New research questions the link between brain cancer and mobile phone use.

At work, on the train, out for dinner, before bed and even on the toilet; it seems we can’t go anywhere without our phones anymore.

Which is why we all go into meltdown when we’re told this constant exposure is damaging our health and increases our risk of brain cancer.

So how worried should we really be? According to a new study on the topic by the University of Sydney published in Cancer Epidemiology, you can sleep easy. (Watch: Talking of mobile phones – remember Adele’s flip phone? Post continues after video.) 

Is there a link?

Investigating the claims purported by media and speakers such as Devra Davis, the researchers sought to answer one question; has the incidence of brain cancer risen in Australia since the introduction of mobile phones 29 years ago?

The results were surprising. Examining the association between age and gender-specific incidence rates of 19,858 men and 14,222 women diagnosed with brain cancer in Australia between 1982-2012, and national mobile phone usage data from 1987-2012, they found that brain cancer incidence rates had risen “only slightly” in males but had remained stable over the past 30 years for females.

“Looking at every different age group that we examined, all of the age groups bar one had flat line incidence of cancer meaning that it wasn’t going up or down but had remained straight. These results continue from the era prior to mobile phones being available in Australia,” lead researcher Emeritus Professor Simon Chapman told Mamamia.


Mobile phones were quickly adopted. Just ask Michael Douglas in Wall Street (1987). Image: 20th Century Fox

"So what was causing brain cancer before mobile phones is still causing brain cancer today."

Possible explanations.

The only age group that reported a rise in brain cancer incidence was those aged 70 plus - and that rise also commenced before mobile phones became widely available in 1987.

"It's not an explanation or link. That's almost certainly due to improvements in diagnostic technologies such as CAT scans which also came in around the same time," says Professor Chapman.

The fact that cancer is a notifiable disease - meaning that every diagnosis has to be reported to a registry - meant that the team were working with a nearly perfect data set.

Australia is now the fifth country to report the same results showing no link between mobile phone usage and brain cancer incidence. The others include the USA, England and Nordic countries.  (Post continues after gallery.)

So why are we still hearing so much that says otherwise?

Many claim that is still 'too soon' to really know the damage mobile phones are doing.

"The area of objection for a lot of people is '20 years is too early to know. In fact, it's nearer to 30 years we've had mobile phones and even in the early years there was rapid adoption, with 40 per cent of the community using them within five years of being available," says Professor Chapman.

"We've had millions of people using mobiles for over 20 years. Those people who argue that is too soon to know believe that we'll see no rise in brain cancer and then in a few more years there will be a sudden leap and they can jump up and say 'See! I told you!'.

"You'd never rule anything out, but if there was going to be an effect it would be almost unimaginable that we wouldn't see a rise now."

Has this happened before?

He points to smoking as the most obviously parallel, with the effects of the uptake of smoking delayed.


"You typically see a peak of incidence of lung cancer 30 to 40 years later. With brain cancer we're not seeing that rise at all."

Image: iStock

"Historically there has always been a minority of people who are risk phobic of new technologies. You can still find articles from the late 19th century about the dangers of the telephone! And we've seen similar scares about TV sets when they first arrived in Australia in the 1950s, electric blankets, microwave ovens, computer screens and of course wind turbines," he says.

"The same sort of people [who worry about mobile phones] try to spread panic will also say WiFi, smart meters - anything which emits electromagnetic radiation. Again, if it was going to be a problem, we're not seeing it yet."

Still not convinced?

Still a little worried about sleeping near your phone or storing it close to your body? Chapman has some advice.

"If you're worried about brain cancer, there's no evidence using it is going to make any difference. Lots of people use them very often and there's no justification to link the two with the evidence we have so far. But for those people who are never satisfied, there is the hands free option," he says.

While it'll be interesting to see what other research will come out around this topic, we could all probably do with less time looking at our screens. It's up to you; go forth with a digital detox or keep on scrolling as you please.

Do you think you use your phone too much?

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