In February of this year, a new report on Cell Phone Radio Frequency Radiation and cancer from the National Toxicology Program of the National Institutes of Health hit the headlines and the result was…confusion.
The headline in the NY Times was reassuring: “Cancer Risk From Cellphone Radiation Is Small, Studies Show. Do cellphones cause cancer?” reporter DENISE GRADY asked in her lead, and quickly answered by citing “health officials” who said the study suggested “that if there is any risk, it is small.”
CNN’s headline was skeptical: “Cell phone radiation study finds more questions than answers,” it said.
While in Consumer Reports, the headline and reporter Jeneen Interlandi saw the glass at least half-full of trouble. “Government Study Suggests Cell Phones May Cause Cancer in Rats,” was the headline, and below it, Interlandi quickly added: “The most alarming finding was this: Six percent of male rats exposed to radiation (but zero percent of those not exposed) developed malignant heart tumors called schwannomas.”
Schwannomas are rare in rats, but they are much, much rarer in humans, and from what they were told, the reporters from the Times, CNN, Consumer Reports and everywhere else focused almost entirely on them.
This, and the extraordinarily high radiation exposures inflicted on the test rodents helped the FDA to sum things up by stating that it was they “believe the current safety limits for cell phones are acceptable for protecting the public health.”
But that was February, and by the last week in March, there seemed to be some important new facts on the table. They came out at a peer group review of the NTP report by a committee of 11 experts. The NTP lists 4 categories of evidence of carcinogenic …cancer-causing… activity: no evidence, equivocal evidence, some evidence and clear evidence.
Well, the expert panel found “equivocal” evidence of cancers, not just schwannoas in the heart, but all over the rats’ bodies. “Equivocal evidence” cannot lead to conclusions, but the number of different cancers in the category, I counted more than a dozen, might be worrisome. More worrisome is that “some” evidence was found of 2 brain cancers, glioma and pheochromocytoma as well as “clear evidence of the schwannomas of the heart in male rats. The experts added, there were Increases in Nonneoplastic Lesions of the heart, brain, and prostate gland in male rats and the brains of females.
Sounds like pretty bad news for rats. But the news for humans is mostly, but not entirely better. Data from the National Cancer Institute found no increase in the incidence of brain or other central nervous system cancers between 1992 and 2006, despite the dramatic increase in cell phone use in this country during that time. And data from Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden for the period 1974–2008 similarly revealed no increase in age-adjusted incidence of brain tumors.
But those are old studies. 2 Swedish studies, with admittedly much smaller sample sizes, published in 2013 and 2015, reported statistically significant trends of increasing brain cancer risk people who began using cell phones before age 20.
Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation’s investigative editor at large, is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency. His most recent books are Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden and Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth.