quantity. :-)

  29. John McBryde

    Actually, even though all evidence shows no link between mobile phones and brain cancer, you can never be too careful.
    I bought one of those hands free headsets, so now my phone is a safe distance from my brain and sitting in my lap.

    Also had to laugh the time a bloke came in wanting me to sign a petition to stop a phone tower going up in his street as it will not only be an eyesore, the radiation will give everyone cancer. I then asked him if he gets annoyed every time his phone (which he had on his belt) loses signal and drops out.
    Aparently, as long as it is in sombody elses back yard, that’s ok.

  30. Chief

    re John McBryde # 29

    Sorry couldn’t resist, you use hands free to get the phone away from your head to be safe just in case but keep the phone near another sensitive area…

  31. Ben Abbott

    Up next ? …. the dangers of cell phone interference with airline systems … or the *overzealous* version, “Why terrorists prefer box cutters to cell phones?” ;-)

  32. Ben Abbott

    @John, using a hands-free headset doesn’t necessarily reduce the radio trasmissions your brain is exposed to. What you done is to place a second transmitter into your ear … and closer to your brain. If you really “can never be too careful” (which is reminiscent of Pascal’s wager?), then I’d suggesting using head-phones.

  33. DrFlimmer:

    […]brain damage is far more likely in the form of sudden catastrophic deceleration[…]
    That is the way a physicist says “accident”. :-D

    Q: How do you jump out a window, fall 20 stories, and survive?

    A: Jump out a 21st story window.

  34. BraselC5048

    If you don’t mind me asking, I was wondering just how powerful a radio transmitter you need before it causes any effect that is noticeable or worth caring about, if you’re standing right in front of it. I’m just looking for an order of magnitude figure, and I suspect it’s bigger then any radio ever actually built. What about something in the tens of megawatts?

    And by the way, I’ve noticed most people who are alarmed don’t know anything about radiation.

  35. bazza

    It may be that radiation of various types is often stated as not being dangerous, just as with the examples given in the first half dozen posts. I’m not sure that helps any of the people who were involved in the cancer cluster at the Brisbane ABC studios, the causes of which are still unknown.

    We really haven’t enough time invested or data gathered to state anything empirically. I’d leave making too many absolute statements another few years just yet.

  36. Joseph G

    @#32 Ben Abbott: I always wondered about that. If the RF radiation from cell phones WAS dangerous, why should we assume that the RF from Bluetooth devices is any safer? :oP

  37. fred edison

    AB is a really cool game. They offer a free version you can try before you buy (in iTunes app store). It’s the simplicity and the physics of the game that are the keys to the “addiction,” though I think at times the pigs must be made out of carbon nanotubes, because of their unnatural ability to survive after being plonked by the kinetic energy of Angry Birds. Little wonder it’s been a virtual goldmine for the developers of the game.

  38. But this guy I knew used a cell phone and now he has prostate cancer. Clearly my one data point is far more significant than all the research done by these scientists. Because it’s based on personal experience and emotions and stuff, right?

  39. Clive DuPort

    I know several people who’ve had cancer which has now been cured. They all used mobile, or “cell” phones for those stateside, therefore the phones cured the cancer.

    My uncle died of cancer years before mobile phones were around therefore he couldn’t be cured.

    Hey, I’m just applying logic here!

  40. John EB Good

    Breathing air causes all sorts of free radicals to be released in your body. Free radicals harm your DNA and are the first cause of cancer. The huge amount of oxigen in air (as much as 20%) is the main cause for our lack in antioxidant intake in our diets. So, please everyone, stop breathing right now or you may die later. ;)

  41. réalta fuar

    @ #2 Georg: Brilliant, much more useful and hilarious than anything Shermer has ever written! (guess the adage about a stopped clock applies here….).

  42. Gary Ansorge

    34. BraselC5048

    “was wondering just how powerful a radio transmitter you need before it causes any effect that is noticeable or worth caring about, if you’re standing right in front of it.”

    Depends on what you mean by “noticeable effects”. Years ago, someone stated that they lived a few hundred meters from a 100 kw radio station and could light their house with fluorescent bulbs. The Phosphor was presumably excited by the RF. I’ve never tried that experiment but it SOUNDED good.

    35. bazza

    “We really haven’t enough time invested or data gathered to state anything empirically”

    How much time do you need? We’ve had radio for over a century and in that time, average human life expectancy has increased about 50%, so obviously all those radio waves we’ve been generating are longevity inducing,,,or maybe not,,,but at least they don’t appear to reduce lifespan. Is a century of experience long enough to satisfy you?

    Gary 7

  43. icemith

    @ 28 :- Tobin Dax,

    “I’m still trying to decide whether racism is a vector quantity or a scalar quantity.

    I would have thought that it was not a “quantity”, but a “quality”, and whatever the color, doesn’t matter!

    PS,
    Err, that wasn’t meant to be in any way, racist.
    Ivan.

  44. Mike

    Whatever you do, don’t start playing Angry Birds. That would be the end of this blog as we know it!

  45. BraselC5048

    The effects would have to be simply heating, for people anyway, since raido and microwaves are incapable of duing anything else, except perhaps for electrical effects. Anyway, after some googling, standing in front of a 20 mw raido results in nothing happening. However, a 180 mw rader, if you stand in front of it, results in a temperature increase of 83 degrees C (per second), and would kill you. Of course, I think both of these things are far more powerful then anything ever actually built. So apparently, in real life there’s nothing to worry about.

    And appartly, people are almost completly transparent to raido waves.

  46. I’m not so much concerned about cell phones causing brain cancer as a I am over the fact that they’ve turned too many otherwise normal, courteous human beings into complete blithering idiots.

  47. Les

    I think this was a more valid concern in the days of higher power analog cell phones. The digital cell phones these days have very low power output.

  48. Chris

    Forget about Angry Birds. He should be more wary of being consumed by Minecraft.

    BTW, Why no new episodes of BA on TV? Did the show get canceled??

  49. RedGreenBlue

    Amazing! 47 comments made on a blog site and not one was angry, ignorant, illiterate or blamed everything that’s claimed to be wrong in the world on liberals. What’s more, there was not even even one claiming global warming is only the scare tactic of a global conspiracy of pinko scientists. What a refreshing change from the news, sports and politics sites. Please keep it up.

  50. RedGreenBlue

    P.S. I’d love to see an informed discussion of the risks (or relative lack thereof) of the backscatter X-ray scanners being used by the TSA. Some physicians are claiming they are more dangerous than claimed because all the radiation is absorbed by the skin, unlike conventional X-ray scans.

  51. Tribeca Mike

    Years ago, I suffered brain damage from attempting to figure out what “trunk dialing” meant. Thankfully, that is no longer a serious communications health issue.

  52. Turboblocke

    O2 is the most addictive drug known to man. One breath and you’re hooked for life.

  53. Gary Ansorge

    52. Turboblocke

    Yes, and the withdrawal symptoms are absolutely killer.

    Gary 7

  54. Donna R

    I read some interesting, and amusing, posts here. That was an interesting point about how life duration has increased 50% during the hundred years of radio use. I wonder if me can prove that.

  55. Joseph G

    And of course, no thread about correlation not equaling causation would be complete without:

  56. Lawrence

    With rise in piracy in the Indian Ocean, this graph is no longer accurate, lol!

  57. Gary Ansorge

    54. Donna R

    Actually, what I SAID was life EXPECTANCY, not duration. Socrates was in his 80s when he was murdered but he WAS exceptional.

    Check out these figures:

    http://www.demog.berkeley.edu/~andrew/1918/figure2.html

    Life expectancy in the USA, 1900-98

    men and women

    Year

    M

    F

    1900

    46.3

    48.3

    1998

    73.8

    79.5

    So, yeah, about a 50% increase. On the other hand, MAXIMUM life span probably hasn’t changed in the last 10,000 years(of course, we don’t have much historical data beyond the last 2500 years)

    Gary 7

  58. BoB Broughton

    There is a gland located in the neck which seems much more susceptible to radiation from cell phones, The problem cancer spreads, Check it out

  59. Gary Ansorge

    58. BoB Broughton

    So, Bob, you obviously failed to actually READ the previous 57 posts. What part of energetic photons don’t you understand?

    Gary 7

  60. Seth

    What about Dr. David O. Carpenter?

    What are his motives in claiming so many issues with cell phone EMR?

    http://cellphones.procon.org/view.source.php?sourceID=009484

  61. Nigel Depledge

    Chief (4) said:

    If cell phones did have an affect, then people living or working around high voltage lines would have more media coverage

    You’re comparing apples and oranges here.

    High-voltage power lines operate at – what? – 50 or 60 Hertz typically.

    Cell phones operate at about 900 or 1800 MHz, which is a different set of animals altogether.

  62. Illusions

    Ah, some of us will never believe that cell phones dont cause cancer (no matter what the evidence) for the simple reason that we secretly hope that there will be some horrible consequence in the future for the vast numbers of inconsiderate people who foist their loud and inane one sided conversations on us in stores, restaurants, and, of all places….public restrooms.

  63. Jamesonian

    Phil– Since I look to you for all my medical advice (since you’re so quick to offer it for free), please share your reaction to this latest news from the WHO. Or are you suddenly ducking this whole debate?

    http://www.cnn.com/2011/HEALTH/05/31/who.cell.phones/index.html

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