13 Investigates cellphones and cancer: Is the risk real?
INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — You carry your cellphone with you all the time, and it is constantly transmitting invisible electromagnetic energy. For years, there's been debate about that radiation and whether it can cause cancer. A new study suggests there actually might be a hidden danger. 13 Investigates explains what you need to know about the science -- and the easy steps you can take right now to help reduce possible risk.
Craig and Virginia Farver say their son Richard was perfectly healthy one moment, and the next, he was fighting for his life.
"Brain cancer is what he was diagnosed with," said Virginia, holding a graduation photo of her son. "The doctor said it was a glioblastoma."
"He said it's the most aggressive brain cancer that there is," added Craig. "That pretty much turned our lives upside down. Just devastating."
A neurosurgeon removed the brain tumor, but Richard died seven months later – just a week after his 29th birthday.
"It was horrible. We'll never get over it," his mother told WTHR.
It's a feeling Cristin Prischman knows all too well.
Her husband, Paul, was also diagnosed with a brain tumor, and never got to see his young daughters grow up.
"We found out on Easter it was cancer," she said. "After his surgery, he didn't know my name. He didn't know who the girls were. He couldn't speak clearly and he couldn't walk. It was scary."
The Farvers and Prischmans believe the deadly tumors were preventable and both caused by the same thing: a cellphone.
"I'm 100% certain," said Virginia Farver. "He talked on his cellphone two to three hours a day, and the tumor was on the same side of his head where he held the phone."
"I'm 99% sure it was cellphone radiation," said Prischman. She showed 13 Investigates years of invoices, showing Paul talked on his cellphone between 3,000 and 4,000 minutes each month.
Can radio frequency (RF) radiation from a cellphone really cause cancer? The science is mixed, with multiple studies showing contradictory results.
But a new research project – one of the largest and most expensive ever conducted – is getting lots of attention and raising more questions about the long term safety of cellphones.
Your cellphone transmits radiation
To understand the controversy and the concern, you first need to understand how your cellphone works.
Today's smartphones have several antennas located inside. When you talk, text, or stream music or videos, your phone sends out non-ionizing radiation, similar to the energy produced by a low-powered microwave oven.
Unlike X-ray radiation which can break the chemical bonds of DNA and is known to cause cancer, exposure to non-ionizing radio frequency (RF) radiation from cellphones is generally thought to be safe.
Multiple studies from around the world have concluded that RF radiation is not dangerous and does not cause brain cancer.
But critics say several of those studies were funded by the cellphone industry, and they point to other studies that suggest RF radiation is linked to an increase in certain types of cancerous tumors.
Concerned by some of those studies, the World Health Organization's (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer made a bold statement in 2011. After reviewing RF research, the agency classified the electromagnetic fields produced by cellphones as "possibly carcinogenic to humans." The WHO later announced "to date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use." At the same time, the organization stated "While an increased risk of brain tumors is not established, the increasing use of mobile phones and the lack of data for mobile phone use over time periods longer than 15 years warrant further research of mobile phone use and brain cancer risk."
With years of conflicting studies and rising concerns – combined with skyrocketing sales of cellphones – the U.S. Food and Drug Administration commissioned an independent, ambitious project to examine the health effects of cellphone RF radiation.
The initial results were announced this spring, and they came as quite a surprise.
Inside the laboratory
"What we found here is fairly clear evidence of a signal," said Dr. David McCormick, director of the Illinois Institute of Technology Research Institute, where the federal government conducted its RF study that cost nearly $30 million.
During the 10-year research project, mice and rats were exposed to RF radiation designed to mimic human exposure based on the radio frequencies and modulations used in the United States. Some of the male rats developed cancerous brain tumors, as well as a rare, malignant tumor known as a schwannoma of the heart.
"What we are saying here is that based on the animal studies, there is a possible risk cellphone RF is potentially carcinogenic in humans," McCormick explained to WTHR at his laboratory on the south side of Chicago. "These are uncommon lesions in rodents, so it is our conclusion that they are exposure related."
"So you're saying: in your lab you found cell phone radiation caused cancer?" 13 Investigates asked, making sure we understood correctly.
"That's correct," McCormick said. "At this point, do we have unequivocal evidence that says cellphone RF radiation is carcinogenic? In humans, no. In rats, I think the answer to that is ‘yes.' For us, that is a signal, and it means there is a question mark out there.
Funded by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the study's final findings will not be released until sometime next year. Researchers took the unusual step of releasing an initial report due to the widespread health implications of the study.
"This was, I think, a surprising finding to virtually all of us who were involved in the study," McCormick said.
While the NTP study partial results came as a surprise to researchers, they did not shock families like the Farvers.
"We're finally getting some answers to this," said Virginia, looking at a CT scan showing her son's brain tumor. "I just want other parents to know about it."
Cellphone industry responds
The cellphone industry is skeptical of the NTP study, which does include some peculiar and unexplained findings.
For example, only male rats showed an increased rate of malignant tumors. Female rats did not. And rats in the control group (not exposed to RF radiation) had a shorter overall lifespan than those that were constantly exposed to RF radiation for two years.
CTIA, a trade group that lobbies for the cellphone industry, told 13 Investigates it is closely monitoring the new study. A CTIA spokesman denied WTHR's request for an on-camera interview but sent a statement:
"The safety of cellphone consumers is important to CTIA and the wireless industry. CTIA and the wireless industry follow scientific research relating to the safety of cellphones, including the release of the National Toxicology Program's partial findings. The larger scientific community will consider the partial findings, as well as the complete reports when they are released, in the context of the many other scientific studies conducted over several decades. Numerous international and U.S. organizations, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, World Health Organization, and American Cancer Society, have determined that the already existing body of peer-reviewed and published studies shows that there are no established health effects from radio frequency signals used in cellphones."
Cell phone manufacturers also point out the federal government has established safe exposure limits for cellphone radiation, and each cellphone must pass a radiation test before it can be sold legally in the U.S.
Known as the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR), the maximum radiation level for each cellphone is determined by taping a cellphone to the "ear" of a plastic head that is filled with liquid. The fluid replicates the properties inside a human head. With the help of robotic sensors, scientists are then able to determine how much radiation is penetrating inside the human brain. All cellphones sold in the U.S. must fall at or below the Federal Communications Commission SAR limit of 1.6 watts per kilogram.
Critics of the exposure limits and testing program point out the FCC standards were set 20 years ago, and they are based on the acceptable amount of RF energy absorbed by a 200-pound man.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and other health organizations have petitioned the government to revisit its limits and to set more stringent radiation standards for cellphones.
"Current FCC standards do not account for the unique vulnerability and use patterns specific to pregnant women and children," the AAP warned in a letter to the FCC.
And earlier this year, doctors and scientists from Harvard and Yale medical schools warned pregnant mothers to limit their unborn babies exposure to potentially harmful radiation by keeping cellphones away from their bellies because of the possible impact on brain development.
CTIA still maintains cellphones are safe, and it relies on federal brain cancer statistics as proof. "Since the introduction of cellphones in the mid-1980s, the rate of brain cancer in the United States has remained stable," the industry group told WTHR.
Tracking brain cancer rates
The National Institutes of Health maintains statistical data to track cancer rates in the U.S. through the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program of the National Cancer Institute. While the number of cellphone subscribers in the U.S. grew from 340,000 in 1985 to more than 300 million in 2010, the number of brain cancer cases in the United States during that same time period showed little change.
Dr. Mahua Dey, a brain surgeon at the IU Health Neuroscience Center in Indianapolis, is on the constant lookout for cancers such as glioblastoma.
"It's a very devastating diagnosis. It's almost like a death sentence," she said. "Even with the best therapies, these patients don't live long enough."
Dey told WTHR she has observed a small increase in brain cancer cases in recent years. But she's not yet ready to connect that increase to cellphones.
Some scientists and consumer groups say if such conclusive evidence could be established, it might be years or even decades away because most people have been using cell phones for less than 20 years.
"It's possible that's simply not a long enough period of exposure to see any cancers. We don't know," said McCormick. "If there is a real hazard out there, but it could be another 15 years before we see it, think about the billions of people who are being exposed to cellphone RF on a regular basis. If those people are, in fact, at risk -- even if it's a very, very small percentage risk -- the sheer number of people who are being exposed on a regular basis suggests we could have a real significant public health problem downstream. By the time that there is any conclusive evidence in humans, you would have had billions of people exposed for quite a number of years. We can't undo that exposure."
Your RF exposure is constantly changing
13 Investigates purchased an RF meter to see just how much radiation is emitted by popular cell phones. The meter measured the intensity of the electromagnetic field surrounding each cellphone, and we discovered the amount of radiation varied greatly depending on the features used on the phones.
An iPhone 6 with few features activated fluctuated between 30 and 286 millivolts per meter -- a very low amount of electromagnetic energy. But when we turned on the cellphone's Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and made a phone call, the RF radiation jumped to a high reading of nearly 6 volts per meter. Compared to 286 millivolts, that's 20 times more radiation. Your distance from the nearest cellphone tower and how close you position your phone to your body make a big difference, too.
You might not realize it, but most cellphone manufacturers warn you not to hold your phone too close. Those warnings are in tiny print inside your owner's manual or deep inside your phone in the legal section that you've probably never looked at. Some cellphone manuals advise carrying your phone at least 1 inch away from your body to ensure compliance with the government's SAR standards.
"That information is hidden pretty well, and most people never see it," said Ellie Marks, director of the California Brain Tumor Association. "We've got kids who sleep with their cellphone on their pillow. We want the public to know. It's their right to know."
Marks has been fighting the cellphone industry since 2009, the year after her husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor that, she believes, is linked to more than 10,000 hours of cellphone use. She has been trying to force cellphone manufacturers and retailers to more publicly disclose their SAR rates at the point of purchase. Communities such as Berkeley, Calif., have passed laws requiring such disclosure, but CTIA has successfully fought to kill proposed legislation in other cities.
"We're not trying to get people to stop using cellphones. We're not against the technology," Marks told Eyewitness News. "We just want the public to know the truth about the radiation. What we're trying to tell people is how to keep it away from you."
Keeping your cellphone at a distance can greatly reduce your exposure to RF radiation, according to McCormick.
"The critical factor here is that RF emissions from a cellphone decrease very rapidly with distance from the source," he said. "People don't necessarily believe there is an adverse [health] effect. If we really don't know, but there are signals that would suggest there could be a problem, I would propose we consider decreasing these exposures," McCormick said.
Scientists, medical associations and consumer advocates agree that limiting your exposure to cellphone radiation is a good idea while we wait for more definitive science on the issue.
"The evidence so far doesn't prove that cell phones cause cancer, and we definitely need more and better research," Michael Hansen, a senior scientist at Consumer Reports magazine, wrote last year. "But we feel that the research does raise enough questions that taking some common-sense precautions when using your cell phone can make sense."
How to reduce your cellphone radiation exposure
Greatly reducing your exposure is easy to do by following these recommendations:
- Instead of holding your cellphone up to your ear during phone calls, use the speaker phone function, a hands-free option, earbuds or a headset
- Text or video call instead of talking (Do not, of course, text while you are driving!)
- Keep your cellphone conversations as short as possible
- Do not carry your cellphone in your pants pocket or bra
- Do not sleep with your cellphone or tablet on or under your pillow (Even if you're not talking on your phone, it's still transmitting radiation if it's on and connected to a network.)
You can also select a cellphone that has a lower SAR rating. If you would like to see the SAR test rating of your current cellphone, or if you would like to compare the SAR values of different models, you can do that at the FCC's search tool.
(You will need the FCC ID number for your phone, which is usually shown somewhere on the case of the phone or on the handset. You may have to remove the battery to find the number. Once you have the FCC ID number – sometimes listed as the MEID or IMEI number – enter it in two parts as indicated: "Grantee Code" is comprised of the first three characters, the "Equipment Product Code" is the remainder of the FCC ID. Then click on "Start Search.")
For some cellphone models, you can find the SAR value on the manufacturer's website or in the "settings" section of the phone.
Following the death of her husband, Cristin Prischman says she never holds her cellphone to her ear – relying instead on the speakerphone and on texting.
"This isn't about giving up your cellphone, she said. "I just think what you don't see can hurt you. Most people don't think about it, and that's the scary part. They don't think about it."
SAR Value by Cellphone Provider
The American Cancer Society offers information and advice about cellphone RF radiation. More details about Specific Absorption Rates (SAR) can be found at the FCC's website.