The California Department of Public Health issued
guidelines to help people reduce their exposure to mobile
device radiation for health reasons.
Most studies that have examined links between cell
phone use and cancer rates have not found evidence that our
phone use is dangerous.
Still, there are some good reasons not to keep our
phones in our hands all the time.
Perhaps the biggest difference between life now and life a
generation ago is that we are all constantly connected to each
other and to the internet. The devices many of us use more than
any other — both
to talk on the phone and connect
to the internet — are cell phones.
So it may seem scary that the California Department of Public
Health has issued
guidelines to help people “decrease their exposure to
the radio frequency energy emitted from cell phones.” The
department said the information was intended to help people who
about health risks including brain tumors, lowered sperm
counts, and effects on learning, memory, and sleep.
Although some researchers are worried about the long-term effects
of cell-phone use, so far there’s not actually any evidence that
the radiation emitted by smartphones causes harm.
position is that there are no scientific findings that
provide a definitive answer to the question of whether cell phone
radiation causes cancer. Most large studies documenting cancer
rates haven’t found significant evidence that cell phone use
raises cancer rates or causes other negative health effects.
There are some good reasons to limit cell phone use,
What science says about cell phone radiation and health
California’s department of public health suggested that people
who want to reduce their risk of radiation exposure could take
the following steps:
- Keep the phone away from the body
- Reduce cell phone use when the signal is weak (since
searching for a signal could use more energy)
- Reduce the use of cell phones to stream audio or video, or to
download or upload large files
- Keep the phone away from the bed at night
- Remove headsets when not on a call
- Avoiding products that claim to block radio frequency energy,
since such items may actually increase your exposure
The main concern people have about cell phones is that
they emit radio-frequency (RF) energy, a type of radiation.
Researchers have long wondered whether that could pose a threat
to human health. But RF energy doesn’t cause the DNA damage that
radiation from the sun or from X-rays does,
according to the National Cancer Institute. (DNA damage is
the thing that leads to cancer.)
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies
RF energy as “possibly carcinogenic,” but almost everything
is “possibly carcinogenic,” including coffee and pickled
vegetables. It’s hard to definitively say that any substance
doesn’t cause cancer, even when we have evidence that
substances like coffee are linked with lower cancer rates.
(Out of 968 substances IARC has evaluated, the only one they’ve
concluded is “probably not carcinogenic” is a
chemical used in yoga pants and toothbrush bristles.)
Given the widespread adoption of cell phone use, scientists would
expect cancer rates to have spiked if usage was really risky. But
that hasn’t happened.
Most large scale studies looking at cancer rates don’t show
changes related to cell phone use. One study that
looked at more than 5,000 brain cancer cases in 13 countries
found no increase in risk related to phone use, though it called
for more research on the topic. Two other studies looked at close
women and more than 350,000 people in
Denmark, and found no significant increase in cancer
risk associated with cell phone use in either population.
The most recent scare on the topic came from an
unreleased study being conducted by the US National Toxicology
Program. Researchers blasted rats with full-body doses of RF
radiation (mostly at higher levels than those associated with
cell phones) from the time they were born until they were two
years old for nine hours a day. They found that some male rats
had higher tumor rates. But none of the control rats developed
brain tumors as would have been expected, and the male rats
exposed to radiation actually outlived their non-exposed
“I’m not going to stop using my mobile phone in the light of
this,” Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of applied statistics
at The Open University, said
in a statement about that study.
However, heavy phone users who want to reduce their exposure to
RF radiation in case future research reveals new risks can
consider using a headset.
No reason to panic
The California guidelines describe the science as “evolving,”
which is accurate. It’s always possible that there’s some small
increased risk scientists haven’t identified yet.
Plus, some of the recommendations could be good ideas no matter
Research shows that people (especially
children) don’t sleep as well when they have immediate access
to their phones, even if they don’t use them. So keeping your
phone away from the bed could help you sleep better.
Other research has shown that interruptions from
phone notifications impair productivity and make people more
prone to making mistakes. That means there could be other
benefits to storing your cell phone in a backpack or desk instead
of keeping it next to your body.
Furthermore, psychologists like
Sherry Turkle argue that our obsession with our phones — or
the apps on them — comes at the expense of human relationships.
That’s not a radiation issue, but it may be a good reason to
consider keeping your mobile device at arm’s length.
Beyong the threat of radiation, there are many good reasons to
continue studying how cell phones affect our lives. But
California’s new guidelines are just suggestions. And while there
may be benefits to reducing your cell phone use, there’s no
reason to panic about cancer.