I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people speculate, joke, or jokingly speculate that their cellphone might be giving them cancer. It comes from a very reasonable place of discomfort — few people understand how radiation works, we put our phones right beside our brains all the time, and technology in general often feels like it ought to be causing some sort of societal ill.
So what’s the deal? Cellphones have been around for three decades now — shouldn’t we have the answer to whether they lead to cancer in humans? Well, sort of. Our current understanding of radio waves says that, in theory, phones shouldn’t give you cancer. But we’re still doing research to find out whether that’s true in practice.
Phone radiation isn’t like the radiation from, say, a nuclear meltdown. That’s what’s known as “ionizing” radiation — it’s high energy and capable of damaging your DNA, which researchers have determined leads to cancer. Phones emit a much lower energy radiation (lower even than visible light) that’s considered to be “non-ionizing.” We know non-ionizing radiation doesn’t damage DNA the way that ionizing radiation does. But the question remains whether it could still react with the body in some other way that might lead to problems from longterm exposure.
To find out 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 an expert in phone radiation who led a World Health Organization working group on the subject. In 2011, the WHO group deemed phone radiation “possibly carcinogenic,” which is less certain than other classifications, but isn’t an outright “no” either. Six years later, Samet said the evidence in either direction is still mixed and that for the time being, there remains “some indication” of risk.
“I’m not saying there’s a public health crisis by any means,” Samet said, “but I’m saying here’s a very widespread exposure in our society and we should make sure we understand it.”
For now, it’s probably better not to spend too much of your time worrying: you’re surrounded by cellphone signals, Wi-Fi signals, and all other kinds of radio frequency radiation day in and out — not just when you put your phone up to your face. And until the evidence suggests otherwise, all of this is still considered less of a cancer risk than eating red meat (which you shouldn’t freak out about that much either).