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Cell phone radiation

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.”


  • Stan Wen

    This article is junk. Just look at the first line:
    “High exposures to electromagnetic frequencies can double the rates of childhood leukemia, the World Health Organization states.”
    This FAILs to delineate the important distinction (found in the Nat’l Cancer Inst. link) between ionizing radiation and non-ionizing radiation. Want to lump in heat coming from your oven to gamma rays?

    Also the statement that “radiofrequency waves, a form of electromagnetic radiation that’s been classified as a possible human carcinogen.” is like saying that beta-carotene prevents cancer. Yeah, maybe, but just one thing — all the evidence is against it.

    “Even if data is lacking, you never know.” Yeah I never know when aliens are coming to kidnap my thoughts and use them for galactic party favors, but I’m not wearing a tinfoil hat yet.

  • Ann

    In the early nineties, I used a cell phone while working “Home health” job. There was lots of travel and commu ication with the office. In 1996 I was diagnosed with a malignant brain
    tumor. I always wondered if radiation from the cell phone could have caused this.

  • Will Green

    Adding to @StanWen’s comments above:
    “a Cell phone produces about the same frequency of electromagnetic radiation as a microwave oven…”

    Ehh, no. In the US, Cell Phones operate around 700 MHz, 800 MHz, 1.8 GHz, 1.9 GHz, and 2.1 GHz – mostly around 800 MHz and 1.9 GHz. T-Mobile is the only major user of the “AWS Band” at 2.1 GHz, as far as I’m aware. Microwaves emit RF around 2.4 GHz – comparing the tissue penetration of RF at 800 MHz or 1.9 GHz and 2.4 GHz is akin to saying that two people standing at opposite ends of a soccer field are standing right next to each other.

    Furthermore, Microwaves kick out anywhere from 100-1000 Watts of RF energy. GSM cellphones (used by AT&T and T-Mobile, and most international networks) kick out a maximum of 2 watts. CDMA phones (Verizon and Sprint) have a max output of 1 watt. For the phones to actually put out that amount of energy, they’d have to be at the very edge of a cell (think 1 ‘bar’) in a rural area, where cells cover a very large area. In an urban or suburban environment, you’re going to get no where near that power level, and that’s assuming the phone has the actual capability to kick out that amount of power.

    And while the WHO has said that high exposures to RF can cause higher childhood leukemia rates, it was studying frequencies in the ELF range, roughly 0-100 Hz, which is the range where power grids operate. Again, Microwaves run at around 2.4 Ghz – that’s 2,400,000,000 Hz – an increase in frequency of about 4799999900%. To use my earlier soccer field analogy again, this is like saying two people standing in Tibet and New York are right next to each other. Comparing the two doesn’t make any sense, at all.

    In fact, the WHO study linked in the article was looking at the effects of exposure to the strong magnetic fields found around high-voltage power lines – fields with a strength of around 0.3μT (micro Teslas – for reference, a refrigerator magnet produces about 5 mT of magnetic energy). And, the study ultimately concludes that “if ELF magnetic fields actually do increase the risk of the disease, when considered in a global context, the impact on public health of ELF EMF exposure would be limited.”

    But, that doesn’t matter, because the study isn’t even relevant to the issue of Cell Phone RF exposure and cancer.

    A better study to look at would be the INTERPHONE study, which looked at brain cancer cases in 13 different countries, seeking to identify a link between those cases and cell phone use. The conclusion? “Overall, no increase in risk of glioma or meningioma [A/N: the two most common types of brain cancer] was observed with use of mobile phones. There were suggestions of an increased risk of glioma at the highest exposure levels, but biases and error prevent a causal interpretation. The possible effects of long-term heavy use of mobile phones require further investigation.” (source:

    In other words, there’s no sign of any link between brain cancer and cell phone usage, though more studies should be done to confirm INTERPHONE’s results.

  • david morrison

    the interphone study did in fact confirm a 40% increase in brain tumor formation with heavy use. the study which was based on 1/2 hour per day use, did not include children or certain types of brain tumors and relied on other factors that were not easily confirmed during or after the study. it was funded in part by industry so the bias was innate. it depends on who reported the study but an excellent analysis of the study can be found at:

  • AJP

    To all you who are healthy…and to anyone who may now not be very healthy…SMOKE WEED, see if it doesn’t make your life any better.

    Try also: meeting your friends for coffee…instead of chatting away with them on the phone behind the f*ing steering wheel.

    If your job requires you to be all over your cell phone like salad dressing, sucks for you…that’s just my opinion.

    My suggestion to humanity: get back to basics, relax for god’s sake, don’t chase after money and gossip like it’s water, & limit your cell phone use to emergencies and charitable giving (e.g., Haiti crisis).

  • MMM

    @AJP – you are awesome! :)

  • Carlos Williams

    I have had a cell phone for a long time. But from around march 2009 until around Dec. I was talking on it everyday all day. Since then… my head has not felt the same. The explainable difference now is “I cring when I run across a long article or chapter. Talking on the phone has slightly made reading annoying however thirsty for info i maybe.” There is a slight tension in my neck as well. I( don’t know if it is the cell phone but I never felt this way until I was on the phone with that girl in atlanta for about 10 or 11 months almost everyday for hours ( like 5 hours a day) or more.

  • m meade

    Where is Frontline when you need them? This is an issue that needs a good, thorough expose’. I’m glad to see PBS has at least dipped a toe in the water. Okay, now go all the way. There are so many dots to connect, and Frontline could do it. The picture that emerges will not be pretty. Your friendly telecom has been war gaming scientists and precaution advocates, and misleading you. It’s time for their come-uppance.

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  • Claudia Jimena Sainz de Zenten

    I read that the cell phones emit a dangerous non-ionizing form of electromagnetic radiation; radiation which can be absorbed by the tissues and cells which come into close contact with the phone. That’s why I decided to do something that reduce cell phone radiation levels for protect to my family. Right when I lost all hope, I came across WIRED magazine and found a review of Pong Research cases. After seeing the great feedback on their products, I bought one and it finally put an end to the problem.