No Link Found Between Cell Phone Use and Brain Tumors

By Ellen Kuwana
Neuroscience for Kids Staff Writer
March 2, 2001

Bbrring, bbrring. You hear them everywhere. Restaurants, parks, shopping malls--everywhere you look, someone somewhere is using a cellular phone. There is no debate about the convenience of these phones. What remains controversial is their safety. Could using a cell phone increase your chance of developing brain cancer?

Researchers in Denmark published the largest study to date on cell phone use and cancer risk. The scientists found NO increase in cancer risk among Danish cell phone users compared with Danish people who did not use cell phones. The researchers compared the incidence of nervous system tumors, leukemia (cancer of the white blood cells) and salivary gland tumors in the two populations. Two earlier smaller studies in the United States came to similar conclusions.

The Danish research is the first nationwide study of this type and was possible because in Denmark every citizen is assigned a unique identification number at birth. The two companies that provide cell phone service gave the researchers the ID numbers of their customers for the years between 1982 and 1995, and the researchers looked at the Danish Cancer Registry to calculate the number of cell phone users who had cancers of various types. This information was compared with cancer rates for the general population in Denmark.
While this news is comforting to cell phone users, a few concerns about cell phone have yet to be resolved.

  1. Most of the Danish study participants had used their cell phones for an average of three years, although some people reported having used a cell phone for up to 10 years. One concern is that some brain tumors grow slowly (taking 10-15 years before they cause symptoms) and thus may not have been detected during the relatively short timeline of the study.

  2. A University of Washington Bioengineering professor, Dr. Henry Lai, has shown that cell phone signals cause damage to rat brain cells. His studies have found that rats exposed to radiation similar to the amount emitted during a one-hour cell phone call experience short-term and long-term memory loss. Furthermore, damage to DNA molecules was seen in the rats' brain cells. No one knows if similar results will be seen in humans.

  3. A controversial Swedish study concluded that brain tumors occurred more frequently on the side of the head where cell phones were used. Studies elsewhere have found no correlation between cell phone use and tumors on a particular side of the head. Many cell phone manufacturers recommend using a hands-free earphone so that the telephone antenna is away from your head in order to distance your brain from the electromagnetic waves.

  4. No one knows how cell phone use affects developing skulls and brains in children because no studies have been done. It is possible that the developing tissue could be more vulnerable to the radiation of a cell phone.
The upside to this concern over cell phones is that many manufacturers are now disclosing their products' radiation levels, allowing consumers to make an informed choice when purchasing a cell phone. Every phone sold in the United States must meet federal radiation safety limits. Newer digital models emit less radiation than older analog phones. Furthermore, the type of radiation emitted by a cell phone is nonionizing radiation, which is less destructive than other types, such as those you are exposed to when suntanning.
At this time, there is no clear link between cancer and cell phone use. Cell phone users are no more likely to develop benign or malignant tumors than people who have never used a cell phone. Nevertheless, it might be wise to limit cell phone calls to necessary ones, use an earphone. Perhaps most importantly, people should be careful when driving and talking on a cell phone.

Did you know?

  • In the United States, there are 97 million cell phone users.

  • Israel, Japan, Singapore and Portugal have banned using cell phones while driving.

  • Thirty-five states in the US are considering legislation to ban cell phone use while driving. Talking on a cell phone while driving doubles the likelihood that you will get in an accident.


  1. Huge study can't link cancers to cell phones, by L. Neergaard, The Associated Press, 2/7/01.

  2. Johansen, C., Boice, J.D., Jr, McLaughlin, J.K., Olsen, J.H., Cellular telephones and cancer: a nationwide cohort study in Denmark, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Vol. 93, No. 3, February 7, 2001.

  3. Muscat, J.E., Malkin, M.G., Thompson, S., Shore, R.E., Stellman, S.D., McRee, D., Neugut, A.I., Wynder, E.L. Handheld Cellular Telephone Use and Risk of Brain Cancer, JAMA,2000, Vol. 284, pp. 3001-3007.

  4. Inskip, P.D., Tarone, R.E., Hatch, E.E., Wilcosky, T.C., Shapiro, W.R., Selker, R.G., Fine, H.A., Black, P.M., Loeffler, J.S., Linet M.S. Cellular-Telephone Use and Brain Tumors, The New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 344, No. 2, January 11, 2001.

  5. Trichopoulos, D. and Adami, H-O. Cellular Telephones and Brain Tumors, The New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 344, No. 2, January 11, 2001. An accompanying editorial contains a good explanation of types of radiation.

  6. Professor at UW studies effects of cell phones, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1/2/01.

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