How "Safe" is your Cellphone?

As mobile phone usage has been tipped into mainstream culture, smartphone manufacturers race to outdo each other each year. They roll out new designs and specifications to lure users to upgrade and avail their products. Innovation after innovation changed the game of the industry. However, no matter how advanced smartphones are, one thing does not change: the high levels of radiofrequency energy they emit. This radiofrequency energy is a type of non-ionizing radiation that can be absorbed by our tissues when our body is in close proximity with handheld devices such as smartphones.

Understanding Cell Phone Radiation

Varying factors influence the amount of radiofrequency energy a mobile phone user is exposed to. These include (a) technology of the phone; (b) distance between the phone and its user; (c) distance between users and cell phone towers; and (d) reception of the device. Nonetheless, we are surrounded by electromagnetic radiation every day: your visible light, X-rays, microwaves, and ultraviolet light.

It is the high-frequency, short wavelength radiation, such as X-rays or gamma rays, that can tinker DNA and are linked to cancer. These are small waves that carry enough energy to knock electrons off atoms; thereby, ionizing them. Mobile phones use radio waves to communicate with cell towers. Radio waves have longer wavelengths which means they are not totally capable of causing the break of chemical bonds and the ionization in the human body. However, it is not conclusive whether cell phone radiation is safe for humans. The International Agency for Research on Cancer characterizes electromagnetic fields produced by mobile phones as possibly carcinogenic to humans. Moreover, The Journal of Radiology Nursing claims that while exposure to radiation is unlikely to cause cancer, prolonged exposure increases the risk of developing cancer over time.

Alasdair Philips, a scientist from the United Kingdom, also warned that while modern cell phones emit less frequency, they are still hazardous especially in areas where the reception is poor. He added, “You should download material, rather than stream it, since streaming emits more radiation. And you should not use ear buds, since these fit deeply inside the ear.”

Researches On Cell Phone Radiation

There have been a multitude of epidemiologic studies that aim to establish the connection between cell phone usage and malignant and benign tumors.

The World Health Organization (WHO) weighs in on the issue. WHO established the International Electromagnetic Fields (EMF) Project in 1996 which scrutinized the adverse health effects from electromagnetic fields. In 2010, the “Interphone Study” was initiated and found an 80% increase in brain tumors among heavy cell phone users. Subsequently, in 2011, a specialized WHO agency -- the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) -- reviewed the carcinogenic potential of radiofrequency fields. To the surprise of many, WHO classified radiofrequency from cell phones as “possibly carcinogenic,” an outlier in scientific research on the health impacts of electromagnetic radiation (EMF).

In July 2019, the Times published “5G, Don’t Fear the Frequency” in which journalist William Broad quoted David Robert Grimes’ assertion, “If phones are linked to cancer, we’d expect to see a marked uptick. Yet we do not.” However, this is inconsistent with the data from the U.K. Cancer Registry which recorded an increase in aggressive brain tumors as researched by Philips. 

The National Institutes of Health through the National Toxicology Program (NTP) and the European investigators at the Ramazzini Institute in Italy tested 3,000 and 2,500 rats respectively. The process involves administering a dose of radiation in rats and mice of both sexes with the prescribed limit by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) for public exposure from cell phones. The experiment was conducted for nine hours a day in a span of two years. As the animals grew, so did the doses received by the animals.

The study found that radiofrequency radiation exposure has biological effects relevant to carcinogenesis. This was affirmed by Jon Samet, the dean of the Colorado School of Public Health. The researchers reported heart schwannomas in male rats and carcinogens in lymph nodes, prostate, skin, lung, liver, and brain of exposed rats and mice.

The Food and Drug Administration and FCC dismissed the findings based on the alleged high doses of radiation that NTP exposed the animals. However, this was negated by Ramazzini Institute as they only exposed the rats that developed heart cancers to lower doses of radiation.

Interestingly, when Henry Lai, a University of Washington bioengineering researcher, reviewed 326 radio-frequency radiation studies published between 1990 to 2005, he found out that among the independently funded studies, 70% reported finding harmful effects while only 30% reported the same among the studies funded by industry.

Other Health Risks

A wide range of health effects have been associated with cell phone use.

  • Blood–Brain Barrier (BBB)

A study in 2009 found an increase in BBB permeability in the mammalian brain one week after exposure to the radiation from Global System for Mobile Telecommunication (GSM) 900 mobile phones. GSM is a digital network which operates at either 900 MHz or 1,800 MHz.

  • Male fertility

The jury is still out as to the effect of radiofrequency radiation to the reproductive system. However, it must be noted that sperm quality has been declining over the past decades.

Related: Radiation and Male Fertility 

  • Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (EHS)

There have been numerous reports of non-specific symptoms during and after use of mobile phones. While EHS is not a medical condition, it is prevalent.

  • Glucose metabolism

Studies are ongoing to establish the connection between brain glucose metabolism and radiofrequency. Previous researches have illustrated contrasting results. 

Effects On Children

The effects of mobile phone radiation to children is of particular concern since their nervous systems are yet to fully develop. Additionally, it goes without saying that children will grow up in a heavily digitalized world where every corner has a cell tower and cell phones are a necessity. This makes them vulnerable to even small amounts of radiofrequency radiation caused by cell phones.

Related: Increased Screen Time for Children

Government Regulations

The limitations to radiofrequency exposure were penned by FCC. However, many cell phone brands have exceeded such standards and no actions have been taken.

An article from the Chicago Tribune reported that the radiation emitted by Apple, Samsung, and Motorola were beyond the threshold set by FCC “particularly when tested close to the body.” This may be the case since the FCC permits manufacturers to administer their own Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) testing and does not verify industry claims through independent tests.

Moreover, FCC regulations can be said to be out of date. Such regulations were established in 1996 which undoubtedly do not account the recent mobile phone technologies and their effects. During the February 2019 Commerce Committee hearing on 5G, Senator Richard Blumental of Connecticut aired concerns against FCC and FDA for “failing to conduct research into the safety of 5G technology.”

Many cities took legal action and won against FCC for wrestling local control to advance 5G. For them, environmental studies must be conducted as a prerequisite for telecommunication companies. In line with this, the Environmental Health Trust challenged FCC in court for failing to update U.S. radiation guidelines and for turning a blind eye on studies that proved the hazards from low-level radiation transmitted by wireless handheld devices. 

Level Of Public Awareness

Unknown to many, cell phones emit radiofrequency radiation continually regardless if they are being actively used or not. This is because these devices connect to cell towers the moment they are turned on. As mentioned, the amount of radiation intensifies depending on the technology, distance of the device to the body and cell towers, and reception of devices.

Way Forward

There are many ways on how users can reduce their exposure to radiofrequency radiation.

  •  Avoid using cellphones for a long period. Mobile devices shall only be used for brief conversations or in case of unavailability of landline phones.
  • Refrain from making phone calls or using devices such as tablets in places with bad reception. The amount of radiation the cell phones emit is based on how strong or weak the reception is. Weaker reception means greater radiation.
  • Use wired devices or hands-free technology, such as wired headsets. This allows the user to keep a safe distance from devices; thus, thwarting the aggressive emission of radiofrequency radiation.
  • Use electromagnetic field radiation protection for cell phones, tablets, and laptops. These products provide lab tested shielding technology that can block over 99% of radiofrequency and 92% of extremely low frequency radiation.