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Sharp Health News

Cell phones and cancer: what’s the risk?

June 30, 2016

Cell phones and cancer: what’s the risk?

The question has lingered for years: Does using a cell phone increase your risk of getting cancer?

Despite the bulk of research finding no connection, partial results of a long-term, U.S. government study recently generated scary headlines. It found that rats exposed to the same radiation emitted from cell phones had a higher incidence of two types of rare cancers: malignant gliomas in the brain and schwannomas in the heart.

But don't throw out your phone just yet. Critics were quick to point out some of the concerns with the study.

  • Exposures given to the rats were high — nine hours a day, seven days a week, for two years. It's rare for people to hold cell phones to their heads this long. With the advent of texting, it's rarer these days to even make a call, reducing the amount of radiation received by the brain. 
  • The number of rats exposed to radiation was relatively small, and the incidence of cancer (about 3 to 4 percent over a control group of rats not exposed to radiation) was low enough that it's hard to tell if some of the cancers were just due to chance. 
  • The study found slight increases in cancer in male rats only. Female rats treated with the same radiation experienced no increase in cancer rates. 
  • On average, male rats exposed to the radiation lived longer than animals in the control group, raising the question that exposed rats might have developed cancer as an inevitable part of aging.

The findings are part of a larger study, which researchers plan to release in late 2017. And, like all studies, it will be significant if the findings can be replicated by independent researchers.

"This study may raise more questions than it answers, but I think it's important that more research continues on this issue," says Dr. Charles Redfern, medical director of the Laurel Amtower Cancer Institute and Neuro-Oncology Center at Sharp HealthCare. "Though the evidence so far doesn't prove cell phones cause cancer, limiting your exposure to radiation from cell phones can make sense."

If you are concerned about radiation from cell phones, here are some ways you can reduce your exposure: 

  • Text instead of calling, when possible. 
  • Use a speakerphone or hands-free headset. 
  • Keep your phone out of your pocket. 
  • Don't sleep next to your phone (or if you must, put it on "airplane" mode). 
  • Avoid using your phone in a moving vehicle or when the signal is weak. Radiation increases as your phone tries to connect with network antennas.

For the media: To talk with Dr. Redfern about the risks of cancer when using cell phones, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at erica.carlson@sharp.com or 858-499-3052.

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