No Convincing Evidence that Cell Phones Cause Cancer

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A new report by the U.K. Health Protection Agency’s independent Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation (AGNIR) has concluded that there is no convincing evidence that mobile phone technologies cause adverse effects on human health. The report updates AGNIR’s previous review in 2003 that considers the scientific evidence on exposure to radiofrequency (RF) electromagnetic fields, which are produced by mobile phone technologies and other wireless devices, such as Wi-Fi, as well as television and radio transmitters.

Cell phone radiation

For many years, researchers have wondered if cell phone use could cause changes in brain cells or the development of cancerous tumors. At the root of the concern is the fact that cell phones emit long-wavelength radiation (radio waves), which has some potential to interact with the molecules of life. While radiofrequency (RF) isn’t capable of breaking bonds in molecules like X-ray or nuclear radiation is, there is nevertheless some concern that RF exposure might affect brain cells in some way.

Research has shown that cell phone use can increase the temperature of skin areas nearest the antenna by more than 2 degrees Celsius in fewer than 10 minutes [1-2]. How much this temperature change affects the brain cells themselves has not been determined, but the concern is that warmer cells (even if the warmth comes from an exogenous source) are more active, which has unknown consequences. Neither has it been determined whether RF exposure might affect brain cells through some mechanism other than simply increased cellular temperature.

There is some evidence that the use of a cell phone can change the level of metabolic activity in nearby brain cells [3]. Specifically, brain cells closest to the cell phone antenna appear to burn more glucose (a sugar, the increased burning of which is an indication of greater cell activity) than they would in the absence of a cell phone. While the significance of this finding is not known, it’s an indication that cell phone use appears to alter brain cell activity. This finding aside, a very large study of over 350,000 participants found no correlation between cell phone use and incidence of brain tumors [4].

To address these and other concerns on non-ionising radiation, the U.K. Health Protection Agency’s independent Advisory Group on Non-Ionising Radiation (AGNIR) performed an updated review of the scientific literature. The group determined that there’s no scientific evidence to support a link between cell phone use and brain cancer [5]. In response to the findings, Dr. John Cooper, director of the U.K. Health Protection Agency’s Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards, stated:

There is still no convincing scientific evidence that RF field exposures from mobile phones and other radio technologies affect human health at exposure levels below internationally agreed guidelines. However, as this is a relatively new technology, the HPA will continue to advise a precautionary approach and keep the science under close review. The HPA recommends that excessive use of mobile phones by children should be discouraged and mobile phone Specific Energy Absorption Rates (SAR) values should be clearly marked in the phone sales literature.

Users of cell phones who harbor concerns despite the findings of the literature review might consider limiting cell phone use or using a headset, rather than handset, when making long calls.


  1. Anderson et al. Measurements of skin surface temperature during mobile phone use. Bioelectromagnetics. 2007 Feb;28(2):159-62.
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  2. Straume et al. Skin temperature increase caused by a mobile phone: a methodological infrared camera study. Bioelectromagnetics. 2005 Sep;26(6):510-9.
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  3. Volkow et al. Effects of cell phone radiofrequency signal exposure on brain glucose metabolism. JAMA. 2011 Feb 23;305(8):808-13.
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  4. Frei et al. Use of mobile phones and risk of brain tumours: update of Danish cohort study. BMJ. 2011 Oct 19;343:d6387. doi: 10.1136/bmj.d6387.
    View abstract
  5. Health Effects from Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields – RCE 20. Advisory Group on Non-ionising RadiationPublication. 2012 Apr.
About the Author

Kirstin Hendrickson, Ph.D., is a science journalist and faculty in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Arizona State University. She has a PhD in Chemistry, and studied mechanisms of damage to DNA during her graduate career. Kirstin also holds degrees in Zoology and Psychology. Currently, both in her teaching and in her writing, she’s interested in methods of communicating about science, and in the reciprocal relationship between science and society. She has written a textbook called Chemistry In The World, which focuses on the ways in which chemistry affects everyday life, and the ways in which humans affect each other and the environment through chemistry.