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10 Questions: Do cellphones give us cancer?

A brand new, major, long-term, peer-reviewed study has just come out showing a positive link between exposure to cellphone radiation and the incidence of cancer in rats. This is perhaps the biggest and most credible such study to date, pointing towards such a connection. But the internet is awash in hype and exaggeration, so before we throw out our wireless devices let’s dig a bit deeper into the study.

1) I’m a busy person and you just scared the crap out of me. Get to the point, do cellphones cause cancer?

Unfortunately, the honest answer to this is “possibly”. We really don’t know. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classified non-ionizing radio frequency radiation (RFR) as a “possible human carcinogen” back in 2013. This was based on “limited evidence” and today’s study just adds more to that evidence. It doesn’t prove anything, because that’s not how science works.

2) But the study says cellphones cause cancer, doesn’t it?

No, not really. The media is saying that. The study itself, like all good studies is taking a much more methodical and precise approach. The study specifically states that there’s a statistical correlation between exposure to specific radio frequencies, 900Mhz and 1900 Mhz, for a specific period of time at a specific level, and the development of malignant gliomas in the brain and schwannomas in the heart. In rats; not humans!

3) Rats, humans, what does it matter ... we’re all animals and cellphones are killing us!

Calm down dear reader, that’s not what the study says, I promise you. In fact, you can read it for yourself right here. And if you do, you might find out that rats exposed to RFR, or cellphone radiation, lived on average longer than those not exposed.

4) Wait, what? Rats exposed to cellphone radiation lived longer?

Yes, they did, on average. After two years of testing, the study showed that the control group of male rats, those not exposed to any RFR, lived shorter lives than those that had been exposed. Meanwhile results varied in female rats, where all females on AT&T and but only some on Verizon lived longer than their non-cellphone using counterparts.

5) Rats were using AT&T and Verizon?

Not really, but the researchers tested the two technologies that those carriers and others use. The telecommunication carriers are split between the CDMA ( Verizon, Sprint, US Cellular) and GSM ( AT&T, T-Mobile) standards. There’s also LTE but that’s a different matter. These two standards work differently and modulate radio signals differently, so researchers wanted to test out how these differences impacted living beings.

6) And what’s the verdict? Which is better, AT&T or Verizon?

The surprising answer is that there is indeed a noticeable and statistically significant difference between the two. According to the study, there was a significant, positive trend in the incidence of malignant glioma in the brain in those exposed to CDMA -modulated RFR. There was also glial cell hyperplasia observed in male rats exposed to both GSM and CMDA-modulated radio frequencies. Some of these effects were also noticed in female rats, but in fewer cases. These effects were not found in non-exposed, control, rats.

Schwannomas in the heart were also observed in male rats exposed to GSM and CDMA frequencies, with a higher incidence in those on CDMA. Females also experienced some of these effects but in fewer cases.

7) Wait, so cellphones do cause cancer?

Radio frequencies of specific wavelenghts and modulations, can cause an increase of certain types of cancers in rats. The researchers concluded there’s likely a causational link between the exposure time and power and the development of cancerous cells.

8) Am I going to die? Should I throw my phone away?

Yes on that first one. Now, for the second question let me point you back to my earlier “rats are not humans” argument. Cancer is by no means a solitary, monolithic disease. The complexities involved with it are staggering. Just look at the female rats, mentioned above. In some cases, there seemed to be no effect on them. In others it was significantly smaller than on male rats. And that’s just differences between sexes in the same subspecies. Extrapolating these results to humans is a huge leap, and one that no self-respecting scientist would make.

So the honest answer to do cellphones cause cancer? They might, but we don't know. Right now there's strong evidence they're safe, but that might not always be the case.

9) Oh so there’s nothing to worry about?

Unfortunately, that’s not the case either. This is a long-term, peer-reviewed, credible study. Dismissing it completely would be intellectually dishonest. It shows an important link between RFR and some types of cancers in living beings. This is a big, albeit worrying, step in this field. And these are only preliminary results, dealing with the heart and brain. Further information and studies will be published dealing with exposure on other parts of the body. Whether those are encouraging or not remains to be seen.

While there are other credible, long-term studies out there, involving hundreds of thousands of humans showing no link between our cellphones and cancer development, this report cannot be ignored. Further studies need to and will be done, not to mention this study’s results need to be replicated.

10) Vlad, this is an emotional rollercoaster; I don’t know what I should be feeling anymore. Hope? Panic?

Science is oftentimes like that because it doesn’t deal in absolutes. It deals in what it can prove. But you shouldn’t stress out over your cellphone use. There seems to be a real link between radio waves and cancer, but that’s only in rats for now. There’s no reason to put your tinfoil hat on just yet.

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