Sheryl Crow was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor called meningioma in 2011, and suspects that her cell phone use caused it. Crow told Katie Couric on her new talk show Katie, “There are no doctors that will confirm that . . . . [But] I [used to spend] hours on the old archaic cell phones.” Crow also disclosed that the tumor is near where she often held her phone. While there is no definitive conclusion that cell phone radiation can cause a brain tumor, increasing scientific evidence supports Crow’s suspicions.
In May 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified radio frequency (RF) radiation from cell phones as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” The WHO made the decision after reviewing numerous studies on this subject, including the Interphone Study—a large, international study coordinated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and completed in February 2012. It showed an increased risk of a certain type of brain tumor, called glioma, from “heavy” use of cell phones—defined in the study as just 1,640 hours of lifetime cell phone use. The Interphone Study also investigated the association between cell phone radiation and meningioma, the very kind of brain tumor that Crow suffers. Although the study broadly concluded that “overall, no increase in risk of either glioma or meningioma was observed in association with use of mobile phones,” its categorized results revealed a nearly 4 times increase in the risk of meningioma for short-term heavy users  who used cell phones primarily on one side of the head . Crow’s comments indicate that she likely qualifies for the category of users with increased risk.
But the risks may be even higher than the Interphone Study indicates. According to the International Electromagnetic Field (EMF) Collaborative, “The [Interphone] study’s design results in serious underestimation of risk of brain cancer.” Lloyd Morgan of the University of California at Berkeley, the lead author of the EMF Collaborative report, states in Cellphone and Brain Tumors – 15 Reasons for Concern, Science, Spin and the Truth Behind Interphone : “Risk was also not broken down by gender, which may have obfuscated even higher risk for meningioma in women.” Over 40 leading scientists worldwide endorsed this conclusion. The 2010 annual report of the Bioelectromagnetics Society conference meeting  re-analyzed the Interphone Study’s results to correct for such systemic underestimation. Morgan noted, “In one Interphone study , the published Interphone results found virtually no increased risk of meningioma. But when our correction factor was applied, not only was risk of meningioma found, but for every year of cell phone use, a person’s risk of meningioma increases by 24%. For every 100 hours of cell phone use there was a 26% increased risk of meningioma, a tumor of the lining of the brain, the meninges.” If Morgan is correct, Crow and other “heavy” users may be subject to an even higher risk of meningioma than the Interphone Study indicates.
Even if the Interphone Study’s results remain inconclusive, a 2011 study by leading brain imaging researcher Nora D. Volkow, MD et al.—one funded by the US government— has clearly demonstrated that cell phone use does affect users’ brains. Published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the study demonstrated that just 50 minutes of cell phone exposure increased brain glucose metabolism in the region of brain closest to the phone antenna. The exact health consequences of that effect are still unknown. But the study undoubtedly demonstrated that cell phone radiation at non-thermal levels does cause biological changes to the brain, as the radiation exposure involved was only 0.901 W/kg on the Specific Absorption Rate or “SAR” scale—well under the SAR limit of 1.6 W/kg for cell phones  established by the Federal Communications Commission. When glucose metabolism goes up, it activates cells. Many scientists believe this phenomenon may provide insight into the biochemical processes leading to increased incidence of brain tumors in heavy cell phone users.
Dr. Ronald Herberman, former Director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, says: “We know that increased glucose also occurs with infections and other inflammatory processes, and leads to the production of potentially damaging reactive oxygen radicals that can alter the ways that cells and genes work . . . . We need to develop a better understanding of how radiofrequency radiation might contribute to increased risk for brain tumors as well as other alterations in brain functions.”
The debate over the health effects of wireless radiation will no doubt rage on for years, and it may be decades before scientific certainty is achieved. But this much is certain now: Ms. Crow’s theory on the origins of her cancer has scientific support. One cannot, however, support the notion that cell phones are “safe” to any degree of scientific certainty.
1. The INTERPHONE Study Group, Brain tumour risk in relation to mobile telephone use: results of the INTERPHONE international case-control study, Int J Epidemiol 2010; 39:675–694.
2. L. Lloyd Morgan et al, Cellphones and Brain Tumors – 15 Reasons for Concern – Science, Spin and the Truth Behind Interphone, August 25, 2009.
3. L. Lloyd Morgan, Michael Kundi, and Michael Carlberg, Re-evaluation of the Interphone Study: Application of a Correction Factor, 2010.
4. Lahkola et al, Meningioma and mobile phone use–a collaborative case-control study in five North European countries, Int J Epidemiol. 2008 Dec; 37(6): 1304-13. Epub 2008 Aug 2.
5. Volkow et al., Effects of Cell Phone Radiofrequency Signal Exposure on Brain Glucose Metabolism, JAMA, February 23, 2011, Vol 305, No. 8: 808-813.
Dr. Rong Wang is Chief Science Officer of Pong Research Corporation. She received her PhD in Nuclear Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, including a joint degree from Harvard University in Health Sciences and Technology. She is a specialist in radiation biology, and focused her doctoral dissertation on human cellular responses to radiation. She also earned two bachelor’s degrees in Physics Engineering and Economics from Tsinghua University in China. Before joining Pong, she spent 5 years with Nonlinear Ion Dynamics (an applied physics laboratory) in Los Angeles where she served as Project Manager, Senior Scientist and Vice President.