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May 28th, 2008
12:09 PM ET

Cancer and cell phones

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta
Chief Medical Correspondent

Last night, I was part of a fascinating discussion on "Larry King Live" about cell phones and their health risks. (watch) To be clear, most of the established scientific community thinks there is no reason for concern. There were, however, some strong voices on each side of the issue, including neurosurgeon Vini Khurana from Australia. He is convinced, after looking at hundreds of studies, that not only do cell phones cause health problems such as brain tumors, but also they will eventually be considered a bigger health risk than asbestos and even cigarettes.

Wow.

Now, I expected a staunch defense from the American Cancer Society, but instead I heard a more tepid response from Dr. Michael Thun. His bottom-line conclusion is that the studies that currently exist don't show any reason for concern – but – the studies aren't definitive in showing that they are safe either. Not exactly reassuring.

Over the last year, I have reviewed nearly a hundred studies on this topic, including the 19 large epidemiological studies. I urge you to do the same and read carefully to see what you think. Here is an example from a Swedish paper showing no increased risk of a brain tumor, known as acoustic neuroma. (see study) As you read the paper, you will find they defined a "regular" cell phone user as someone who uses a cell phone once per week during six months or more. I don't know about you, but everyone I know uses his or her cell phones much more frequently than that. So, just how reliable are some of these studies?

Furthermore, many of the studies published since 2000 followed patients only three years on average. And, even a Danish study that did have longer-term follow-up excluded anyone under the age of 18. So, what about children who will presumably be using these phones for the rest of their lives?

Mobile devices give off non-ionizing radiation radio frequency. This is different from the ionizing radiation of an X-ray, which everyone agrees can be harmful in large doses. The recommendation by the two neurosurgeons on the panel yesterday – Khurana and Dr. Keith Black, chairman of neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles – wear a wired ear piece. Even Bluetooth devices give off some radiation, although at lower doses. Don't carry your cell phone in your pocket; instead put it in a holster that meets industry standards.

What do you think? As Larry reminded us last night, it took a long time to develop a cause-and-effect relationship between cigarettes and lung cancer. Nowadays, everyone knows it exists. Is the same thing happening with cell phones? (more from Dr. Gupta on cell phones and cancer)

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.


soundoff (99 Responses)
  1. CK

    Hello Dr. Gupta:

    Whether RF radiation from cell phones is risky or not is still debatable, but we can establish a comparison of the strength of RF at various modes of usage. Suppose a cell phone placed next to ear (assume 1 inch distance from the source of radiation to the ear) has a RF intensity of 1, a cell phone 2 feet away will reduce RF by 1.7 million times. How about use a blue tooth type devise? Blue tooth device only reaches a distance like 10 feet, whereas a cell phone must reach like 10,000 feet to connect to a tower. Thus cubic of 1,000 is 1 billion; means the RF hazard, if any, from blue tooth devise is 1 billion times weaker than by placing a cell phone next to the ear. The head set is a different issue. Some claim that radiation can travel along the wire, a well known phenomena in physics. How much radiation will reach the ear if a headset user places the cell phone 2 feet away from his body is difficult to calculate; probably some one should have measured it already when one wants to start the discussion about the safety of cell phones. With best regard.

    July 24, 2008 at 15:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. CK

    Sorry, there is a correction in the above comment. RF drops in inverse square of distance, not cubic as I mistakenly calculated in the above comment. The correct number should be as follows: a cell phone 2 feet away reduces the intensity of RF by about 14,000 times, and blue tooth reduces RF by 1 million times. Of course even using a blue tooth the user is still exposed to the direct RF from the main cell phone in addition to the RF from the blue tooth device.

    July 24, 2008 at 15:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Ramona

    What about cell phone towers? Our preschool is across the road from two and I am concerned about the electromagentic radiation exposure to the 3-5 age group. Thanks.

    July 24, 2008 at 16:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. mk

    Basic high-school physics:

    Cellphones, like any other antennae, are point-sources emitting radiation in a 3-dimensional sphere. That means, like any other RF source that the intensity of the EMF field generated decreases with the square of the distance.

    It's like taking a magnet right next to a coin or standing a foot away. As soon as you get past a few milimeters there is no effect as the field is too weak.

    While the total Wattage of the RF antenna in a cell phone is ludicrously small compared to that of an actual cellphone tower, the fact that you're holding it right next to your head makes the Microwave field generated thousands of times stronger than if you were standing right at the base of a 100ft cell phone tower.

    The same thing applies to background radiation and all the EMF generated by all the cell phonetowers/emitters in the world. Add them all up and they still do not come close to the strength of the EMF field you get when you place your cellphone receiver (which is actually an emitter BTW) right next to your ear.

    July 24, 2008 at 16:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. SD

    I can't say that cell phones cause cancer, but they do obviously emit radiation. Along with cordless phones, flying in airplanes (LOTS of radiation exposure at those altitudes), and microwave ovens. The problem is that the radiation doesn't dissipate once we're exposed; the effects accummulate thus potentially causing disease. Especially if our immune systems are weakened at all. Anyone been stressed lately...? Radiation is all around us in different forms and has been for years, but we don't usually hold those forms up to our heads for hours every week. I consider my cell phone use to be light/moderate, but there are times that I'll talk long distance for an hour or so because those minutes are free. Some of the entries here are causing me to re-examine my habits; I will from now on use the speakerphone for everything except brief calls.

    July 24, 2008 at 17:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Sujata Bhatra

    Most people are right handed. If we are seeing an increase in right-side brain tumors, then cell phones are deadly. If not, they are not.

    July 26, 2008 at 00:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Michael

    If cell phone use is linked to cancer is there not a possibility of creating phones with lower electro magnetic radiation output? Cell phone use if linked to cancer will raise the number of brain tumors with in the next 30 years is there any possibility of reducing that number?

    July 29, 2008 at 22:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Sam Still

    I was watching your report on the dangers of cell phones. Isn't there an issue with modems and laptops? I use my laptop sitting on my lap a good part of the day, with the external modem/card maybe 6-7 inches from my testicles. In the report it was noted that your eyes and a man's testicles were more susceptible to cancer. Did I understand that clearly?

    July 31, 2008 at 15:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Bill Couzens

    Posted by Bill Couzens, Founder Lesscancer.org

    I like what Devra Davis had to say on the subject of cell phones and cancer check this out-

    http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/08218/901806-35.stm

    Be careful with cell phones
    More research is needed to know if they're safe
    Tuesday, August 05, 2008
    By Devra L. Davis

    Dr. Devra L. Davis is the director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (preventingcancernow.org) and the author of "The Secret History of the War on Cancer."
    http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/08218/901806-35.stm

    August 7, 2008 at 10:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Melinda

    Hi Dr. Gupta,

    I'm intrigued by the possible link between cell phones and cancer too, and just published an in-depth article on the topic in September issue of The Walrus magazine. Here's a link to those who are interested:

    http://walrusmagazine.com/articles/2008.09-health-cellphone-brain-tumour-melinda-wenner/

    Cheers,
    Melinda

    August 13, 2008 at 13:25 | Report abuse | Reply
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    Recently, I had a growth removed from my parotid gland area(benign) but scary nonetheless. I first discovered it back in November;shortly after I saw the report in the news about a possible link to tumors on the brain and the parotid gland. Well that scared the living it out of me. First, I am a self-employed attorney who is also paralyzed in my right arm. This makes me left handed(all the time) by default. When I got my cell phone bill I realized that I was doing north of 5000 minutes per month;and this thing is on my left side. Not quite sure where to start I went to the Dentist who sent me to an oral surgeon who referred me to a Doctor of Otolarnygology. The latter confirmed that it was a growth and started with a biopsy. Next, there was an MRI and later my scheduled removal which occurred yesterday April 7, 2010. All went well so no need to stay overnight. Home sweet Home!

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.