When you talk on your cell phone, radiofrequency energy emitted from the cell phone is absorbed into the tissues surrounding your ear. According to radiation experts, the amount of radiation is very small and the type of radiation emitted is safer than the radiation in x-rays. However, research into whether cell phones may increase the risk of brain cancer has produced conflicting results.

A study recently published in the journal Neurology examined the risk of developing an acoustic neuroma among cell phone users. Acoustic neuroma is a benign tumor that arises on the eighth cranial nerve leading from the brain to the inner ear. The findings of this study suggest that cell phone use does not increase the risk of acoustic neuroma.

About the study

Researchers from the American Health Foundation and leading medical centers in New York collaborated on this study of 90 people with acoustic neuromas (cases) and 86 people without acoustic neuromas who were hospitalized for other non-cancerous conditions (controls). For cases, the type and location of the tumor were obtained from pathology and MRI reports. Controls were matched to cases on the basis of age, sex, race, and hospital. The study was conducted between 1997 and 1999, and the average age of participants was 54.

Using a structured questionnaire, trained interviewers asked participants about their medical history, occupation, education, and lifestyle habits, including smoking, alcohol intake, and cell phone use. Specifically, participants were asked about:

  • If they ever used a cell phone
  • How many years they used a cell phone
  • How many minutes or hours per month they used a cell phone
  • When they first began using a cell phone
  • The manufacturer of the cell phone
  • Average monthly cell phone bill
  • Percent of monthly bill attributable to the participant (if billing was shared with another person)
  • Which hand they used to hold the cell phone

Finally, the researchers compared the cell phone usage of cases and controls.

The findings

People who used cell phones were no more likely to develop an acoustic neuroma than people who did not use cell phones. In addition, there appeared to be no correlation between hours of use or years of use and risk of acoustic neuroma. Interestingly, in cell phone users who developed an acoustic neuroma, the tumor occurred more often on the opposite side of the head from where they held the cell phone.

Although these results are interesting, there are limitations to this study. First, the daily use of cell phones by participants was low compared to the frequent daily use that is common among many cell phone users. Second, no one in this study had used a cell phone for more than six years, so these findings do not address long-term cell phone use. Third, there is often a significant time delay between the development of an acoustic neuroma and the start of symptoms, as well as between the start of symptoms and the time a person seeks medical care. Some studies have shown this time lag to be as long as several years, which highlights the limitations of this study in addressing long-term risk. Finally, participants’ self-reported cell phone use was not corroborated with their monthly cell phone bills.

How does this affect you?

Does this mean that cell phones are safe? This study confirms the findings of two other studies that cell phone use does not increase your risk of developing an acoustic neuroma. However, more research is needed to determine risks associated with long-term cell phone use, including the risk of brain cancer. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), studies generally have shown no link between cell phones and brain cancer, but there is some conflicting scientific evidence that may warrant additional research.

Even if cell phones don’t cause cancer or benign tumors, some research suggests that talking on a cell phone while driving a car can lead to accidents caused by distracted drivers. If you’re a cell phone user, one thing you can do to protect your health is limit your cell phone use while driving. In fact, some states in the U.S. are passing laws to ban cell phone use while driving.