Can cell phones give someone cancer? While the scientific community remains in debate over the subject matter, a new study from the University of Sydney School of Public Health says no.
"We have had mobiles in Australia since 1987," said Simon Chapman, emeritus professor of public health at the University of Sydney, in an article discussing the recently released study. "Some 90% of the population use them today and many of these have used them for a lot longer than 20 years. But we are seeing no rise in the incidence of brain cancer against the background rate."
The study looked at the rate of brain cancer in Australia between 1982 and 2012 among 19,858 men and 14,222 women against cell phone usage in the country between 1987 and 2012. It accounted for age and gender among participants and found that while cell phone usage grew to 94% in 2014, the rate of brain cancer among Australian men grew only "slightly" while rates of brain cancer among Australian women have remained "stable."
Better technology can mean more diagnoses: Chapman said the increase in brain cancer among men was specific to men over the age of 70 and suggests that since the rise began before the introduction of mobile phones it likely has more to do with the advancement of brain cancer detection methods.
"Computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and related techniques, introduced in Australia in the late 1970s, are able to discern brain tumors which could have otherwise remained undiagnosed without this equipment," Chapman writes. "It has long been recognized that brain tumors mimic several seemingly unrelated symptoms in the elderly including stroke and dementia, and so it is likely that their diagnosis had been previously overlooked."
No connection has been found: Previous studies have not been able to find a connection between cell phone radiation and brain cancer. While there's no proven correlation between mobile phone radiation and brain cancer, researchers won't definitively say it can't cause cancer. Past studies have called for further research. Their biggest concern is that it's still too early to tell if cell phones are causing cancer.
"Because many cancers are not detectable until many years after the interactions that led to the tumor, and since mobile phones were not widely used until the early 1990s, epidemiological studies at present can only assess those cancers that become evident within shorter time periods," according to the World Health Organization.
But Chapman dispenses with the idea that not enough time has passed for tumors to develop. At the very least, he said, we should already be seeing increases in cancer rates.
Consistent rates of cancer: As Chapman points out in another story for the Conversation, rates of brain cancer have actually been pretty consistent. In 1987 Australia had a brain cancer incidence rate of 6.6 per 100,000 people, according to Chapman. Today, he says, it has an incidence rate of 7.3 per 100,000 people.
That same stability can be seen in the U.S. where the rate of brain and other nervous system cancers per 100,000 people has risen from 5.9 in 1975 to 6.4 in 2013, according to the National Institute of Health.
Chapman said if the electromagnetic waves emitted from cell phones were causing brain cancer then we'd see gradual rises in rates of occurrence. He refers to a study on the effects of the atomic bomb on rates of brain and nervous system cancer for survivors of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II. The study shows a trending increase in rates of brain and nervous system tumors in the years between 1976 and 1995.
However the study on brain and nervous system cancer among A-bomb survivors also concludes "the secular rise in incidence of all clinically diagnosed CNS and pituitary gland tumors is most likely to be attributable to the increased use of new imaging techniques." In other words, the reason rates rose over time is likely because of advancements in technology, not necessarily because those cancers were cropping up slowly. During those years computerized tomography and magnetic resonance imaging were introduced and became more commonly used.
The rate at which cancer increased among atomic bomb survivors might not be a relevant source for predicting how cell phone-related cancer trends might appear, because medical technology has changed so much. Also, cancer caused by an atomic bomb may have a different latency than cancer caused by cell phones (if cell phones are eventually shown to cause cancer).
More work to be done: So has Chapman definitively ended the discussion on whether cell phones cause cancer? Well, no. The biggest study addressing this issue is still underway. The Imperial College of London in the U.K. is studying the health effects of mobile phones on 290,000 people internationally over a large period of time. The results of that highly anticipated research could (finally) clear up questions about cell phone use and human health. Or, as studies often do, it could lead to more studies.