Cell phones - do they cause cancer?


Do cell phones cause cancer? Many people would like to know the answer to the question. Cell phones have been in use since the 1980s. Their popularity, however, increased tremendously in the 1990s and continues to grow steadily.


There is no definitive answer about whether cell phones cause cancer, since the information available can only be based on short-term studies. However, several major studies show no evidence linking cell phones and cancer at this time.

The amount of time people spend on cell phones has increased and will be factored into current and future studies. This ongoing research will continue for many years to see if there may be a relationship between slow-growing tumors in the brain or other places in the body over longer time periods.


Cell phones use non-ionizing radiation or low levels of radiofrequency energy (RF). Exposures to low levels of RF from cell phones have not been found to cause health problems.

In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have developed guidelines that limit the amount of radiofrequency energy that cell phones are allowed to emit. The RF exposure from cell phones is measured in Specific Absorption Rate (SAR).

The SAR measures the amount of energy absorbed by the body. The SAR permitted in the US is 1.6 watts per kilogram (1.6W/kg).

According to the FCC, this amount is much lower than the level shown to cause any changes in laboratory animals. Every cell phone manufacturer is required to report the RF exposure of each of its phone models to the FCC. To find out specific information on your cell phone, you can go to the FCC web site.


Although health problems related to long-term use are thought to be unlikely, there are some steps that can be taken to limit your potential risks.

  • Save your lengthy phone conversations for a conventional telephone (landline).  
  • Change to a cell phone that has its antenna outside the vehicle.  
  • Use a headset and place the phone away from your body.  
  • Find out how much SAR energy is emitted from the telephone.


Generally, cell phone studies have involved adults aged 18 or older. Most children didn’t use cell phones until the mid-1990s. This leaves the effects of cell phone use on children unclear, but taking the same steps outlined for adults with your children may help to reduce the potential risks.

Other national governments have recommended that children be discouraged from using cell phones. In December 2000, the British government handed out pamphlets that recommended minimizing children’s cell phone usage, even though there was no scientific evidence confirming or denying a health risk.


The risk of being in a car accident while talking on a cell phone is higher than any risk for cancer.

Regulatory organizations such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the National Safety Council (NSC) emphasize that using a cell phone redirects a person’s focus from driving to the telephone call. They claim that the problem is being distracted by the conversation, not the phone itself. Therefore, having a hands-free phone may not reduce the chance of an accident. There is considerable controversy over these safety issues.

Laws regarding cell-phone use while driving are made at the state level. New York has a law prohibiting the use of cell phones while driving. Other states have some restrictions, and many other state bills are currently being reviewed.

Clearly, there are some dangers associated with cell-phone use and driving. Be logical. Minimize your call time, stay away from stressful conversations while on the road, and, if possible, pull over to make your call.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 7, 2012
by Sharon M. Smith, M.D.

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