Do mobile phones cause cancer?
Research so far shows that it is unlikely mobile phones could increase the risk of brain tumours or other types of cancer. But we still need to know more about any potential long-term effects.
What’s the evidence?
The use of mobile phones has skyrocketed over recent decades. If mobile phones increase the risk of brain tumours, more and more people should now be developing them. Between the 1990s and 2016, mobile phone ownership in the UK increased by around 500% but the brain tumour incidence rate only increased by around 34%. And the increase in diagnoses is mainly due to better detection and reporting of brain tumours. So we haven’t seen an increase in brain tumour rates to match the increase in mobile phone use.
In 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) looked at all the research and classified mobile phones as a ‘possible cause of cancer’ (group 2B). They felt there wasn’t enough evidence to come to a clear conclusion. Some studies have seen a link between mobile phone use and some types of brain cancer. But the largest studies, which are generally more reliable than smaller ones, have shown no link with any type of cancer.
There still aren't any good explanations for how mobile phones could cause cancer. The radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation they transmit and receive is very weak. This radiation does not have enough energy to damage DNA, and cannot directly cause cancer.
We will keep looking for any new evidence. A big UK study of over 100,000 people has been set up, following healthy people to see if mobile phone use affects their cancer risk. The researchers need to follow people for a long period of time to see if there are any effects, but we should see the first results from this in the next decade.
What about phone masts, base stations and wi-fi?
In 2012 an independent report concluded that there is no convincing evidence that being exposed to radiofrequency fields, including those from mobile phones, masts and base stations within the guidelines could affect somebody's health.
The UK follows a set of international safety standards, which restrict the amount of electromagnetic radiation people can be exposed to. The exposure you would get from a base station is usually at least a hundred times below international guidelines.
There’s no good evidence that wireless internet (wi-fi) could cause cancer. There has been some media speculation that wi-fi could cause cancer but this isn’t supported by evidence. Like mobile phones, Wi-Fi uses radiowaves to send information. The radio waves produced by Wi-Fi are very low power, much lower than those given off by mobile phones, and well within international guidelines.
If you’d like to know more, you can read the Government recommendations in full at the NHS website.
Do powerlines cause cancer?
There is little strong evidence to link power lines to cancer. Some studies have suggested a link between magnetic fields given off by powerlines and childhood leukaemia, but the evidence is not convincing.
Power lines emit a type of radiation called extremely low-frequency electro-magnetic fields (EMFs). There isn't a good explanation for how these magnetic fields could cause leukaemia. Laboratory studies don't support a link and the results from individual studies looking at the effects in people are variable.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) evaluated the evidence in 2002 and concluded it was a 'possible' cause of childhood leukaemia (group 2B). There was not enough evidence to come to a clear decision. This was supported by a separate review by the World Health Organisation, who found no significant health issues at levels the general public is exposed to.
In 2018, a large international study of study of overhead power lines and child leukaemia found no association. This was true even for children living within 50m of a power line.
And a 2015 UK-wide study looking at exposure to electromagnetic fields from underground cables (rather than overhead power lines) found no link between distance from underground cables and childhood cancer.
Even if the link seen in some studies is a real effect, the impact would be small as very few people are exposed to high levels. And the evidence shows that there is no noticeable increase in risk for the lower levels of magnetic fields that most people are exposed to.
For more information about power lines, EMFs and cancer, visit the Public Health England website.
International Agency for Research on Cancer. Non-Ionizing Radiation, Part 2: radiofrequency electromagnetic fields. IARC Monogr - Vol 102. 2013.
International Agency for Research on Cancer. Non-Ionizing Radiation, Part 1: Static and Extremely Low-Frequency (ELF) Electric and Magnetic Fields. IARC Monogr - Vol 80. 2002.
Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation (AGNIR). Comprehensive review on mobile phone technologies finds no solid evidence of health effects. Heal Prot Agency. 2012;(accessed August 2016).
Amoon AT, Crespi CM, Ahlbom A, et al. Proximity to overhead power lines and childhood leukaemia: an international pooled analysis. Br J Cancer. May 2018:1. doi:10.1038/s41416-018-0097-7
Bunch KJ, Swanson J, Vincent TJ, Murphy MFG. Magnetic fields and childhood cancer: an epidemiological investigation of the effects of high-voltage underground cables. J Radiol Prot. 2015;35(3):695-705. doi:10.1088/0952-4746/35/3/695