Article excerpt from Consumer Reports Sept 28, 2015
In May 2015, a group of 190 independent scientists from 39 countries, who in total have written more than 2,000 papers on the topic, called on the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and national governments to develop stricter controls on cell-phone radiation. They point to growing research—as well as the classification of cell-phone radiation as a possible carcinogen in 2011 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the WHO—suggesting that the low levels of radiation from cell phones could have potentially cancer-causing effects.
“I think the overall evidence that wireless radiation might cause adverse health effects is now strong enough that it’s almost unjustifiable for government agencies and scientists not to be alerting the public to the potential hazards,” says David O. Carpenter, M.D., director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany in New York and one of the authors of the recent letter to the U.N. and WHO.
Some countries have taken steps to protect users, at least when it comes to children. For example, France, Russia, the U.K., and Zambia have either banned ads that promote phones’ sale to or use by children, or issued cautions for use by children.
The city council of Berkeley, Calif., has also acted. In May 2015, it approved a “Right to Know” law that requires electronics retailers to notify consumers about the proper handling of cell phones. CTIA-The Wireless Association, a trade group, is now trying to block that law from going into effect, as it successfully did after San Francisco passed its own Right to Know law five years ago.
Your phone sends radiofrequency, or RF, waves from its antenna to nearby cell towers, and receives RF waves to its antenna from cell towers when you make a call or text or use data. The frequency of a cell phone’s RF waves falls between those emitted by FM radios and those from microwave ovens, all of which are considered “non-ionizing” forms of radiation. That means that—unlike radiation from a nuclear explosion, a CT scan, or a standard X-ray—the radiation from your phone does not carry enough energy to directly break or alter your DNA, which is one way that cancer can occur. (FM radios and microwaves don’t raise alarms, in part because they aren’t held close to your head when in use and because microwave ovens have shielding that offers protection.)
How Could the Radiation From Cell Phones Cause Cancer?
In 2011, researchers at the National Institutes of Health showed that low-level radiation from an activated cell phone held close to a human head could change the way certain brain cells functioned, even without raising body temperature. The study did not prove that the effect on brain cells was dangerous, only that radiation from cell phones could have a direct effect on human tissue.
RF waves from cell phones have also been shown to produce “stress” proteins in human cells, according to research from Martin Blank, Ph.D., a special lecturer in the department of physiology and cellular biophysics at Columbia University and another signer of the recent letter to the WHO and U.N. “These proteins are used for protection,” Blank says. “The cell is saying that RF is bad for me and it has to do something about it.”
And just this year, a German study found that RF waves promoted the growth of brain tumors in mice, again at radiation levels supposedly too low to raise body temperature. The U.S. National Toxicology Program is now running an animal study of its own, exposing rats and mice to low-dose radiation. Results are expected in 2016.
What Do Cancer Studies in Human Populations Show?
Three studies—one from Sweden, another from France, and a third that combined data from 13 countries—suggest a connection between heavy cell-phone use and gliomas, tumors that are usually cancerous and often deadly. One of those studies also hinted at a link between cell phones and acoustic neuromas (noncancerous tumors), and two studies hinted at meningiomas, a relatively common but usually not deadly brain tumor.
Though those findings are worrisome, none of the studies can prove a connection between cell phones and brain cancer, for several reasons. For one thing, cell-phone use in certain studies was self-reported, so it may not be accurate.
In addition, the findings might be influenced by the fact that the study subjects owned cell phones that were in some cases manufactured two decades ago. The way we use cell phones and the networks they’re operated on have also changed since then. Last, cancer can develop slowly over decades, yet the studies have analyzed data over only about a five- to 20-year span.
Are Today’s Phones Safer?
Cell phone designs have changed a lot since the studies described above were completed. For example, the antennas—where most of the radiation from cell phones is emitted—are no longer located outside of phones near the top, closest to your brain when you talk, but are inside the phone, and they can be toward the bottom. As a result, the antenna may not be held against your head when you’re on the phone. That’s important because when it comes to cell-phone radiation, every millimeter counts: The strength of exposure drops dramatically as the distance from your body increases.
So Should I Stop Using My Cell Phone?
“The evidence so far doesn’t prove that cell phones cause cancer, and we definitely need more and better research,” says Michael Hansen, Ph.D., a senior scientist at Consumer Reports. “But we feel that the research does raise enough questions that taking some common-sense precautions when using your cell phone can make sense.” Specifically, CR recommends these steps:
Try to keep the phone away from your head and body. That is particularly important when the cellular signal is weak—when your phone has only one bar, for example—because phones may increase their power then to compensate.
Text or video call when possible.
When speaking, use the speaker phone on your device or a hands-free headset.
Don’t stow your phone in your pants or shirt pocket. Instead, carry it in a bag or use a belt clip.
A few more tips from Chris
I think the precautionary principle is important, and I’ve followed all of the advice above for years. When I’m out and about, and my phone is in my pocket, I often put it on airplane mode, which disables the cell phone signal. If I’m expecting a call, and my phone is on, I periodically switch back and forth between front and back pockets, and sometimes I hold it in my hand instead. And although I don’t always wear them, cargo shorts/pants have lower leg pockets, which keeps the phone further away from my you-know-whats.
One more thing CR should have mentioned. Ladies, don’t store your phone in your bra!
For further information on the impact that EMFs and radiation can have on your health, read my post Is electropollution making you sick?