Can Cell Phone Radiation Damage Your DNA?

When it comes to the effects of low-intensity radiofrequency radiation, the answer may depend on the research funder
May 13, 2021 Updated: May 13, 2021

When it comes to the potential human health effects of cell phone use, certainly, you might end up with a crick in your neck if you text excessively, or even break your neck or the neck of someone you may hit if you text while driving. On the other hand, think of the countless lives that have been saved on the road, because people are now able to so quickly phone in emergencies. 

But what about cancer? Since the turn of the century, there have been studies suggesting there is up to double the risk of brain tumors with long-term cell phone use on the side of your head you use to talk. That’s important, because the radiation only really penetrates up to a couple of inches into your brain. Views from the back of the head and the top of the head show why you might develop cancer on one side of the head over the other.

Since it’s such a local effect, you can see why there are recommendations for using the speakerphone function or a hands-free headset, which can reduce brain exposure by a factor of 100 or more—and this includes the option of using Bluetooth headsets. This may be particularly important in children, who have thinner skulls. 

Cell phone radiation isn’t like nuclear radiation, though. It doesn’t damage DNA directly, like gamma rays from an atomic bomb. However, it does appear to be able to damage DNA indirectly by generating free radicals. In a review study published in 2015 in Electromagnetic Biology and Medicine, out of 100 studies that looked at this, 93 confirmed there were oxidative effects from the kind of low-intensity radiofrequency radiation that comes out of cell phones. Another review published in Pathophysiology in 2009 looked at 101 studies, of which 49 found that this oxidative stress translated into DNA damage, detecting signs of genotoxicity, which is damage to our genes, DNA, or chromosomes. A smaller number of studies, 42, did not find a genotoxic effect. 

But a lot of those studies were done in petri dishes or in lab animals. I’m less interested in whether Mickey or Minnie is at risk than I am concerned about brain tumors in people. When it comes to people, some population studies found increased cancer risk, but other studies did not. 

A Question of Funding

Could the source of funding for those studies have anything to do with the different findings? Some of the studies were funded by cell phone companies. Researchers with the Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, at the University of Bern in Switzerland “hypothesized that studies would be less likely to show an effect of the exposure if funded by the telecommunications industry, which has a vested interest in portraying the use of mobile phones as safe.” So, they ran the numbers and—surprise, surprise—“found that the studies funded exclusively by industry were indeed substantially less likely to report statistically significant effects…” published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2009.

Indeed, most of the independently funded studies showed an effect while most of the industry-funded studies did not. In fact, industry-funded studies had about 10 times fewer odds of finding an adverse effect from cell phone use. That’s even worse than a similar phenomena observed in the drug industry. Studies sponsored by Big Pharma about their own products only had about four times the odds of favoring the drug compared to independent researchers according to a review published in the British Medical Journal in 2003. Big Tobacco still reigns supreme when it comes to Big Bias, though.

Why do research articles on the health effects of second-hand smoke reach different conclusions? Well, it turns out that studies funded by the tobacco industry itself had a whopping 88 times the odds of concluding it was not harmful, according to a meta-analysis published in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association). So at about 10 times more for telecom puts it more towards the drug industry end of the bias spectrum.

There are conflicts of interest on both sides of the debate, though. If it’s not financial conflict, then it may be intellectual, as it can be human nature to show bias towards evidence that supports your personal position. As such, you’ll see flimsy science published, like a study published in the Journal of Neuro-Oncology in 2011 that appears to find a “disturbing” and “very linear relationship” between the states with the most brain tumors and the states with the most cell phone subscriptions. Okay, but one could think of lots of reasons why states like New York and Texas might have more brain tumors and more cell phones than the Dakotas, and those reasons have nothing to do with cell phone radiation.

Sometimes, you might even see outright fraud with allegations that the academic researchers who authored two of those genotoxicity papers and the very review I mentioned earlier were involved in scientific misconduct—allegations they deny, pointing out that their lead accuser turned out to be a lawyer working for the telecom industry. 

Whenever there’s a trillion-dollar industry involved, whether it’s the food industry, tobacco industry, drug industry, or telecom industry, there’s so much money involved that the science can get manipulated. Take the nuclear energy industry for example. An article in the International Journal of Health Services notes there was for decades “a high-level, institutional … coverup” about the health consequences of Chernobyl. The official estimates of resulting health problems were 100 or even 1,000 times lower than estimates from independent researchers.

Did only 4,000 people eventually die from it or nearly a million? It depends on who you ask and who happens to be funding whomever you’re asking.

Michael Greger, MD, FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. He has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on “The Dr. Oz Show” and “The Colbert Report,” and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous “meat defamation” trial. This article was originally published on NutritionFacts.org