Cell Phones and Cancer: Is There a Connection?

Bret Stetka, MD; Nora D. Volkow, MD


July 15, 2011

In This Article

Editor's Note:

On May 31, 2011 the World Health Organization (WHO) announced their classification of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields emitted from cell phones as "possibly carcinogenic," and more recently published the evidence and rationale supporting their conclusion.[1] Medscape recently spoke with National Institute on Drug Abuse Director (and BlackBerry® user) Nora D. Volkow, MD, about the implications of both the WHO statement and her own research showing that cell phone usage directly affects brain glucose metabolism.[2]

Cell Phones and Cancer: Introduction

Medscape: Hello Dr. Volkow. What was your reaction to the WHO report concluding that electromagnetic fields from cell phones are "possibly carcinogenic?" Do you believe that the available data support this conclusion?

Dr. Volkow: I think that the report was justified on the basis of results that are inconsistent but which cannot be ignored. It seems prudent in this situation -- in which there are some results [linking cell phone use with malignancy] -- to be cautionary. I think that is why they came up with this recommendation.

It wasn't strong evidence, which the authors of The Lancet paper discuss. However, they couldn't just dismiss and ignore the findings.

Medscape: I found it interesting that the INTERPHONE study showed that in all exposure groups except that with the highest cell phone exposure, there was actually a reduced or equal incidence of glioma compared with those who'd never used a cell phone. What do you make of this finding?

Dr. Volkow: One could interpret this as implying that cell phone exposure at lower levels is actually protecting against glioma, whereas others would say that it means that long-term exposure is required to induce cancer. So you have both sides of the coin. It highlights how important it is to properly address this question -- to do a study that will be able to answer it definitively.

As The Lancet paper discussed, the effects that the researchers are looking for here may not be observable for 20 or 30 years. It could be similar to what was seen with cigarettes and cancer in which several decades of smoking behavior in patients were often necessary to uncover the linkage.

To summarize, there are studies that show [no association between cell phones and cancers] and there are some studies that do show an association.

Time Will Tell

Medscape: Cell phones weren't widely used until the last 10 or 15 years, so you're saying that it might just be too early to tell whether there's an association?

Dr. Volkow: It is clear that even though cell phones have now been out for the past 25 years, the rate of use then was limited to a few people and the amount of use was also limited. It wasn't until much more recently that their use became massively widespread.

In my view, by coming up with a conservative statement, the WHO is saying that we need to be observant and not become too complacent.


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