No, cell phones won’t give you cancer

This just in: Bad journalism gives researchers cancer.

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This week has been a roller-coaster for healthcare news. You could not have missed the headlines, from Pennsylvania to Japan, proclaiming the end of antibiotics with different degrees of hysteria as the first case of an antibiotic-resistant super-bug was found in the United States.[1][2][3][4] Indeed, the reports are not wrong; the over-use and misuse of antibiotics are allowing bacteria to build defenses against our greatest weapons in the fight for a healthier world. It is also true that doctors have long been sounding the alarm over antibiotic resistance, encouraging the medical community and the public at large to take this threat seriously. In other news, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved another tool to fight the opioid addiction epidemic, and a clueless governor vetoed a bill which would have also helped combat opioid addiction. And Health Affairs, the leading journal of healthcare policy, analyzed new data on insurance and the Affordable Care Act, etc.

Then another story hit the airwaves: Cell phones cause cancer! Everybody head for the hills! From NBC to Scientific American, news outlets breathlessly reported that cell phones cause cancer in humans.[5][6][7] But before we all ditch modern society and smash our cellular devices into smithereens, let me correct the record. This conclusion comes from a study of rats, not of human beings, and it does not even reflect the study’s complete results, which are not yet available. Instead, it reflects the partial results of a study where the rats exposed to cellular radiation lived longer than those in the control group and had an incidence of cancer within the range normally seen for this kind of rat while the control group had a surprising zero incident rate of cancer.[8] This study also has not yet been scrutinized by the scientific community at large through the process of peer review.

So why so many reports on this study? We already know that radiation of cell-phones do not cause cancer, since we know the mechanisms by which radiation can cause cancer. The energy from radiation can be absorbed by the body and cause damage to DNA, but this process only occurs with ionizing radiation, since the non-ionizing radiation from cell phones and cell-phone towers has too little energy to be absorbed in any meaningful quantity. [9] We are exposed to much more radiation—and much more harmful radiation, at that—from the sun and the natural environment around us.

And as cell phone usage has exploded over the past two decades, we haven’t seen a sudden increase in brain tumors. In fact, as healthcare researcher Aaron Carroll points out, cancer rates have been declining in the United States since the 1980s. Even if there were some statistically significant increase in cancer risk resulting from the use of cell phones—there is not, but assuming there is for the sake of argument—this increase has not proven itself to be capable of outweighing the benefits to having and using a cellular device.

The media can and often does get the facts right. The reporting this week that I have seen on antibiotic resistance, for instance, has made a largely complete account of what is an extremely important issue, and with regard to the cell phone cancer study, some news outlets did supply the appropriate nuance and context. But thanks to media organizations which live and die by the ratings they command, the quick reporting of partial studies and press releases from the scientific community—particularly those which portend a devastating and dramatic conclusion—is an all-too-common occurrence. Every time these distortions occur, scientists and policy wonks who know what is really going on must spend valuable time and energy doing damage control, reassuring the public that they will not in fact all die from using cell phones.

If anything, this media melodrama takes a toll on the health of healthcare researchers and scientists. Maybe someone should do a study on that, just please not with rats.


[1] Al Jazeera: http://bit.ly/1OSkuCa

[2] Gulf News (Japan): http://bit.ly/1NSFiP3

[3] New York Times: http://nyti.ms/1Vm7fQO

[4] Japan Times: http://bit.ly/1Vm7Gum

[5] NBC news: http://nbcnews.to/1RxNb7b

[6] Mother Jones: http://bit.ly/1OQK8ak

[7] Scientific American: http://bit.ly/1U0CLPg

[8] STAT News: http://bit.ly/27Vll0o

[9] The World Health Organization provides a good explanation of ionizing radiation and health effects here: http://bit.ly/20lzKBS

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