Do You Really Need to Worry About Your Cell Phone?

Deborah deMoulpied

“Worry” might be too strong a word to describe your uneasiness. However, some concern may in fact be warranted depending on how you use your cell phone.  At issue is the effect of electromagnetic fields on the human body.

Like many devices, cell phones produce electromagnetic fields (EMFs). In fact, anything using electricity makes EMFs. For a device to produce EMFs,  the current must be flowing and the device must be “on”. 

For example, devices we use every day–such as the TV, computer, microwave, vacuum, washing machine, lights, hair dryers–all emit EMFs when running. But we’ve been living with electricity for over a hundred years–why are EMFs now suddenly emerging as a potential problem? It’s because until recently, the devices we use that emit EMFs were not typically placed right next to our body, like cell phones usually are. Therein lies the problem. 

Distance is your best friend when it comes to reducing any hazards posed by EMFs. As distance from the object increases, the radiofrequency waves, measured in hertz (Hz), decrease exponentially. The human body absorbs the energy from these waves, and the less energy absorbed, the better. If radiofrequency radiation (the type of EMF emitted by cell phones) is absorbed in large enough amounts, it can produce heat.

Most of us have felt this heat against our skin or head when using a cell phone, or the heat from our computer when it’s on our lap. That is your body absorbing the radiofrequency energy and heating up. The question is … is that a bad thing?

Scientists have been studying this question for many years. Most of the research on cell phones and cancer are observational type studies, looking for potential associations. After all, we can’t do experiments on humans. The results are very mixed, and many are inconclusive. Some of the studies are funded by the cell phone industry, which can skew any reviews of previous research. Also, 5G has had no health risk studies to date. 

But in 2018, the National Toxicology Program (NTP) published results on radiofrequency exposure experiments done on animals. They did find some evidence of tumors in the hearts, brains, and adrenal glands in male rats. NTP scientists found that radiofrequency exposure was associated with an increase in DNA damage. Keep in mind the NTP study used 2G and 3G while today’s 4G and the newest 5G cell phones have more power output, creating even more radiation exposure. However, EWG recently released a peer-reviewed study on the impact of wireless radiation exposure on children

In 2011, the World Health Organization, or WHO, classified radiofrequency EMFs as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”, with particular concern of an increased risk of glioma brain tumors. 

So back to the question – is this a bad thing? Not to sound wishy-washy, but the answer is “maybe”, since the scientific evidence is not definitive. 

So what’s a cell phone user to do?  When the data is uncertain, the Anticancer Lifestyle Program recommends applying the Precautionary Principle, which, simply put, means “better safe than sorry.”. The good news is that because distance is the reliable friend in this situation, simple lifestyle changes can make a big difference. The most important thing to remember is to avoid keeping the cell phone pressed against any part of your body for any length of time. It’s important for women to not carry a cell phone under a bra strap and for men to not carry their cell phone in the pants pockets. You should never feel the warmth emitted by your cell phone. 

Here are some additional precautions you can take:

  • Limit the number and length of calls you make.
  • Go hands-free, using headsets or Bluetooth, or speaker phone.
  • Text message or use speech to text.
  • Avoid carrying your cell phone anywhere close to your body unless it is totally turned off.
  • If speaking with your phone pressed against your ear, alternate sides of your head.
  • At night, keep your cell phone away from you, certainly not under your pillow.
  • Use your cell phone when signal strength is strongest, so your phone does not work harder (and emit more EMFs as a result).
  • Limit the amount of time children use a cell phone as their brains are more susceptible to EMFs.
  • Using Airplane mode and turning off WIFI eliminates EMF activity, since your phone is not “searching” for a signal. (In terms of WIFI, you need to turn it off on your phone. Turning off your modem won’t make a difference, since your phone will still be “searching” for a signal.)
  • If you do hold your phone near your head, be sure it’s at least 1 inch from your ear, no less.

These practices will reduce your exposure to EMFs and any concern that cell phones may pose a threat to your health. 

For more information about EMFs and cell phones, check out the Anticancer Lifestyle Program online course under the Environment Module, Segment 11. Also, the Toolkit section of our website offers additional resources.

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