You can’t see electromagnetic fields (EMFs) and, for the most part, can’t feel them either, but if you use a cell phone, a cordless phone, or wireless Internet they are most certainly around you. EMFs are generated from all types of electronic devices, including household appliances, computers, and power lines. Cell phones and other wireless devices also emit radiofrequency (RF) energy, which is a form of non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation.
With the dramatic rise of cell phone use in the last two decades — there are now more than 303 million cell phone subscribers in the United States, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, as well as an estimated 5 billion users worldwide1 — concern has risen over their safety, or potential lack thereof.
Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer?
One of the biggest safety questions surrounding cell phone use is their potential to cause cancer, particularly in the brain and tissues near where the cell phone is held. There is much controversy on this issue, and, unfortunately, the largest study to date on this topic, known as the Interphone study, only contributed to the debate.
The Interphone study found no increased risk of brain tumor with mobile phone use of more than 10 years, but a collaboration of activists released a report, endorsed by more than 40 scientists, that stated the study was seriously flawed. The paper, Cellphones and Brain Tumors: 15 Reasons for Concern, Science, Spin and the Truth Behind Interphone,2 states:
“The design flaws include categorizing subjects who used portable phones (which emit the same microwave radiation as cellphones,) as ‘unexposed’; exclusion of many types of brain tumors; exclusion of people who had died, or were too ill to be interviewed, as a consequence of their brain tumor; and exclusion of children and young adults, who are more vulnerable.”
Further, the Interphone study did, in fact, find an increased risk of a type of brain tumor called a glioma among “heavy” users after 10 years of cell phone use. At the time of the study, the definition of “heavy” was two hours a month … which is far less than what most people use their cell phone for today.
Part of the controversy over existing cell phone/cancer research is that cancer takes time to develop … but cell phones are still a relatively new phenomenon. As the World Health Organization (WHO) states:3
“ … because many cancers are not detectable until many years after the interactions that led to the tumour, and since mobile phones were not widely used until the early 1990s, epidemiological studies at present can only assess those cancers that become evident within shorter time periods.”
Nonetheless, WHO announced in June 2011 that “mobile phones are classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as possibly carcinogenic to humans” and a formal risk assessment is ongoing. Other studies, too, have highlighted what appears to be cause for caution with cell phone use:
- A review of long-term epidemiologic data published in Surgical Neurology found that “using a cell phone for =10 years approximately doubles the risk of being diagnosed with a brain tumor on the same (“ipsilateral”) side of the head as that preferred for cell phone use.”4
- Research published in the International Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery found a “possible dose-response relationship of cellular phone use with epithelial parotid gland malignancy.”
- A review of more than 100 studies by neurosurgeon Dr. Vini Gautam Khurana concluded “there is a significant and increasing body of evidence, to date at least 8 comprehensive clinical studies internationally and one long-term meta-analysis, for a link between mobile phone usage and certain brain tumours. Taken together, the data presented … compellingly suggest that the link between mobile phones and brain tumours should no longer be regarded as a myth.”5
Are There Other Health Risks of EMFs?
Much of the research showing cell phones to be safe has been based on the fact that cell phones do not cause “thermal” effects. That is, the radiofrequency energy they emit does not heat up human tissues (the way a microwave heats up food). However, there is emerging research showing that cell phones and EMFs may pose “non-thermal” effects at lower levels of exposure.
As stated in a recent report from the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly:6
“While electrical and electromagnetic fields in certain frequency bands have fully beneficial effects which are applied in medicine, other non-ionising frequencies, be they sourced from extremely low frequencies, power lines or certain high frequency waves used in the fields of radar, telecommunications and mobile telephony, appear to have more or less potentially harmful, non-thermal, biological effects on plants, insects and animals, as well as the human body when exposed to levels that are below the official threshold values.”
The committee actually felt the evidence of harm was strong enough to recommend banning all mobile phones, DECT cordless phones and WiFi from classrooms and schools to protect children.
In fact, a range of symptoms have been reported after exposure to EMFs of all kinds, including headaches, nausea, depression, skin rashes and more, among people who say they are “electrosensitive.” Although not recognized by the medical community, people who are electrically sensitive say that exposure to the onslaught of EMFs in the modern world makes them sick.
It does appear that the true impacts of EMFs on human health are still emerging. For example, a new study found that babies born to women exposed to stronger EMFs from household appliances during pregnancy had three times the risk of asthma as babies whose mothers were only exposed to weak EMFs.7
Many Countries Already Taking Precautionary Approach to Cell Phones, EMFs
The Council of Europe is not the only organization taking a proactive stance against cell phones and other sources of EMFs. Other countries, including Canada, Germany and France, have also taken strong precautionary approaches to cell phone use. In France, for instance, the government called for mobile phones to be banned from primary schools and said manufacturers must supply phones that work only for text messaging or with a headset to reduce EMF exposure.8
In Canada, Toronto’s Department of Public Health has advised children under 8 years to use a cell phone only in emergencies, and teenagers to limit their calls to less than 10 minutes.
In the United States, however, government agencies have stopped short of such warnings, even though they do offer tips to reduce your radiofrequency exposure. As the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) states:9
“ … some parties recommend taking measures to further reduce exposure to RF energy. The FCC does not endorse the need for these practices, but provides information on some simple steps that you can take to reduce your exposure to RF energy from cell phones.”
How to Help Reduce Your Exposure to EMFs from Cell Phones
Most of you reading this are probably not ready to give up your cell phone, but you may be interested in taking precautions to reduce any potential risk. Fortunately, there are several simple strategies you can take to do this:
- Keep your phone as far away from your body as possible, as the closer it is to you the more RF energy you will absorb.
- Do not carry your cell phone in your pocket or on your belt. Store it away from your body until you need to use it.
- Use the speakerphone option or text as much as possible, rather than holding the phone to your ear. (Do not text while driving, however!)
- If the above two choices are not an option, use an earpiece or headset. As the FCC states, “While wired earpieces may conduct some energy to the head and wireless earpieces also emit a small amount of RF energy, both wired and wireless earpieces remove the greatest source of RF energy (the cell phone) from proximity to the head and thus can greatly reduce total exposure to the head.”10
- Consider limiting your child’s cell phone use. Research suggests that children, whose skulls are thinner, are most vulnerable to cell phone risks.
- Don’t use your phone when the reception is poor, as this means more radiation will be emitted to transmit the signal.
- Be aware that cordless home phones also emit EMFs. The base station of DECT cordless phones can emit a signal continuously, so you may want to locate it in an area of your home where you do not spend a lot of time (i.e., NOT in your bedroom). Alternatively, switch to a wired, non-cordless phone instead.
Finally, you may have heard about cell phones and SAR (specific absorption rate) value, which refers to the rate at which radiofrequency radiation is absorbed by tissues. A phone’s SAR value gives an indication of the maximum potential RF energy exposure from that model, however one value does not accurately gauge the average exposure during typical use, as this changes depending on usage conditions. Further, SAR value only measures the “thermal” effects of the phone, not the non-thermal effects that may also impact health.
For these reasons, a phone with a lower SAR value may not necessarily be safer than a phone with a higher one, or vice versa. So rather than relying on choosing a phone with a low SAR value, your best options for reducing your exposure to cell phone EMFs remain those listed above.
1. National Cancer Institute fact sheet, Cell Phones and Cancer Risk
2. Cellphones and Brain Tumors: 15 Reasons for Concern, Science, Spin and the Truth Behind Interphone
3. World Health Organization “Electromagnetic Fields and Public Health: Mobile Phones” June 2011
4. Surgical Neurology Volume 72, Issue 3 , Pages 205-214, September 2009
5. Mobile Phones and Brain Tumours – A Public Health Concern, Vini Gautam Khurana, 2008
6. Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly “The potential dangers of electromagnetic fields and their effect on the environment” May 6, 2011
7. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine August 1, 2011
8. Times Online May 27, 2009
9.,10. Federal Communication Commission, Wireless Devices and Health Concerns