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May 20th, 2011
08:00 AM ET

Gupta: Cell phones, brain tumors and a wired earpiece

Learn more about cell phones and the current research into whether they could cause brain tumors, “Sanjay Gupta, M.D.,” Saturday, 7:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. ET and Sunday at 7:30 a.m. ET.

By Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Chief Medical Correspondent

Just about every time I use a cell phone, I plug in my wired earpiece first. Having discussed the use of earpieces on several news shows, people expect to see me using one. If I am walking around the CNN studios, my colleagues often comment on it. In airports, people will stop me in the rare cases I forget to use the earpiece, and remind me about it. Perhaps, they are intrigued because I am a neurosurgeon who openly shows some concern about cell phones.

Truth is, it is a pretty easy thing to do – using an earpiece. Furthermore, my neck doesn’t hurt after being on the phone for a long conference call, and given that many of those calls take place in a car, an earpiece becomes a requirement. Still, though, I don’t want to dodge the obvious question: Do cell phones cause brain cancer?

It may be too early to say for sure. The latency period or time between exposure and recognition of a tumor is around 20 years, sometimes longer. And, cell phone use in the U.S. has been popular for only  around 15 years. Back in 1996, there were 34 million cell phone users. Today there are 9-10 times as many. Keeping that in mind, it is worth taking a more detailed look at the results of Interphone, a multinational study designed to try to  answer this question.

The headline from this study was there was little or no evidence to show an association between cell phones and cancer. Though, if you went to the appendix of the study, which interestingly was available only online, you found something unsettling. The data showed people who used a cell phone 10 years or more doubled the risk of developing a glioma, a type of brain tumor. And, across the board – most of the studies that have shown an increased risk are from Scandinavia, a place where cell phones have been popular since the early 1990s. For these reasons, the whole issue of latency could become increasingly important.

Cell phones use non-ionizing radiation, which is very different from the ionizing radiation of X-rays, which everyone agrees are harmful. Non-ionizing radiation won’t strip electrons or bust up DNA. It's more like very low power microwaves. Short term, these microwaves are likely harmless, but long term could be a different story. Anyway, who likes the idea of a microwave, even a low-powered one, next to their head all day?

And, what about kids? I have three of them, aged 5, 4 and 2. Fact is, they are more likely to lead to my early demise than cell phones. But, as hard as it is to believe sometimes, they actually have thinner skulls than adults, and will probably be using cell phones longer than I ever will.

The first person to encourage me to regularly wear an ear piece was Dr. Keith Black. He also is a neurosurgeon, and makes a living removing – you guessed it – brain tumors. Keith has long believed there is a link, and for some time, his was a lonely voice in this discussion. Nowadays, he has loud and prominent voices accompanying him. Ronald Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute,  sent a memo warning staffers to limit their cell phone use. One of the possible consequences, he says, is  an increased risk of brain cancer. The city of San Francisco is trying to pass an ordinance requiring radiation warning labels on all cell phones.  The European Environmental Agency has said cell phones could be as big a public health risk as smoking, asbestos and leaded gasoline. Even the makers of cell phones suggest you don’t place a device against your head, but rather advocate holding it 5/8 to a full inch away.

Many will roll their eyes at this, scoffing at the precautionary principle on display here. Fair enough. Still, I like my wired earpiece, and I don’t have to turn my life upside down to use it. I also text and email a lot more, because my kids rarely allow me to have a phone conversation. Speaking of kids, you will probably see mine using earpieces too, when my wife and I decide they are old enough to use one, which isn’t in the foreseeable future.

With reporting from CNN's Danielle Dellorto


soundoff (741 Responses)
  1. appleman

    Yes!! There are major issues with wearing any phone on your belt. The radiation will cause chlorahexathanide syndrom.

    May 31, 2011 at 22:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. shara

    What I'm curious about is if I am as likely to get ovarian cancer from keeping my phone I n my pocket. What about when I'm not a huge talker, but I use my phone as an mp3 player several hours a day. Is it only potentially dangerous when your in a cal or always?

    May 31, 2011 at 23:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Syzygy

    What about butt cancer?! My phone spends most of its time in my rear pocket. Am I courting a gluteus tumor?

    May 31, 2011 at 23:20 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Deussol

      You dont transfer files or talk with your butt do you? ... oh... wait... my bad...

      June 1, 2011 at 01:42 | Report abuse |
    • DianD

      Does your butt have neurons or muscle?

      June 1, 2011 at 04:36 | Report abuse |
    • 9mil

      so how do we know wired ear pieces dont cause cancer?

      June 1, 2011 at 11:26 | Report abuse |
    • HowEyeSeeIt

      I also have my cell close to my waist most of the time. I'm looking into EMF shielding boxer shorts. You just can't be careful enough.

      June 1, 2011 at 12:59 | Report abuse |
    • teresa

      ADULT STEM CELLS CURE'S AIDS / HIV and A NUMBER OF OTHER THINGS BUT WHY????? IS AMERICA BEING HELD BACK FROM THE MAJOR LEAP IN MEDICINE DOES AMERICA WANT TOO KILL YOU ??????? OTHER COUNTRIES MAKING MAJOR LEAPS INTO MEDICINE BUT AMERICA IS STILL IN THE STONE AGE WHY????? WHO BENEFITS THE FDA BIG CORPORATIONS .......???

      October 17, 2011 at 22:15 | Report abuse |
  4. Sg

    Gupta and all of the mainstream media has failed over and over again to do their journalistic duty to honestly report on this issue, many times in the past. Again, lobbyists and money control the conversation at the expense of our health and safety.

    May 31, 2011 at 23:22 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kyle

      What part of "it takes 20 years from exposure to tumor" do you not understand?

      June 1, 2011 at 00:58 | Report abuse |
    • DianD

      So, is there a lobby In favor of the FCC and the cell phone industry pushing against this? YES!

      June 1, 2011 at 04:39 | Report abuse |
  5. Mike Varney

    http://scientificilliteracy.blogspot.com/2011/05/i-see-dumb-people-7-monster-under-bed.html

    May 31, 2011 at 23:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Peter T

    Although a valuable story, Gupta fails to put brain cancer risk in perspective. Cancer from other causes such as sunlight, diesel fumes, and cigarettes are thousands of times more prevalent than brain cancer. In fact, texting while driving causes far more cell phone deaths than low level microwave radiation ever will. It's important to give the number of deaths from brain cancer per 100,000 people so that we understand the numbers, then compare it to the probable increase with long term cell phone exposure. The neurosurgeon that he interviewed, who claims that Johnny Cochran's brain cancer was caused by cell phone use is speculating. I'm sure he's a respected neurosurgeon, but that doesn't make him an expert on cell phone studies or on statistics. Stay away from testimonial and stick to facts Otherwise it's just a scare piece. This wasn't the greatest journalism I've seen from CNN or from Gupta, who's usually quite objective.

    May 31, 2011 at 23:35 | Report abuse | Reply
    • colby

      How can you know this? Cell phones have only been used for the past 15 years. We do not know what will happen to those people with 50 years of use. Everyone who started to use cellphone the day they came out could all have brain tumors the size of walnuts in their ears when they finally turn 50 years old for all we know.

      June 1, 2011 at 00:27 | Report abuse |
    • Nigel

      You make sensible points regarding the relative risks of cell phone usage being low but your criticism of Gupta seems unreasonable. Based on those well reasoned facts,. we shouldn't get too paranoid about the EU study (that's getting wide media coverage). I think Gupta was just trying to allay fears, so I don't think your criticism of what he missed out is justified.

      June 1, 2011 at 01:22 | Report abuse |
    • Marc

      Colby, I hate to break it to you, but I was using a 3 watt cell phone (yours is probably 0.6 watts) that was installed in my car in 1986, and my brother had a portable cell phone several years earlier. By my math calculations I have been using cell phones for 25 years already, and my brother has been using them for close to 30 years.

      It was a misstatement to suggest that cell phone use is only 15 years old. It has only been in that time frame that POPULAR and WIDESPREAD use of cell phones in the US has taken place. But, Most of Europe and Asia were using cell phones long before we were using them here, and I have yet to see any credible studies linking cell phone use to brain cancer over there. Now, I am NOT a neurosurgeon, but I did stay in a Holiday Inn Express once.

      June 1, 2011 at 09:51 | Report abuse |
    • Sam

      When I was a kid they didn't have cell phones, now days they have them glued to their ears for 2 hours a day... in 10-20 years we may be seeing a whole pile of people in thier 30s and 40s with brain tumors... maybe yes, maybe know.... all I know is I wouldn't want it to be me or my kid...

      June 1, 2011 at 16:46 | Report abuse |
  7. Dave

    "Anyway, who likes the idea of a microwave, even a low-powered one, next to their head all day?" Doctor, reporter and sacre monger? Yes, all of the the above. What happened to honest reporting, why does this infantile, unscientific, rambling get past editors?

    May 31, 2011 at 23:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Marie

    I started working in the communication industry when cell phones were first released. I continued in the communications industry fo 20 years; always with a cell phone on my right ear. I was diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma on the right hearing nerve and had gamma knife radiation in December 2009. I truly believe cell phone use was the cause of my tumour!

    May 31, 2011 at 23:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • chris

      dude, i believe you, i just got a network extender for my house an hour ago because i have terrible service where i live and within 10 minutes of powering it on i felt pressure in my head almost like i was being weighed down...

      October 25, 2011 at 02:56 | Report abuse |
  9. gadadhoon

    This isn't the place to sell stuff, least of all stuff that uses words you don't understand.

    May 31, 2011 at 23:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Tired of non-doctors spreading lies

    cell phones have been around for 32 years, and during their reign their have been vast improvements to them(text messaging, video messaging, web browsing etc). i find it funny that only in the past few years you have nut cases coming out and saying "cell phones cause brain cancer" without showing any evidence to support this. there have been study after study each showing the radiation that cell phones produce is too low to cause any cancer yet instead of backing off the ignorant masses cry "the scientists lie cause their being paid to lie". when you conspiracy nuts actually come out with REAL IMPEiRICAL DATA to support your own fear mongering then you can say the trained professionals are lying till then shut up.

    May 31, 2011 at 23:51 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kyle

      32 years? You have some rich friends.... I'm no scientist, but I'm pretty sure statistically valid evidence is a little behind that....

      June 1, 2011 at 01:01 | Report abuse |
    • Nigel

      32 years is correct. I was first given one 29 years ago. (I was an IBM 3270 support engineer, using a cell phone in a case. I was earning $16K a year, definitely not rich).

      June 1, 2011 at 01:29 | Report abuse |
    • Veikko

      Cell phones have been around since the introduction of MTA in Sweden in 1956, that is 55 years ago now. Handheld cellular phones have been around since 1973, that is 38 years ago now. Commercial digital cellular phones have been around since 1991, that is 20 years ago.

      June 1, 2011 at 01:45 | Report abuse |
    • DianD

      If you actually paid any attention, the report does NOT conclude anything. It simply points out a trend in inconclusive studies and points out that more studies are needed to make a conclusion. This is a field that will have many changes in habits like cigarettes; and you know how much "fear mongering" cigarettes have generated...so much fear that doctors have the audacity to tell us to quit smoking!

      June 1, 2011 at 04:52 | Report abuse |
    • Jesse Warren

      have you ever heard of sodium clorite?

      June 4, 2011 at 16:28 | Report abuse |
    • Jesse Warren

      theres proof: http://www.psrast.org/mobileng/mobilstarteng.htm

      June 4, 2011 at 16:29 | Report abuse |
    • Howard

      There is tons of evidence...people like yourself just refuse to read it.
      http://www.cprnews.com
      more than 170 studies are housed on this website.

      June 16, 2011 at 17:38 | Report abuse |
  11. Francis Cagney

    Francis Biggus Maximus here. I just wanted to comment on those silly reports that lead might be bad for you. Lead piping is the best thing to ever happen to the Roman empire. It washes away our smellies. Our wisest priests and philosophers have studies the issue and concluded there is no scientific evidence that lead is bad for you. Long live lead & the Roman empire.

    The point? You can never prove something is safe, only fail to discover its dangerous. This article is good. Gupta Doctorum doesn't say cell phones cause cacer, he says he's worried personally, and is willing to take simple steps (earpiece) to minimise damage, but not major steps (live on cell phone free desert island). Actually I think he might have stolen this from me. I was saying that 10 years ago. The fact he's never heard of me has nothing to do with this.

    May 31, 2011 at 23:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. mark Henriksen

    Hey actually, we were wrong about having good social contacts lengthening your like. Its probably better to be a hermit.

    May 31, 2011 at 23:57 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Pumbaa

      What is wrong with people that have to be talking all the time on cell phones? They walk into mall water fountains, drive while talking, so forth. Then many don't bother to put the phone on vibrate but have it to loudly play some obnoxious bit of music when it rings? Cell phones are great for emergencies but otherwise they seem to be the new CB radios of today.

      June 1, 2011 at 13:27 | Report abuse |
  13. To End It All including the lobbyists here

    It is clear to me that lobbyists are in this forum, perhaps the same kind that denied global warming for several years then changed their tone to "it is nature, it is not the fault of human beings like the manufacturers" only when floods, tornadoes and heat waves started landing on where they or the ones they cared, lived..and lost significant money they made denying.

    So to end it all: who is willing to finance 2-10 year study of a live celphone strapped to a mice and monkey?

    How about a celphone constantly on for a week and about 2mm away from an egg? If it cooks the egg even by 1/100th, then that's it. It's carcinogenic.

    I do expect some questions so in advance, I ask those questioning to do the costant-on experiment upon themselves not on an egg, mice or monkey.

    June 1, 2011 at 00:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Brian

    "Again, lobbyists and money control the conversation at the expense of our health and safety."...........................

    Note that this report came from the WHO, not a U.S. government agency. Our agencies are in bed with industry.

    June 1, 2011 at 00:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Doc Ock

    Unless one is willing to discard the concept of photons, Planck’s law, and the interaction between photons and atoms—and thus the entire body of quantum physics—it is simply not possible for the photons associated with either a power line or a cell phone to cause cancer.

    June 1, 2011 at 00:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Pamela Akumabor

    Dear Dr. Gupta,

    My name is Pamela Akumabor... You did a brain biopsy on my husband, Peter in 2009. I hope you can remember me. I don't know what to say or write, just that it breaks bruises my heart to read this..You were so removed when you treated my husband, who was 34 yrs old with a two yr old and a four months old baby at Grady. There was a lack of concern or care from you and your team... We were not rich or famous... We were young ordinary people making honest living.

    June 1, 2011 at 00:21 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Bloodsaint

      Is this for real??

      June 1, 2011 at 00:48 | Report abuse |
    • helper

      http://www.facebook.com/pages/Help-Peter-Akumabor-Fight-Brain-Cancer/201748641577

      Looks legit.

      June 1, 2011 at 01:13 | Report abuse |
  17. appleman

    From here on out, any brain tumor will be officially called a Gupta. I sincerely hope no one here gets Gupta'd. God speed...

    June 1, 2011 at 00:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. appleman

    Kyle, I don't understand the last third. Can you please explain it?

    June 1, 2011 at 01:01 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Brian

    "there have been study after study each showing the radiation that cell phones produce is too low to cause any cancer yet instead of backing off the ignorant masses ".............................And the tobacco industry has paid scientists to do study after study showing that smoking does not cause cancer. By the way, I don't own stock in the cell phone industry or work as a shill for them.

    June 1, 2011 at 01:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. paul b

    A malignant glioma is what killed Sen Ted Kennedy; I wonder to what extent he had cell phone exposure to his left parietal lobe – the site of his cancer.

    June 1, 2011 at 02:13 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Steven Brooks

    Thank the stars Sanjay was among the physicians associated with the WHO who made this case.

    Wait...

    He wasn't?

    Oh, yes, that's right, he's far to busy preening for the cameras to be a real doctor, respected by his peers.

    Another CNN fail.

    June 1, 2011 at 05:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. James Brown

    What about radiation exposure when using Bluetooth® receiver/neck loop t-coil and digital hearing aid?

    June 1, 2011 at 06:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Paul

    I have always believed that cell phone usage and the chance of getting cancer have a link. Anyone that uses a cell phone can feel the radiation from the phone after being used. Its just sad that we have to wait until several people get tumors before officially making a connection.

    June 1, 2011 at 07:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. steve

    All these comments that want to appear to be "cute" are actually total stupidity. People making these comments will be the first ones to sue cell phone makers once they have growths in their head. You will get no sympathy from me. I don't need a cell phone to feel "important"! Sad society we live in. but remember airheads, you were warned! now pay the consequences if there is anything to this!

    June 1, 2011 at 07:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Kim

    It wan't too long ago that everyone smoked, and no one understood the link between smoking and lung cancer. It takes time to flesh these things out.

    June 1, 2011 at 11:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. HowEyeSeeIt

    I also have the cell phone near my waist most of the time. Just look up EMF shielding boxer shorts. Just can't be careful enough.

    June 1, 2011 at 12:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Local

    The deaths and injuries the damn things while driving will always far outnumber possibility of brain tumors. They said the same thing when electricity was introduced into households. This is a tired, over reported subject with no science behind it.

    June 1, 2011 at 15:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Donna

    Okay – another one of “he said/she said”, but this time it’s scientists. Scientists funded by the cell phone companies say it won’t hurt you and the scientists funded by others say it will hurt you. Which one do you believe? My bet is NOT on the scientists funded by the cell phone companies. Looking for a little insight and humor, I just read this frank but humorous article at http://restoringtruthiness.org/3351/your-cell-phone-will-kill-you-definitely-maybe-and-the-cell-phone-industry-told-you-so

    June 1, 2011 at 16:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Rod N.

    Some will believe it is bad, and some will not believe until proven and will take a chance with cancer in the meantime.
    Years ago they said cigarette smoking is bad. Some believed it, and some did not or took a chance and kept puffing.
    I will not take a chance with this, and I have been putting my cell calls on speaker phone as much as possible. Keep your cell phones away from your brain. You might not get a second chance to fight cancer, then again maybe?

    June 2, 2011 at 01:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. Jesse Warren

    Hey idiots have you ever, ever, ever, had your head hurt after youve been on a cell phone for 15-20 minutes and the side of you head hurt? I have experienced the pain of that. In fact my dad had the same hurt of guess what! he know has a neck tumor the size of a gulf ball, and hes a health freak. Now he keeps the cell phone away from his ear and puts it on speakerphone. And of course idiots like you are going to sell your crap on stuff like this because you just love your radiation emiting andriods. Or your just sticking up for those dam cell companies. dam you. I know why you just love your cell phones. I bet the radiations just making you studid dna ajust to it. It also burns glucose in your brain. It activates your brain. And it essentialy makes you slowly but surely DUMBER. So! guess what your all freking retards!!!!!!!!!!! CNN thankyou
    your not idiots. let me see... radio waves: safe, cell phones: 1g safe, 2g and up.....its horrible. And this has science behind it, and proof. Really guys it not how much cell phone your radiation gives off it what the wave length is. Thats why radios are safe!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    June 4, 2011 at 16:26 | Report abuse | Reply
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    July 10, 2011 at 15:59 | Report abuse | Reply
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    ADULT STEM CELLS CURE'S AIDS / HIV and A NUMBER OF OTHER THINGS BUT WHY????? IS AMERICA BEING HELD BACK FROM THE MAJOR LEAP IN MEDICINE DOES AMERICA WANT TOO KILL YOU ??????? OTHER COUNTRIES MAKING MAJOR LEAPS INTO MEDICINE BUT AMERICA IS STILL IN THE STONE AGE WHY????? WHO BENEFITS THE FDA BIG CORPORATIONS .......?

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  36. Brainy

    Being a user of cellphone and especially those people used to call and use earphones all the time are very prone for brain tumor.And to think that almost all people around the globe uses cellular phones. How how can we reduced the risk of diagnosing brain tumors?

    November 2, 2011 at 09:50 | Report abuse | Reply
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    Being a user of cellphone and especially those people used to call and use earphones all the time are very prone for brain tumor.And to think that almost all people around the globe uses cellular phones. How how can we reduced the risk of diagnosing brain tumors?
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    November 2, 2011 at 09:58 | Report abuse | Reply
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About this blog

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.