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Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer?

Debbie Pardo

10 October 2008



                In this increasingly high tech world, scientific claims make it seem as though almost anything we’ve incorporated in our daily lives can cause cancer or can be hazardous to our health.  In recent years, researchers and scientists have made claims that the use of cell phones can lead to brain tumors and other forms of brain cancer. While scientific research has shown that radiofrequency radiation exposure at high levels can be harmful, there is no evidence that the low levels of radiation in cell phones leads to any health  hazards (  If people were exposed to high levels of radiation on a daily basis and at a high intensity, this could be hazardous.  However, the radiofrequency radiation in cell phones is low, and has recently continued to decrease because of better technology, according to research done by the Medical College of Wisconsin.           

                At a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Ronald B. Herberman, MD, addressed the issue of whether young children, whose brains are still developing and might be more vulnerable to radiation, should be cautioned against cell phone use.  Although his research is not yet published, he advises that young children only use cell phones in cases of emergency because it is impossible to prove that cell phones are completely safe (  Because cell phones have not been in use for very long, it is hard to be completely understand this phenomenon scientifically.  Although short term use of cell phones may not have a dramatic effect on health, there is little way of knowing the long term affects of cell phone use and the damaging effects of the radiation.  It is also important to take into account confounding variables that may also influence the prevalence of brain tumors or cancer before making the relationship between cell phones and brain tumors a causal one.  Many other forms of radiation are known to be harmful and carcinogenic and medical history of each individual can also influence his or her risk of developing cancer.  

Literature Review

                Current knowledge on whether the radiofrequency radiation in cell phones is carcinogenic has been inconclusive and lacks sufficient evidence to support a theory on either side of the debate.  In 2000 Kenneth J. Rothman reviewed research on the cell phone phenomenon.  Rothman explored the use of cell phones from an economic and social perspective (as well as scientific) saying that cell phones provide a more convenient way to communicate and do not require land lines which is why they became so prevalent in the first place. Because research has proven to be inconclusive about the damaging effects of cell phones, Rothman argues that the health concern surrounding radiofrequency exposure may be coupled with society’s anxiety about known carcinogenic types of radiation (Rothman, 2000).  Much of the existing research on the effects of radiofrequencies have been associated with people who are exposed to such radiation in their occupation and often times employees are exposed at a different frequency and for a longer duration of time so the results of these studies are incomparable to the effect of cell phone radiation on the general public (Rothman, 2000).  Overall, the evidence on this issue has been inconclusive, yet people continue to fret over the issue.  Rothman points out that it is not the radiofrequency radiation from cell phones that is causing the most death in the United States, but rather the use of cell phones while driving that is the most apparent danger to the population, bringing up an interesting social rather than scientific phenomenon.

More recently, the Interphone study, published online in July 2007, is the largest case control study to date, with the purpose of exploring the relationship between cell phones and brain cancer.  The study focused on three main relationships 1) the possible relationship between the risk of tumors and cell phone use, 2) the relationship between the risk of tumors and exposure to radiofrequency radiation and 3) the influence of other factors on the increased risk of brain cancer such as other types of radiation exposure and the medical history of each cancer patients (Cardis et al. 2007).  The case-control study set out to investigate whether cell phone use increases the risk of cancer, more specifically whether the radiofrequency fields given off by cell phones are carcinogenic or not. The study focused on the specific kinds of tumors most commonly in the tissue that is exposed to the radioactive frequency radiation from cell phones – glioma, meningioma, acoustic neurinoma and parotid gland tumors.  Something unique about this study was that it also considered outside risk factors or confounding variables on the increased risk of brain cancer.

                Another important aspect of this experiment was that it was internationally collaborative, thereby increasing its statistical power by looking at many other circumstances in different countries. The Interphone project consisted of 16 experiment centers in 13 countries (Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and UK), each using a common protocol and experimental method (Cardis et al. 2007).  Some countries focused on metropolitan areas, where the most cell phone use occurs, while others focused on rural areas and other countries studied both.  The participants were ages 30 – 59 and had to pass certain eligibility criteria (Cardis et al. 2007).  The fact that cell phones have only been around for a certain amount of time must be incorporated into the determination of age cut off in order to create the optimal sample population.  The total number of control group participants was 7,658, with one control participant per diagnosed participant (Cardis et al. 2007).  Each kind of tumor had a different number of participants: 2,765 glioma, 2,425 meningioma, 1,121 acoustic neurinoma and 109 malignant parotid gland cases (Cardis et al. 2007).   Control groups were randomly selected, with the number of individual controls varying according to tumor type and each was matched based on year of birth, sex and region of that particular study.

                The study focused on the changes or damage in the part of the brain most exposed to radiofrequency radiation.  Research has shown that most of the radiation from cell phones is absorbed by the skin and ear before it reaches the brain (Rothman et al., 1996).  Only 20 – 30% of the potentially harmful radiation is absorbed by the brain, more specifically glial and meningeal tissue on the outermost part of frontal, parietal and temporal lobes on the side of the head most frequently exposed to radiation (Rothman et al., 1996).  The tumor types that were selected for the study most predominantly occur in this tissue (Cardis et al. 2007).

  The methods of evaluation and measurement for the Interphone study were face to face interviews, telephone interviews and questionnaires depending on the location of the study.  The interviews or questionnaires consisted of questions about demographics, mobile phone use, as well as the use of other wireless devices and frequency of occupational use.  The questions regarding phone use also incorporated questions about what the participants were doing while on the phone and what side of the head the participants usually used.  Other known health hazards such as smoking and possible confounding factors such as medical history were also considered.  One potential opportunity for error existed in participants’ ability to recall the cell phones they used in the past and how often they were used because this could potentially date back many years.  In order to try to eliminate any discrepancies, missing data was replaced with the average of the surrounding data. So if a participant couldn’t recall the use of his or her cell phone at a particular point in time, it was replaced with the average of the cell phone usage at the times before and after the missing data points.  This was done uniformly across all study centers so that it would eliminate possible variations or biases. The amount of tumor growth or lack thereof was measured using MRI and histologically. 

Many similar studies have either produced inconclusive results or have concluded that the radiofrequency radiation in cell phones does not significantly increase the risk of brain cancer.  A case study of brain cancer in Sweden found no indication of any increase in the risk for brain cancer or acoustic neurinoma on the side of the head most commonly used for cell phone use (Hardell et al., 1999).  However, the same study found that for those who had developed brain cancer, there was an association between the side of the head where the tumors occurred and the side of the head usually used for cell phones.  One problem with this study, however, is that the sample size was too small for the results to have statistical power.  Therefore the results of the experiment are not conclusive evidence that the use of cell phones causes brain tumors. 


The effect of cell phone use and radiofrequency radiation on brain health is a topic that scientists, to date, do not fully understand.  Because of this, the nature of these types of studies contains many unavoidable errors and potential confounding variables.  One major opportunity for error is in the participants’ recollection of their frequency of cell phone use, in some cases dating back many years.  Because this study took place over a span of time in which the use of cell phones was increasing steadily, the timing of each interview was important in obtaining comparable data and this was not always plausible. There are also many other confounding variables that might have contributed to an increased risk of brain cancer such as medical history of participants’ families, other health harming behaviors such as smoking  and exposure to other forms of radiation or carcinogens.

Scientific research on this phenomenon has caused commotion and anxiety in society over the health and safety of the population.  However, scientific research is not producing concrete enough evidence to deem cell phone radiation as a detrimental problem.  Rothman brings up an interesting point in stating that while cell phones alone have not directly caused death or cancer, the use of cell phones while driving is a known leading cause of death in the United States.  It seems as though the anxiety surrounding the cell phone craze has distracted Americans from this preventable cause of death.  Even if it is determined that cell phone radiation causes brain cancer, society has formed a lifestyle out of this device that it would be a hard habit to shake for many.  If it is proven that radiofrequency radiation is carcinogenic, it would change the way people live their lives in drastic ways.

Works Cited

Cardis, E.,  Richardson, L.,  Deltour, I.,  Armstrong, B.,  Feychting, M.,  Johansen, C.,  Kilkenny, M.,  McKinney, P.,  Modan, B., Sadetzki, S.,  Schüz, J.,  Swerdlow, A.,  Vrijheid, M.,  Auvinen, A. (2007). The INTERPHONE study: design, epidemiological methods, and description of the study population. European Journal of Epidemiology, 22(9), 647-64.  Retrieved October 3, 2008, from Health Module database.

Hardell, L.,  Mild, K.H. (2001). Cellular telephones and risk of brain tumours. The Lancet, 357(9260), 960-1.  Retrieved October 3, 2008, from Research Library Core database.

Rothman, K.J. (2000). Epidemiological evidence on health risks of cellular telephones. The Lancet, 356(9244), 1837-40.  Retrieved October 5, 2008, from Research Library Core database.

Rothman, K.J., Chou, C., Morgan, R., Balzano, Q., Guy, A.W., Funch, D.P., et al. Assessment of cellular telephone and other radio frequency exposure for epidemiologic research. Epidemiology 1996;7(3):291–8.




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