A healthcare provider I was working with shared with me that a friend of hers who works for a smartphone manufacturer advised her to take precautions when using her cellphone. He told her that if it were up to him, knowing the health risks cellphones pose, he would not carry a cellphone anywhere near his body.
A few days later I came across the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) guide for safer cellphone use. EWG’s mission is to provide information for people to live healthier lives and have a healthier environment (EWG, 2018). Then I found out California released guidelines to help its residents reduce exposure from radiofrequency from cellphones.
Although I have not found conclusive evidence of the damaging effects of radiation from cellphones, enough sources cautioned against using cellphones excessively. I decided to look further into it, and here’s what I found.
What Research Says
Unfortunately, most research calls for further research. It says there is some risk, but the results are inconclusive.
The National Cancer Institute at the National Institute of Health (NIH), compiled results from various studies and organizations. The website, last updated on February 16, 2018, says cellphones emit radiation, and although there is some evidence the radiation poses health risks to us, there is no evidence that the radiation leads to increased risk of developing cancer. Increased cellphone use leads to warming or heating of body tissues. Here is some other key information from the National Cancer Institute:
- The type of radiation that is concerning is ionizing radiation, such as what we get from X-rays, because that is known to cause cancer
- Devices such as cellphones, televisions, radars, microwaves, and radios emit radiation that is of low frequency, and although our bodies absorb it, there is no evidence that this type of non-ionizing radiation increases the risk of cancer
- The United States Food and Drug Administration stated that they “believe the current safety limits for cellphones are acceptable for protecting public health”
- Most studies listed did not find a link or correlation between cellphone use and an increase risk of developing cancer
- There are studies that have shown that cellphone usage is correlated with an increase of certain types of cancers, including glioma, meningioma, and acoustic neuroma. In many cases the correlation is statistically significant, but moderate. Some researchers dismissed the results, either because they considered the moderate risk was not enough to pose a significant health risk, or because they found a problem in the way the data was collected
Despite the statements from the National Cancer Institute, there are contradictory sources. The World Health Organization stated that cellphone radiation is a possible carcinogen (Burrell, n.d.). Several studies conducted in the United Kingdom and Sweden have found a link between cellphone usage and increased risk of developing glioma and acoustic neuroma (Burrell, n.d.). EWG warns that “at least six countries have issued warnings to consumers to reduce cellphone radiation exposures, especially for children” (EWG, 2018).
What is known is that cellphones can change our brain activity, how quickly we react, and how we sleep. Cellphones can also interfere with the operation of medical device implants. The biggest risk they pose is in increasing traffic and pedestrian accidents (Naeem, 2014). This last one is unrelated to radiation, but it is a risk nonetheless.
How Radiation Affects Us
Several factors affect the amount of radiation our bodies absorb from cellphones, including “the technology of the phone, the distance between the phone and the user, the extent and type of mobile phone used, and the user’s distance from the cellphone towers.” (Naeem, 2014).
We absorb more radiation when we use phones that have older technology, when we keep our phones close to our bodies, when we use our cellphones for long periods of time, particularly to make phone calls, and when we are in places where there is a large distance between our phones and the nearest cellphone tower, making our phones work harder to find a connection.
The amount of radiation we absorb also varies by the size of our bodies, where the larger we are, the less the radiation affects us. In other words, children are more susceptible to radiation from cellphones than are adults. EWG states that “young children’s brains absorb twice as much cellphone radiation as those of adults” (EWG, 2018).
What should we take from this? Simply that there is a possibility that cellphones are a risk to our health, but at this moment, we do not know for sure. It is up to us to decide how we want to use our phones. For those of us who want to take cautionary measures, see the guidelines below.
Tips for Safer Cellphone Use
EWG suggests steps we can take to protect ourselves from cellphone radiation. The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) made the same recommendations as EWG, and added a few. This is a combination of both guidelines (CDPH, n.d.; EWG, 2018):
- Limit children’s use of cellphones
- Avoid holding cellphones to our heads, and use headsets or speakers instead
- Only use headsets when on a call. Otherwise, also keep headsets off our heads
- Keep our phones away from our bodies when streaming or downloading large files
- Carry our cellphones away from our bodies, including placing them in a bag, purse, backpack, or nearby table or surface, even when making a call. A few feet can make a difference
- Text rather than call
- Avoid using our cellphones when only one or two bars are available. Use the cellphone, especially for a call, when there is a strong signal, because when the signal is weak the phone works harder and thus emits more radiation
- Avoid using cellphones while in a moving vehicle, as this will make our phones search for different cell towers. Instead, keep cellphones in airplane mode
- Avoid streaming files. Instead, download them, switch the phone to airplane mode, and then watch or listen to them
- Sleep with the phone off or in airplane mode, and keep it a few feet away from our beds
- Avoid radiation shields or products that block radiation from phones, since these weaken the signal the phone receives, making the phone work harder and ironically, making it emit more radiation
I am not surprised that there is contradictory evidence. Different people can look at the same results and come away with a different perspective. Where one person sees a risk, another person may not.
My take is that it’s best to be safe than sorry. We are exposed to so many toxins that we do not have control over. When we come across something that we can control, like how we use our cellphones, I feel it is best we take the steps necessary to protect ourselves. However, do what feels best for you.
Burrell, L. (n.d.) Do cellphones cause cancer?: understanding cellphone radiation and cancer. The Truth About Cancer. Retrieved on March 5, 2018 from https://thetruthaboutcancer.com/cell-phone-radiation-cancer/
CDPH. (n.d.). How to reduce exposure to radiofrequency energy from cellphones. California Department of Public Health. Retrieved on March 5, 2018 from https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CCDPHP/DEODC/EHIB/CDPH%20Document%20Library/Cell-Phone-Guidance.pdf
EWG (2017). About us. Environmental Working Group. Retrieved February 27, 2018 from https://www.ewg.org/about-us#.WpXqu2a-IWo
EWG (2018). EWG’s guide to safer cellphone use. Environmental Working Group. Retrieved February 27, 2018 from https://static.ewg.org/ewg-tip-sheets/EWG-CellPhoneGuide.pdf
Naeem, Z. (2014). Health risks associated with mobile phone use. International Journal of Health Sciences, 8(4), V-VI. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4350886/
National Cancer Institute. (2018). Cellphones and cancer risk. National Cancer Institue. Retrieved on March 5, 2018 from https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/radiation/cell-phones-fact-sheet