A Report on Non-Ionizing Radiation

NCI Sees Little Cancer Risk from Cell Phones

September 23, 2008
Last updated 
November 25, 2015

The latest issue of the NCI Cancer Bulletin, released today, presents the National Cancer Institute's outlook on the cancer risks associated with cell phones. It is based largely on the views of NCI's Peter Inskip.

Here is NCI's bottom line: "The suggestion that using a cell phone may increase a person's risk of developing brain cancer [is] not supported by a growing body of research on the subject." And Inskip adds this: Of all the potential health risks associated with cell phones that have been examined so far, the most convincing evidence concerns the risk of motor vehicle accidents among people distracted by using their cell phone while driving.

Inskip was scheduled to testify at Thursday's Congressional hearing (see our September 18 post), but, at the last minute, he was replaced by Robert Hoover, the director of the Epidemiology and Biostatistics Program in NCI's Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics.

As we have reported now many times, the primary concerns about tumor risks are over what happens in the long-term, that is, usually after at least ten years. This is based on both the work of Lennart Hardell and the Interphone teams from five Northern European countries. Like Hardell, the pooled data from these five countries show an increased risk of risk of glioma and acoustic neuroma (two types of tumors) on the same side of the head the phone was used, but only after ten years. Instead, Inskip and the NCI focus on what has been reported for exposures of ten years or less. As Inskip states and the NCI highlights in large type: "We now have studies covering up to ten years of cell phone usage, and we're still not seeing any convincing evidence of an increased brain cancer risk." With respect to Interphone, the NCI skips over the key findings on long-term risks in the two five-country meta-analyses, noting only: "[S]ome of the 13 participating countries have pooled their data and reported little or no effect on the risk of brain tumors."

To support the contention that there is nothing to worry about, the NCI cites two epidemiological studies: one on Motorola workers by a group at Exponent, a consulting firm, and one on Navy radar technicians during the Korean War. Both are vitiated by lousy exposure assessment. As was pointed out in a commentary accompanying the Exponent study: "A more notable limitation … is the absence of information on mobile telephone use or RF exposures." This means that no one knows whether the Motorola employees were actually exposed to any electromagnetic radiation (see MWN, M/A00, p.7).

In the process, the NCI makes a telling error: Instead of citing the Navy radar study, it links to a 1995 review by John Goldsmith, the noted environmental epidemiologist. In this paper, Goldsmith concluded that there was —even then— enough evidence pointing to microwave-induced health effects, including cancer, to warrant a precautionary policy of limiting exposures. Goldsmith closed with these prescient words:

"There are strong political and economic reasons for wanting there to be no health effect of RF/MW exposure, just as there are strong public health reasons for more accurately portraying the risks. Those of us who intend to speak for public health must be ready for opposition that is nominally but not truly scientific."

Maybe the NCI cited the right paper after all.