According to the National Cancer Institute, cell phones emit radiofrequency waves, a form of electromagnetic radiation that’s been classified as a possible human carcinogen. High exposures to electromagnetic frequencies can double the rates of childhood leukemia, the World Health Organization states.
Electromagnetic radiation is naturally occurring — once upon a time, the sun provided the bulk of it. Today, with technologies like television and wireless Internet, we’re being subjected to more radiation than ever. A cell phone produces about the same frequency of electromagnetic radiation as a microwave oven, but you probably don’t hold a microwave oven to the side of your head for hours at a time.
Countries like France have enacted restrictions on cell phones designed for children, yet there is no similar legislation in the U.S. With 285 million mobile phone subscribers in the U.S. in 2009 — out of a total population of 305 million — are we on the verge of a public health crisis? Studies are frustratingly contradictory on the link between mobile phone usage and brain tumors, although some have proven an increased risk of tumors on the side of the head where the phone is mainly held.
Better to be safe than sorry. Here’s how:
1. Get your phone’s SAR.
Specific absorption rate, or SAR, measures the amount of radiofrequency energy absorbed by the body. In the U.S., the maximum SAR level for a mobile phone is 1.6 watts per kilogram. See CNET’s list of the highest-radiation phones and, if you’re thinking of buying a phone with a lower SAR, those with safer radiation rates.
2. Go hands-free.
To reduce your amount of radiation exposure, use a headset or a hands-free kit for your mobile phone, says the Food and Drug Administration. Bluetooth wireless technology, used in some headsets, can decrease overall levels of SAR exposures to the head, although you should minimize contact by removing the device when you’re off the phone. See the Environmental Working Group’s more detailed run-down of wired versus wireless headsets.
3. Be quiet.
Use your cell phone for talking only for shorter periods of time, and when there’s no land line around, advises the National Cancer Institute. Not possible? Text instead of talking — texting uses less phone power than a call and therefore produces less radiation, and it’s also done away from the head.
4. Get a little distance.
The further away your phone is from your body, the less risk you have for absorbing radiation. Take precautions and don’t sleep next to your phone or carry it in your front pocket.
5. Don’t believe the hype.
Or rather, take the info with a grain of salt. The party line is that cell phones don’t necessarily cause brain tumors, but because the technology is still relatively new, long-term effects are just starting to emerge. And since there’s a long latency for brain tumors, the true danger will remain unknown for another decade or so.
A recent international study concluded that there was no existing evidence of elevated risk for brain tumors in regular cell-phone users, although it couldn’t say that no such link existed. The study also stated that further investigation is required, particularly with younger subjects. But critics say that because the study was partially funded by mobile phone companies, its results are flawed.
“The majority of studies on cell phones and human health have received funding from the telecommunications industry,” Nathaniel Rich wrote in a recent Harper’s article. “Industry-funded studies are significantly more likely than independent studies to show that cell phones are safe.”
Even if data is lacking, you never know. As Dr. Devra Davis, a professor of preventive medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, told CNN: “I’m not telling people to stop using the phone. I’m saying that I can’t tell you if cell phones are dangerous, but I can tell you that I’m not sure that they are safe.”