Mobile phones and risk of brain cancer

Behind the Headlines

Thursday August 30 2007

Human brain cells were not used in the study

Exposure to radiation from handsets could trigger changes in the brain that are associated with cancer, newspapers reported.

The Daily Mail, reporting on a recently published study, said that “Only ten minutes on a mobile can affect your brain”. The Telegraph said that fresh safety fears had been raised as scientists had found that handset radiation could trigger cell division which, though, a natural process, is central to the development of cancer.

The stories are based on a laboratory study which suggests that cells respond to mobile phone radiation. The researchers said that they had found that “cells are not inert to mobile phone radiation” and that the observed changes were “clearly not caused by heating”. This is at odds with UK official guidance which states that electromagnetic radiation can only cause cell damage by dangerous heating.

This experiment only studied rat cells and human cervical cells (not brain cells) which were independent of a living organism.. Therefore, the results are preliminary and further research must be done before we can truly understand the effects of low-frequency radiation on human health. The implication that only 10 minutes on a mobile phone can trigger cancer in humans is misleading. Such conclusions cannot be drawn on the basis of this research.


Where did the story come from?

Friedman and colleagues from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel conducted this study. The study was funded partly by a grant from La Foundation Raphael et Regina Levi. The study was published in the peer reviewed medical journal, Biochemical Journal.



What kind of scientific study was this?

The was a laboratory study using rat cells and other cells that were originally derived from human cervical tissue. The researchers grew the cells and then examined what effect low-frequency radiation (about the same frequency as mobile phones use) would have on them. They then compared these with cells which had not been exposed to radiation.


The researchers were particularly interested in seeing whether – as previous research has suggested – certain chemical processes were activated in the cells. These processes are involved in cell division and growth. The current opinion is that the sort of radiation that mobiles produce affects cells only by causing harmful overheating, and the researchers wanted to see if something else could cause a reaction.


What were the results of the study?

The researchers found that a series of chemical responses occur after exposure to radiation. Although, similar responses have been seen in other studies, this study was unique in the discovery of the very early involvement of a certain chemical in the cell membranes which “accept the mobile phone radiation”. This early acceptance of radiation kick-starts a chain of reactions that results in some changes in the cells.


To date, there is no strong evidence from large studies in living human populations that there is a link between mobile phone usage and cancer.

What interpretations did the researchers draw from these results?

The researchers conclude that the study ‘demonstrates for the first time a detailed molecular mechanism by which electromagnetic irradiation from mobile phones induces the activation of’ cellular processes. The findings of this study show that irradiation can affect cells through processes that don’t necessarily rely on temperature increases; which was previously believed to be responsible for the cell changes.


What does the NHS Knowledge Service make of this study?

This is a well conducted study where the findings give us further clues as to how radiation affects the chemicals in cells that are grown in the laboratory.


At present we can only say that this study suggests radiation affects laboratory grown cells. Any interpretation of the findings is limited to these conditions as, importantly, the cells used were not ‘healthy human cells’ or part of a living organism. We cannot say that these findings represent what might happen to cells in living humans.

  • The cells that were tested are not the same as healthy, human cells (one was a set of rat cells and the other was originally from cervical cells in a human who was not healthy).
  • To date, there is no strong evidence from large studies in living human populations that there is a link between mobile phone usage and cancer.
  • The findings from this study should not cause undue alarm. They must be interpreted as they are intended; as preliminary findings that help us to understand the effects of radiation on certain cells in the laboratory. Whether these changes have any implication for cell health is yet to be determined.


Sir Muir Gray says…

As a very heavy user of mobile phones since their first appearance, I have frequently thought about the possibility of harm. Although I know of no evidence showing harm to humans, based on the principle of minimising my exposure to all possible environmental hazards, I have tried to limit my exposure to phone radiation. This study has not increased my anxiety, but has provided another reminder to think about the environment in which we live.


Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

Links to the headlines

Mobile phone use and cancer linked. The Daily Telegraph, August 30 2007

Only ten minutes on a mobile could trigger cancer, scientists believe. Daily Mail, August 30 2007

Links to the science

Friedman J, Kraus S, Hauptman Y, et al. Mechanism of short-term ERK activation by electromagnetic fields at mobile phone frequencies. Biochem J 2007; 405:559-568


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