The Debate Over Cancer And Cell Phones Might Not Be Settled Yet

Shocked young man talking with phone on a gray background
“Think about all the stuff you need to run your life. Computers and palm pilots and cell phones, how many of you know how to make any of that s–t?!” —Joe Rogan

In A Nutshell

Back in the late ’90s, everyone and their dog suddenly became terrified by a new kid on the technology block: cell phones. People worried about cancer rates. Children were forbidden from using them. Then a series of studies published in the early 21st century nixed the idea. We went back to using our cell phones, content in the knowledge the debate was settled.

Or was it? Despite what you may have read, plenty of scientists and organizations still think there may be a link between cell phones and cancer. And they might have the data to back their theories up.

The Whole Bushel

In 2015, an unexpected letter hit the headlines. Jointly published by 195 scientists from 39 different countries, it called on the United Nations and World Health Organization (WHO) to take immediate action against cell phones and Wi-Fi routers that create electromagnetic fields (EMF). Their reason? They think there’s a good chance these devices are killing us.

It was a shock to read, not least because the debate on cell phones and cancer is meant to be settled. The CDC claims there’s no hard evidence of EMF devices causing illness. The respected Mayo Clinic regards such rumors to be nonsense. No government on Earth demands cell phones come with a warning or that Wi-Fi routers be kept away from children. Yet dig a little deeper, and you start to see where these scientists might be coming from.

Currently, the WHO classes EMFs as possibly carcinogenic to humans. Their website places them in category 2B, a category used, in their words, “when a causal association is considered credible, but when chance, bias or confounding cannot be ruled out with reasonable confidence.” Although this in no way means the WHO considers cell phones a threat, it does mean they’re not quite ready to give them the all-clear just yet. This may be because a small number of studies are starting to emerge linking them with cancer.

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In February 2015, a French study linked over 900 hours of lifetime cell use with a threefold increase in risk of brain cancer. In March, a Swedish study also raised similar concerns. Others focusing on animals have come to similar conclusions, and the California Medical Association is now starting to take the risks very seriously.

Perhaps the most troubling claim of all comes from a 2009 paper in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. Anti-EMF campaigner Joel Moskowitz ranked cell phone studies based on quality and the source of their funding. He concluded that studies claiming no link between cell phones and cancer generally came from low-quality studies funded by telecommunications companies. Those that suggested a link were generally funded by reputable sources. Moskowitz claims this is like the big tobacco-funded studies of the 1950s that claimed smoking was totally safe.

Now, before you go ripping out your Wi-Fi router and hurling your cell into the nearest lake, we should repeat that this is all far from conclusive. The WHO are running their own major test in 2016, and until we hear back from them, it’s safe to assume our cell phones are okay to use. However, it does show the issue is nowhere near as settled as we usually think it is. It may even turn out that the 1990s’ dumbest health panic was on the money after all.

Show Me The Proof

Mother Jones: Scores of Scientists Raise Alarm About the Long-Term Health Effects of Cellphones
World Health Organization: Electromagnetic fields and public health: mobile phones
US National Library of Medicine: Mobile phone use and brain tumours in the CERENAT case-control study; Mobile phone and cordless phone use and the risk for glioma

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