Are cell phones frying our brains?

Living on Earth

This story was originally reported by PRI’s “Living on Earth.” For more, listen to the audio above.

For the last decade, scientists from 13 countries have been trying to figure out if there is a link between cell phone usage and cancer. The results of this so-called Interphone Study were recently released, but people aren’t quite sure what they mean. Consider these two seemingly contradictory headlines reporting on the same study:

Mobile Phone Study Finds No Solid Link to Brain Tumors” The Guardian, UK.
Heavy Use of Cell Phones may increase Tumor Risk.” Globe and Mail, Canada.

The study found many troubling links between cell phone use and cancer. For example, high cell phone usage was linked to a doubling of the risk of deadly brain cancers called gliomas. At the same time, however, some people who never or very rarely used cell phones seemed to have more tumor risk than moderate users.

“We have not demonstrated conclusively that there’s a risk,” Elizabeth Cardis, head of the Radiation Group that conducted the Interphone Study, explained to “Living on Earth,” “but I think it’s really important to note that that does not mean that there’s no risk.”

The study was conducted mostly from 2000 to 2004, and Cardis admits that it wasn’t perfect. Phone records weren’t as readily available as they should be for a truly accurate study. And at that point, 30 minutes a day was considered “high” usage for a cell phone, far less than it would be today.

That ambiguity makes Christopher Ketcham very nervous. In an interview with PRI’s “This American Life,” Ketcham quotes neuroscientist Leif Salford saying, “This is really the largest human biological experiment ever, because we don’t know what the long-term effects are going to be.”

Ketcham is already convinced that cell phones are bad for people. He says that if you ignore the studies that are funded by the telecom or cell phone industry, 75 percent have found that cell phones are biologically harmful.

“The only honest way to think of our cell phones is that they are tiny, low-power microwave ovens, without walls, that we hold against the sides of our heads,” Ketcham wrote for GQ Magazine.

Still, in spite of all the evidence, Ketcham has had little success convincing people that they should worry about their phones. “Most people think I’m crazy,” he told “This American Life.” “Most people think I’m absolutely bonkers. They just dismiss outright what I have to say.”

Hosted by Steve Curwood, “Living on Earth” is an award-winning environmental news program that delves into the leading issues affecting the world we inhabit. More “Living on Earth.”

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.