That cell phone you’re carrying in your purse has been linked to brain tumors, infertility and other serious health problems. Learn how to reduce your risk...
Many of us feel like we can't live without cell phones. We use them to keep in touch with friends, check in with our kids and stay on top of email. But could these miraculous little devices make us sick in return?
In the past several years, studies have warned that phone radiation could be dangerous and even cause cancer, spurring some experts to call for safety regulations.
“It’s time to start demanding safer cell phones from manufacturers and higher safety standards from U.S. regulators – not to try and remove them from society,” says Devra Davis, Ph.D., former epidemiology professor at University of Pittsburgh and author of Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide It, and How to Protect Your Family (Penguin Group).
But many researchers and government agencies dispute the idea that these devices pose major health risks.
Could your phone really harm you? Here’s what you need to know about mobile radiation, along with tips for limiting exposure.
Radiation: A fact of wireless life
All cell phones, cordless phones and wireless computers emit radiofrequency (RF) energy, a form of electromagnetic radiation (EMR).
Very high levels of some kinds of electromagnetic energy – for example, the type you’d get from X-rays – can be harmful, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That’s because they’re considered ionizing, meaning they increase chemical activity inside your body’s cells.
But cell phones produce low levels of EMR, which are considered non-ionizing.
Most cell phone RF energy comes from its antenna, which sends and receives your voice and text messages, says Kerry Crofton, Ph.D., author of Wireless Radiation Rescue: Safeguarding Your Family from the Risks of Electro-Pollution (Global Well-Being Books, 2010).
That means the closer the antenna is to the head, the greater a person’s exposure, according to the National Cancer Institute.
The amount can change based on a variety of factors, like the strength of the phone signal. The farther you are from a cell-phone tower, the more RF energy is needed to connect the call, which results in more exposure.
And you don’t even have to be on a call to be exposed to RF energy.
“Even if your phone is on standby, its antenna still sends and receives signals with cell towers,” Crofton says.
Your phone’s radiation rating
The amount of RF energy absorbed by your body is usually measured as “specific absorption rate” (SAR), which can vary widely between devices.
Cell phones sold in the U.S. can’t have a SAR rating higher than 1.60 watts per kilogram (W/kg) of RF energy, according to FCC regulations. The newest “smart” phones often have higher SAR ratings than simpler models.
You can find your device’s SAR rating on its packaging documents and online at the Environmental Working Group website. Here are the top 10 of the EWR’s ratings, from lowest to highest:
1. Motorola Brute i680 0.86 W/kg
2. Pantech Impact 0.92 W/kg
3. Samsung Mythic (SGH-A897) 1.08 W/kg
4. Motorola CLIQ with MOTOBLUR 1.10 W/kg
5. Samsung Instinct HD (SPH-M850) 1.16 W/kg
6. Apple iPhone 3GS 1.19 W/kg
7. HTC Nexus One by Google 1.39 W/kg
8. LG Chocolate Touch (VX8575) 1.46 W/kg
9. Motorola Droid 1.50 W/kg
10. Blackberry Bold 9700 1.55 W/kg
Health risk or scare?
Several studies in recent years – though mostly on animals, and many in labs outside the U.S. – suggest we're at risk for health issues, including cancer, from exposure to low-level RF energy from cell phones.
People who had used a cell phone for more than 10 years had a slightly higher risk of a certain brain tumor, called a glioma, on the side of the head where they held their phone, according to a 2007 Swedish study published in the International Journal of Cancer.
Children and teens may be more vulnerable, in part because their smaller heads and thinner skulls may result in a more concentrated dose of radiation, according to some other overseas studies.
For example, a 2009 Israeli study published in Community Dentistry and Oral Epidemiology reported that salivary gland cancer occurs more often in patients under age 20, which researchers attributed to cell phone use. (The gland is under the ear, close to where devices are held.)
And yet, many scientists, as well as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), say that in most cases, further research hasn’t reproduced the findings. In fact, most published studies don’t link RF energy from cell phones with cancer.
Hans Schantz, Ph.D., an Alabama physicist who specializes in radiofrequency and electromagnetic energy, points out that much of the research on radiation’s impact hasn’t examined humans, but either rats or “head models” meant to approximate how the energy is absorbed.
“A head model isn’t the same as a human head,” Schantz says. “And consumers need to realize that many of these studies aren’t conducted on humans of any kind.”
In 2010, the largest cell phone study to date – a 13-nation survey called Interphone – didn’t find an increased cancer risk in most users.
But it didn’t give a perfect bill of health, either. The research showed that people who used their cell phone most – more than half an hour per day for over 10 years – were slightly more likely to develop brain cancer.
More health concerns
Meanwhile, RF energy exposure from cell phones clearly affects the body, according to the FCC.
The most common concern is “heating of tissue,” which is why your ear gets warm if you’ve been holding a cell phone to it for a long time. The radiation causes tissue molecules to vibrate faster, like the way a microwave oven cooks food.
Two areas of the body – eyes and testes – are especially vulnerable to tissue heating because there’s little blood flow in them to reduce temperature, according to the FDA.
Testicular heating – a concern for men who carry their phones in their pockets – is linked with lowered fertility in men. An increased chance of cataracts is another potential risk, although the connection hasn't been proved.
Effects on the brain are another potential concern, at least in children. A just-released Danish study of 28,000 7-year-olds found that those whose mothers regularly used mobile phones while pregnant were more likely to have behavioral problems, especially if the kids used phones themselves at an early age. However, the researchers wrote that it would be “premature” to say that the phones themselves were the cause.
Then there’s an issue that has nothing to do with radiation: Phones can cause contact dermatitis, usually due to an allergy to their nickel content, says Luz Fonacier, M.D., head of allergy and immunology at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola, N.Y., who presented the issue of “cell phone rash” to a 2010 meeting of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
If you get a rash from your phone, prevent skin contact by keeping it in a plastic cover. Since they’re notorious for harboring germs, frequently clean the screen and buttons with an antibacterial wipe.
More research needed
Davis maintains that while she can’t say cell phones are dangerous, there hasn’t been enough independent research to say they aren’t, either.
British scientists behind a massive new study by the Imperial College of London, which will track the health of 250,000 cell-phone users over 20-30 years, put it this way: “The widespread use of mobile phones is a relatively recent phenomenon. There are still significant uncertainties that can only be resolved by monitoring the health of a large [number] of phone users over a long period of time.”
How to reduce your exposure
Meanwhile, for those who take the “better safe than sorry” approach, these 10 tips can limit exposure to cell phone radiation, Crofton says.
1. Head for land. Use an old-fashioned land line phone (with a wire) when you can. Don’t have a land line at home? You may want to reconsider, Crofton says.
2. Keep your distance. Use a hands-free earpiece or your phone’s speaker mode. One caveat: Hands-free devices using Bluetooth technology also have a wireless transmitter, exposing the user to RF energy. But they emit a lower amount than cell phones, so these hands-free devices are still safer.
3. Let your fingers do the talking. Texting on your cell phone, rather than talking, also keeps the device away from your head. Just don’t text while driving.
4. Shut down. Keep your device powered off whenever you don’t need it.
5. Carry the device with the antenna facing away from you. Keep the front (or keyboard side) facing you and the back (or antenna side) facing outward, which directs radiation away from your body.
6. Keep the phone in your briefcase. To avoid testicular tissue heating, men should avoid carrying cell phones in their pant pockets (and resting laptops on their laps).
7. Skip surfing. Limit or avoid surfing the Internet using your phone, or disable its wireless function.
8. Keep it fully charged. Your cell phone has to “amp” up more if the battery is weak or reception is poor, increasing radiation emission.
9. Pass over the nightstand. Don’t leave your cell phone near your bed when you sleep. And use a battery-operated alarm clock to wake you up, instead of your phone.
10. Try an app. Companies are starting to develop phone applications that can measure radiation levels – such as Tawkon, which combines your phone’s SAR rating with information on how you use it in relation to your body. (It’s available for the BlackBerry and some Android phones, but not the iPhone.)
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