Cell phones, cancer, and scientific oversimplification

I’ve always been a big fan of Michael Shermer’s Skeptic column in Scientific American, but this month I have to say I’m disappointed. In his piece*, titled “Can You Hear Me Now? Physics shows that cell phones cannot cause cancer,” Shermer argues that it is “virtually impossible” for cell phones to cause cancer because they “do not emit enough energy to break the molecular bonds inside cells.” While this latter statement may be true—the radiation that cell phones emit is not thought to be energetic enough to directly break DNA molecules—it is not fair (or scientific, for that matter) to use this as proof that cell phones do not cause cancer. The issue is far more complex than that.

*Update, 10/4/2010: Shermer’s piece was just posted online.

Biologists once assumed that mutations were responsible for most diseases; now we know that more subtle genetic (and epigenetic) variations play an even bigger role. Many scientists also once thought that “junk DNA” didn’t have a function, but now research is pouring in suggesting that, in fact, non-coding DNA is responsible for many aspects of gene regulation; some RNA molecules once dismissed as garbage might even run the entire show. Genetics isn’t simple, my friends—and neither is cancer, for that matter. Despite decades upon decades of research, scientists still don’t know all of the ways in which cancer can be sparked. So to announce to the world—in an authoritative magazine like Scientific American, no less—that something definitely does not cause cancer simply because it cannot break DNA seems like a really irresponsible thing to do.

You’re probably wondering: how might cell phones cause cancer, then? Cancer develops when the cell cycle goes awry and cells start to multiply when they should not. Considering that thousands of genes are thought to be involved in the cell cycle—and an as yet unknown number of non-protein-coding sequences might regulate them—there are plenty of potential factors to consider. Cell cycle genes can be disrupted because of a mutation or a DNA break, sure, but problems could also arise when, say, something causes a tumor-suppressor gene like p53 (which protects against cancer) to be downregulated, perhaps from a post-translational modification or a change to chromatin structure. Or maybe something in the environment ramps up the expression of a growth-promoting gene, causing a cell to abnormally proliferate. Environmental influences could also disrupt the DNA repair machinery, as this would allow DNA breaks that arose as a result of some other process to go unfixed. If cell phones did any one of these things, they could easily increase cancer risk—but there are all possibilities that Shermer ignores when he concludes at the end of his column that “it is impossible for cell phones to hurt the brain.” For him, it seems, there is only one route to cancer—direct DNA breaks—but that’s simply not true.

So is there any evidence that cell phones can do the things I just mentioned? Actually, yes. A handful of studies, including one published in 2005 in Environmental Health Perspectives and another published in Bioelectromagetics, report that cell phone radiation affects chromatin conformation, which directly impacts gene expression and could, therefore, affect the cell cycle. These studies also found that cells exposed to cell phone radiation produce less of a protein complex called 53BP1 believed to be involved in DNA repair. In addition, research published by University of Washington researchers in the 1990s found that cell phone radiation elicited DNA breaks in rat brain cells (something Shermer doesn’t address in his piece, though it directly contradicts his assertion); the authors speculated that the radiation was probably interrupting the DNA repair process. (As an aside: I interviewed one of these researchers, Henry Lai, for my 2008 article about cell phones in Canada’s The Walrus magazine; after he published this study, a scientific advisory group created by the organization that represents the wireless industry sent a letter to the president of the University of Washington demanding that he and his co-author both be fired. They were not.)

It’s a big step to conclude from these studies that cell phones cause cancer, of course, and I’m not about to do that. I’m also not going to delve into the mess of epidemiological data on the topic, but if you’re curious, you can read more about some of it in my Walrus piece and a related article I wrote for Scientific American in 2008. My point here is not that cell phones are deadly, but rather that in his column, Shermer does a disservice to his readers by unfairly concluding that cell phones must be safe because they do not directly cause DNA breaks. Science—especially biology—is rarely that cut and dried.


Belyaev IY, Markovà E, Hillert L, Malmgren LO, & Persson BR (2009). Microwaves from UMTS/GSM mobile phones induce long-lasting inhibition of 53BP1/gamma-H2AX DNA repair foci in human lymphocytes. Bioelectromagnetics, 30 (2), 129-41 PMID: 18839414

Belyaev, I., Hillert, L., Protopopova, M., Tamm, C., Malmgren, L., Persson, B., Selivanova, G., & Harms-Ringdahl, M. (2005). 915 MHz microwaves and 50 Hz magnetic field affect chromatin conformation and 53BP1 foci in human lymphocytes from hypersensitive and healthy persons Bioelectromagnetics, 26 (3), 173-184 DOI: 10.1002/bem.20103

Wang, B. (2002). 53BP1, a Mediator of the DNA Damage Checkpoint Science, 298 (5597), 1435-1438 DOI: 10.1126/science.1076182

LAI, H. (1996). Single-and double-strand DNA breaks in rat brain cells after acute exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation International Journal of Radiation Biology, 69 (4), 513-521 DOI: 10.1080/095530096145814

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14 Responses to Cell phones, cancer, and scientific oversimplification

  1. Rob says:

    Yes you are right one does not follow logically from the other re cellphones don’t have enough energy to break molecular bonds therefore cellphones don’t cause cancer.

    The final clue though would be to see if cancer rates have increased since cellphones have been introduced. Afterall there are literally billions of the devices constantly in use around the world. Even if they are a cause over a long time you would still expect to be able to detect an effect by now if there is one. So the best we can say is that the likelihood is very small. I would wager that more people are killed by people using cellphones by driving than any other use of them.

  2. Gingi says:

    Thank you for this post. It’s really amazes me how sometimes people will, inaccurately, announce facts in the name of science. I wonder what made him write that…
    I’m super interested about cell phones, thanks again. great blog. Gingi.

  3. Rob, I totally agree—it will all come down to the epidemiological studies. That said, one important thing to remember is that cancer typically has a very long latency period. In other words, it could be a decade or more between exposure and cancer diagnosis. And since we’ve really only been using cell phones regularly for about a decade now, I think we have to take past studies with a grain of salt (though of course we need to consider them).

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  5. steve says:

    Most people don’t think this trough nearly as deeply as you folks have. The “logic” goes like this: “Cell phones emit radiation. Radiation causes cancer. Therefore cell phones cause cancer!!!!” Uneducated rubes don’t know that there are different kinds of radiation.
    That is the the idea Shermer is almost certainly arguing against, though I’m too lazy to read his piece. It’s in SciAm, after all, not a scholarly journal.

  6. Travis says:

    Thanks for pointing to the Walrus article – it’s by far the most informative piece I’ve seen on the topic (I didn’t even realize that Yanks were allowed to write for the Walrus!). I’m still unsure whether I think cell phones are linked with cancer, but it’s nice to see a discussion that gets past the he-said/she-said debate of whether or not cell phone radiation can damage DNA directly.

  7. Thanks, Travis! I’m glad you enjoyed it. It was such an interesting piece to report.

  8. Thank you for this post.China cell phone wholesale It’s really amazes me how sometimes people will, inaccurately, announce facts in the name of science. I wonder what made him write that…

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  10. philippos papathanos says:

    nice article and fair point. In response to your reply to a comment, it seams that you suggest an epidimiological study of this type is feasible and likely to give accurate results. not sure how easy it would be to relate cancer rates with mobile phone usage, uncoupled from concurrent changes in human habits over time, nutrition and diet, quality of life, rythms etc.
    just curious and definitely not an epidemiologist.
    philippos papathanos

  11. Denis says:

    There was a very interesting documentary on the subject of electromagnetic waves on French TV recently. (sorry, it’s in French, of course, but if that’s not a problem, then you can watch it here: http://videos.next-up.org/France3/Hors_Serie_Mauvaises_Ondes/16_05_2011.html ). Unfortunately the journalist is very biased and has already made up her mind that electromagnetic waves are bad, and there are several cases of unconvincing anecdotal evidence. However, there are a couple of interesting bits – the most worrying being a study showing how certain brain tumours are 2x more common on the side of your head that you use your cellphone. This is probably the nearest one could get to a perfectly single-variable study. However, given the overall tone of the documentary, I must admit it’s possible that the reporter has talked to 30 scientists and just shown the one guy whose data (perhaps by chance) supported her thesis. Still, food for thought.

  12. Amalia Defrance says:

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