The question of whether cell phones emit a dangerous amount of radiation has been debated for years. On December 13, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) joined this debate by releasing guidelines on how to avoid exposure to radio frequency energy from cell phones.
The decision to release these cell phone usage guidelines has roots dating all the way back to 2010. That’s when health professionals at the CDPH first began drafting a document on cellphones and health that included the results of studies into the effects of cell phone usage.
In 2014, UC Berkeley professor Joel Moskowitz got wind of this as-yet-unpublished document and submitted a public records request to see it. In 2016, he filed a lawsuit in an attempt to force the department to release it.
The CDPH finally released a draft of the document in March 2017, and the department’s newly released cell phone usage guidelines are an updated version of that draft.
At first glance, the fact that the CDPH is issuing these cell phone usage guidelines might suggest that there’s new data that concludes that cell phone emissions are harmful, but that’s not the case. In fact, the document itself states that studies “do not establish the link definitely,” and some members of the scientific community question Moskowitz’s intentions in pushing for its release.
One such critic, epidemiologist Geoffrey Kabat, suggests that Moskowitz has “either no interest or no ability” to evaluate the studies referenced in the cell phone usage guidelines, placing him amongst a group of public figures who are overly eager to publicize scientific research that backs up their position.
“There is a vibrant movement afoot in biomedicine and epidemiology to hold research to a higher standard, to be more critical of what gets published,” Kabat told Futurism. “But these people merely want to use those results that justify their claim to be saving us from a ubiquitous danger.”
Even the CDPH’s director, Karen Smith, asserts the guidelines aren’t intended to present any new information. “This is a response to concerns that have been expressed to us, over and over again, by the general public,” she told The Huffington Post. “Our response is, if you have a concern, here are some very practical things you can do.”
Ultimately, Kabat believes the CDPH’s new guidelines will do more harm than good.
“I do think that the guidelines are likely to cause unnecessary confusion and alarm,” he told Futurism. “We know that people don’t pick up on the subtle qualifications or the statement that a threat has not be established. What they pick up on is that their cell phone may be putting out dangerous radiation that is possibly harming them and their children.”
Kabat suggests that part of the document’s capacity to instill panic can be attributed to its use of the word “radiation,” which naturally conjures up thoughts of X-rays and nuclear fallout. However, wireless devices use microwaves, a far different and far less harmful type of radiation.
“It would be okay to use the word if the distinction is made clearly for the public,” said Kabat. “But in order to avoid the ‘R-word,’ I think it may be better to speak of ‘cell phone emissions.’”
While studies have yet to prove cell phone usage adversely affects health, that won’t stop people from worrying that it does. To that end, there’s obviously no harm in following the CDPH’s guidelines, which include such suggestions as not sleeping next to your device and keeping it in a bag rather than a pocket.
However, it’s important to remember that the department’s decision to issue this advice does not indicate the emergence of any new data pointing to potential dangers.