I can not count how many times I've heard people speculating, joking or jokingly speculating that their cell phone might be causing cancer. It comes from a place of very reasonable discomfort: few people understand how radiation works, we put our phones next to our brain all the time, and technology in general often feels that it should be causing some kind of social disease.
So what is the problem? Cell phones have been around for three decades, should not we have the answer to whether they lead to cancer in humans? Kind of. Our current understanding of radio waves says that, in theory, phones should not cause cancer. But we are still investigating to know if that is true in practice.
"This is a very widespread exhibition in our society and we must make sure that we understand it."
Phone radiation is not like radiation from, say, a nuclear fusion. That is what is known as "ionizing" radiation: it is high energy and is capable of damaging your DNA, which the researchers determined leads to cancer. Telephones emit much lower energy radiation (even lower than visible light) that is considered "non-ionizing". We know that non-ionizing radiation does not damage DNA in the same way that ionizing radiation does. But the question remains whether he could still react with the body in some other way that could lead to long-term exposure problems.
To learn about the state of research on the link between phones and cancer, we spoke with Jonathan Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health and telephone radiation expert who led a working group of the World Health Organization on the subject . In 2011, the WHO group considered that the radiation of the telephone was "possibly carcinogenic", which is less true than other classifications, but it is not a resounding "no" either. Six years later, Samet said the evidence in both directions is still mixed and that, for now, there is still "some indication" of risk.
"I am not saying there is a public health crisis in any way," said Samet, "but I am saying that this is a widespread exposure in our society and we must make sure that we understand it."
Since he spoke with Samet, more details emerged from a large study that transmitted high levels of telephone radiation in rats and mice. While there are still peculiarities in the findings, the latest evidence still does not find a link between phone radiation and cancer. In response, the FDA said: "Taken together, all this research … [has] gave us confidence that the current safety limits for cell phone radiation are still acceptable to protect public health."
For now, it's probably best not to waste too much time worrying: you're surrounded by cell phone signals, Wi-Fi signals and all other types of radio frequency radiation when you enter and exit, not just when the phone is brought up to your face. And until the evidence suggests otherwise, all this is still considered a lower cancer risk than eating red meat (which should not scare either).
Update March 9: this story and video have been updated to reflect the new findings of the National Toxicology Program, launched in February.