In this post, you will find a comprehensive guide explaining everything you need to know about how cell phones work, how they emit EMF radiation, what EMF radiation is, and how to reduce your exposure to cell phone radiation. If you search the web, you will find many thousands of articles discussing this very topic. Some of these articles will only cover the basics and many of them will provide contradictory information. This is why we have compiled an educated and researched guide to understanding and reducing your exposure to EMF cell phone radiation.
The topics in this guide include:
- How do cell phones work?
- Do cell phones emit radiation?
- What exactly is cell phone radiation?
- Are cell phones and cell phone radiation dangerous?
- How does cell phone radiation affect the human body?
- Can cell phone radiation cause cancer?
- Why are there so many inconsistent findings in the studies regarding cell phone radiation risk?
- What products can I use to protect myself from cell phone radiation?
- What other things can I do to protect myself from cell phone radiation?
Combining “cell phone” with “radiation” might sound a little scary. However, the good news is that we are not carrying around in our pockets a nuclear disaster waiting to happen. While the science behind how cell phone radiation affects our bodies is still very unclear, there are many precautions we can take to protect ourselves and our families from EMF cell phone radiation.
How Do Cell Phones Work?
Before we discuss whether or not cell phones emit dangerous radiation, it is useful to understand how our cell phones actually work. Even though most people own a cell phone, it is unlikely that most people understand how their cell phone works.
First, let’s start out with some basics: how many cell phones are there in the world? The short answer is: a lot. As of 2019, there are 7.9 billion cell phone subscriptions. To put this in perspective, the current world population is 7.8 billion. This amount is both impressive and daunting. It’s impressive because technology has allowed the world to connect in ways our ancestors never thought possible but it is daunting because if cell phones truly are dangerous to our health, 7.9 billion of them equals a public health crisis. But how can we know if cell phones are dangerous if we do not understand how they work?
Cell phones work thanks to electromagnetic radio waves. In the past when we talked into our landline telephones, our voice would travel down wires until it reached its destination. The writers at a website called ExplainThatStuff! explain that it works a little differently in the modern era. Now, when we speak into the microphone of our cell phones, our voices are converted into electrical signals. These signals are converted into strings of numbers, which combine together to make a radio wave. The radio wave passes through the cell phone’s antenna, traveling at the speed of light, until it reaches the closest cell phone mast. Cell phone masts are located inside cells, which cover an area of about 10 square miles, or 26 square kilometers. Located inside a cell, you will find several masts and a central base station, or cell tower. Once the radio wave reaches the mast, the mast passes it on to the base station. The base station decides which mast it must pass through to reach its destination. These radio waves are emitted any time you make a call, send a text, or download apps and files using 2G, 3G, 4G, or 5G networks.
The radio waves are emitted from the cell phone’s antenna. When you think of antenna, you might be tempted to think of the thin, long, retractable antennas of the past. However, all cell phones and smartphones still have antennas, even if you cannot see them. Smartphones, for example, have case specific antennas. A single phone can have around seven different antennas, all of which have different functions. These antennas work together to communicate with your cell phone or Wi-Fi network. The radio waves leave your cell phone, communicate with the network, and then different radio waves return to your phone. These are the radio waves that make many people worry about the safety of cell phones.
Do Cell Phones Emit Radiation?
Why are the radio waves concerning? Well, another name for radio waves is radiofrequency (RF) radiation, a form of electromagnetic radiation. So yes, your cell phone emits radiation from its antenna. Once the radiation is emitted, the parts of our body nearest to the antenna will absorb the waves. Only the parts of our body nearest to the cell phone absorb the radiation. This is because the radiation is strongest at the source (the antenna) and its strength dissipates as it moves away.
What Exactly is Cell Phone Radiation?
According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), radiofrequency radiation is a form of non-ionizing radiation. Radiation is categorized as being either ionizing or non-ionizing based on its wavelength and frequency. These frequencies are measured in units called hertz (Hz). Ionizing radiation is characterized by high frequency and high energy, while its inverse, non-ionizing radiation, is characterized by low frequency and low energy. In other words, a higher Hz, the greater the frequency. Some examples of ionizing radiation include x-rays, gamma rays, radon, and cosmic rays. These examples make up the dangerous forms of EMF radiation. Ionizing radiation has the potential to damage DNA and cells. In addition to cell phones, televisions, radio transmissions, electrical appliances, visible light, and microwaves all emit non-ionizing radiation. As you can see, non-ionizing radiation is extremely common in the developed world today. From your bluetooth headphones, to Wi-Fi networks, to house energy smart meters, all of these devices are emitting radiation. Currently, this type of radiation has not been proven to damage DNA or cells directly in the same way that ionizing radiation can.
A source’s frequency is measured on the electromagnetic spectrum. “Electromagnetic” refers to electric and magnetic fields, or EMFs. When talking about electromagnetic radiation, you will see people use “EMF radiation” and “radiation” interchangeably. Below you will find an example of an EMF spectrum. Non-ionizing radiation sources are found on the left hand side, while ionizing radiation sources are found on the right hand side.
As you can see from the above picture, cell phones measure between 1.9 and 2.2 GHz. The most common cellular frequency is between 0.8 and 0.9 GHz. This number varies for several different reasons. For example, the frequency will change depending on whether the phone is using 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G or a wireless network. The frequency also varies based on the model of the cell phone you are using or how close you are to a cell tower. This change in frequency has been especially scrutinized in recent times due to the introduction of 5G. 5G cellular networks will be the fastest networks to date. While 5G might mean to some that they can download videos faster, to others it’s a point of concern. The 5G network uses less power than 2G and 3G networks, which are the networks used when making voice phone calls and sending texts, however, it operates at a much higher frequency. Its high frequency actually bumps it out of “radio waves” on the EMF spectrum; instead, it is considered a microwave. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission claims that using a 5G network poses the same risk as using a hair dryer. On the other hand, the 5G Appeal, a petition with over 230 signatures from scientists and doctors around the world, argues that the radiation from 5G is capable of interfering with human, animal, and plant cells.
So, now that we know what kind of radiation our phones emit, we can start to understand how dangerous it is and what it does to our bodies when we absorb it.
Are Cell Phones and Cell Phone Radiation Dangerous?
Cell phones can be dangerous in certain situations. In fact, cell phones, and more specifically distracted driving, are steadily increasing the number of fatal car accidents that take place each year. Is cell phone radiation that deadly? This is what scientists still do not know or agree on. Studies on cell phone radiation first began in the 1990s. Many of these studies investigated the possible link between cell phone use and the risk of cancer. Since then, many epidemiological studies in humans as well as animals, namely rats and mice, have been carried out or are ongoing.
It is also noteworthy to point out that in 2011 a branch of the World Health Organization (WHO) called the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified EMFs as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” Specially, EMFs are classified under Group 2B, which means that there is limited evidence that EMFs are carcinogenic to humans. This categorization is based on “an increased risk for glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer, associated with wireless phone use.” Other 2B agents listed on the WHO website include: aloe vera, gasoline, pickled vegetables, oxazepam, lead, caffeic acid, and numerous other chemical and organic compounds. This classification is not a definite link between cell phone use and cancer, but it is a warning to be cautious when using cell phones and is a call that additional research is needed.
How Does Cell Phone Radiation Affect the Human Body?
As mentioned previously, scientists are still researching and performing tests and studies to determine exactly how cell phone radiation affects us and to what degree it affects us. To make matters even more uncertain, many studies have come to different conclusions. When researching cell phone radiation, you may find that scientists are split about 50-50 on whether or not cell phone radiation is truly dangerous and a public health concern. However, what all scientists have agreed upon is that more studies must be carried out to come to a conclusion on exactly how cell phone radiation affects us. Since these studies have not happened yet, we can at least examine some of the studies of the past and see what relationship they have found between our phones and our bodies. To learn more about the relationship between cell phone radiation and cancer, please refer to the next section.
First, let us refer back to how our bodies absorb cell phone radiation. As we learned earlier, parts of our bodies closest to the phone’s antenna are able to absorb EMF radiation. If you are talking on the phone, the area absorbing the radiation includes your ear and parts of your brain. According to SafeSpace, 10% to 80% of the radiation from your phone will penetrate two inches into your brain when you hold your phone up to your ear. Children and young teens experience an even greater absorption rate due to their skulls not being fully formed yet. Some studies have shown that this radiation penetrating your brain actually has the ability to cause brain wave changes in 70% of people.
If you keep your cell phone in your pocket, or perhaps your bra, these areas will suffer the most absorption of radiation compared to the rest of your body. Because, unfortunately, even when not making calls or sending texts and emails, your phone is emitting radiation. Luckily, the radiation it emits is weaker than when making calls or downloading files, but it is emitting radiation nonetheless. Do you like your push notifications and being updated as soon as you receive an email or get a like on Instagram? This is thanks to cell phone radiation. Your phone is in constant communication, or in other words, sending and receiving radio waves from its cellular network. Stowing your phone in your pocket or bra when not using it still exposes you to cellular radiation, which has been of special concern for men and infertility. For example, several medical studies have linked cell phone radiation to decreased bone density in the pelvis, male infertility, and decreased sperm quality. In 2008, the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, in an observational study of 361 men attending an infertility clinic, found that the patients who used a cell phone most frequently had lower sperm count, motility, viability, and abnormal morphology.
Circling back to how EMF radiation can affect the brain, some writers report that cell phone radiation is associated with the following symptoms:
- Brain fog
- Mood swings
- Slurring of words
- Memory problems/loss
While there are fewer studies available that prove EMF radiation is the sole cause of these symptoms, there are other side effects associated with cell phone use that some studies have linked to cell phone radiation. One example of this is related to poor sleeping habits and the brain’s production of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland that regulates our sleep-wake cycle. One study from the University of Melbourne suggests that the pineal gland detects EMF radiation as light, which in turn, decreases melatonin production. Consistent decreases in melatonin not only disrupt your sleep patterns and poorly affect your REM sleep, but also increase the risk of breast cancer.
Other ways cell phone radiation can affect us is through tissue damage, skin irritation, and thermal heating. In fact, the only clearly established, indisputable effect EMF radiation has on the body is heating. In the same way that a microwave uses electromagnetic energy to heat your food, your cell phone heats the area of the body where it is held. Tissue damage can be a result of excessive amounts of heat if the body is not able to dissipate the heat in a timely manner. An area of the body that is particularly vulnerable to thermal heating are the eyes, since the lack of blood flow cannot protect them, which in turn can lead to premature cataracts. When you hold your phone up to your ear, the cortex (the outer layer of the brain) is also heated. Fortunately, the temperature only increases by around 0.1 degree. Electro Schematics lists the following additional side effects of thermal heating:
- Burning sensation in the scalp or ear pinna
- Lack of concentration
- Whistling sound in the ear
- Changes in the level of dopamine and serotonin hormones
Lastly, a review completed by Sabzevar University of Medical Sciences has found that “the use of mobile phones was associated with a mildly increased risk of skin problems,” such as contact dermatitis. Many of these studies have shown that “the degree of destruction caused by mobile radiation is related to the duration of exposure to radiation.” In other words, as we will discuss later on, the best way to protect yourself from cell phone radiation is to distance yourself from your phone.
Can Cell Phone Radiation Cause Cancer?
Most often, when researching the dangers of cell phone radiation, the big question is: can they cause cancer? According to the National Cancer Institute, “there is currently no consistent evidence that non-ionizing radiation increases cancer risk in humans.” The evidence that this refers to are the many epidemiological studies that have been conducted to try and find a relationship between cell phone use and the risk of the following:
- malignant (cancerous) brain tumors
- gliomas (tumors in the brain and spinal cord)
- benign (noncancerous) tumors
- acoustic neuroma (also known as vestibular schwannomas, which are tumors found on the main nerve leading from the inner ear to the brain)
- meningiomas (tumors in the membranes that cover and protect the brain and spinal cord)
- parotoid gland tumors (found in the salivary glands)
Additionally, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences reports that there is no evidence of a link between EMF exposure and leukemia or breast cancer. Inna Vishik, an assistant professor of physics at the University of California, Davis, explains that non-ionizing radiation does not increase cancer risk in humans because it is not harmful in small doses. Low-frequency EMFs do not have enough energy to ionize atoms and/or break apart molecules.
There are several international and national organizations as well as universities that have created programs and studies to test a possible connection between cell phone radiation and cancer. One of the most prominent of these is the U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) which has been studying radiofrequency radiation since 1999. NTP is known for its studies of rats and mice being exposed to 2G and 3G radio frequencies (rodents are used because of their biological similarities to humans). The study was conducted over a 10 year period and cost millions of dollars. The rodents underwent “whole-body exposure of 3, 6, or 9 watts per kilogram of body weight for 5 or 7 days per week for 18 hours per day in cycles of 10 minutes on, 10 minutes off.” Scientists did observe a small number of cancers within Schwann cells in the heart and non-cancerous changes (hyperplasia) in the same tissues for male rats; however, the same cannot be said for female rats or mice of either sex. Schwann cells of the heart in rodents are similar to cells in humans that create acoustic neuromas (vestibular schwannomas), which are some of the tumors looked at in cancer patients when studying the relationship between EMF radiation and cancer.
Although the results of this study did produce several cases of cancer, Inna Vishik warns us that this study “should be taken with a grain of salt when making the connection to humans.” This is because the rodents in the study were exposed to a great amount of radiation power compared to their weight. She explains that it would be the equivalent of “100kg human getting up to 600 Watts” of power, which would essentially be like getting microwaved. NTP scientists have acknowledged this by saying that their “findings should not be directly extrapolated to human cell phone usage.” In addition to this study, nearly 20 other animal studies have been conducted in the last three decades. According to John Bucher, a senior scientist at NTP, the majority of these studies have come up “negative with respect to cancer.”
Why Are There So Many Inconsistent Findings in the Studies About Cell Phone Radiation Risk?
The scientific community is so divided on this issue for several reasons. Some of these reasons are due to flaws within the studies, such as:
- Recall bias, which occurs when data about prior habits or exposures are collected from participants after they have already been diagnosed. In other words, someone with brain cancer might exaggerate how much they used their cell phone if they think the cell phone might be the answer to why the got cancer.
- Similarly, inaccurate reporting can take place during questionnaires collected from study participants. Some studies ask about use over a long period of time wherein the participant may not be able to remember how often they actually used their cell phone.
- Morbidity and mortality among study participants who have had or have brain cancer also create inconsistent findings within studies. Brain cancer is especially difficult to study with patient participants due to the cancer’s high death rate. If patients do survive their cancer treatments, they are often left impaired, which could affect the responses they leave on questionnaires.
- Participation bias happens when people who are diagnosed with brain tumors enroll in research studies in greater numbers than healthy people who are used as the controls.
- A final issue that may be the cause of the many contradictory and inconsistent findings from these types of studies is that technology and the way we use it are constantly changing and have changed drastically over the last three decades. The cell phones of today emit less radiation than the cell phones of yesteryear, however, the cell phones of today are ingrained in our everyday life. According to the International Data Corporation (IDC), 79% of people between the ages of 18 and 44 carry their cell phones with them 22 hours a day. Teenagers check their phones 150 times per day and the average person spends over four hours a day using their cell phone. The studies of the past were just that: of the past. Newer studies must be done to account for these new degrees of EMF exposure.
Mark Hertsdaard and Mark Dowie of The Guardian write that another reason why findings are so inconsistent might be due to “Big Wireless.” Similar to Big Pharma or Big Oil, there is no scarcity of conspiracy theories on the internet of what lies your cell phone provider might be telling you. Hertsdaard, Dowie and many others believe that cell phone companies deceive the public about the true risks of using cell phones or lie about how much radiation is actually emitted from their devices. Additionally, Dr. Diana Zucherman, Brandel France de Bravo, and Hannah Kalvin from the National Center for Health Research point out that these cell phone companies pay for studies that “always” find that cell phones are completely safe to use.
Finally, one of the most notable flaws in all of the studies that have taken place so far is that these studies happened too early. Cell phones are only now a common global phenomenon. With more cell phones in use globally, this means the world as a whole is being exposed to a greater amount of radiation. Past studies have tried to find a link between adult cancers and cell phone use. The patients observed in these studies had only been exposed to cell phone radiation for a small fraction of their life. Meanwhile, today babies are exposed to cell phone radiation before they are even born and adults are spending more time than ever on their cell phones. All of this is important because most cancers take at least 10 to 20 years to develop. In other words, it will be years into the future before scientists are able to solidly conclude whether cell phones cause cancer or not. If we are not sure whether they do indeed cause cancer, but we know there is a chance, why wouldn’t we want to take some extra precautions to avoid EMF exposure? Read on to discover some of the many ways to lower your exposure to cell phone radiation.
What Products Can I Use to Protect Myself From Cell Phone Radiation?
In today’s world, it is almost impossible to avoid technology completely. We need it for work, we need it in our homes, we use it to learn or to entertain ourselves; technology is everywhere and we have learned to rely on our little pocket computers. So, in order to protect yourself from cell phone radiation, the answer is simply not “do not own a cell phone.” However, there are many products available that provide radiation shields that can keep you safe while using electronic devices such as your cell phone. On the market today you can find radiation shields that come in the form of stickers, phone cases, covers, and pouches. And these are just the products you can use on your electronics! There are also products that turn your everyday spaces into makeshift Faraday cages. A Faraday cage is an enclosure that can block EMFs. Microwaves are Faraday cages you already have in your home, for example. Because your microwaves keeps the radiation inside to heat your food, storing devices that emit EMF radiation in your microwave could work in a pinch. If you are looking for a better night’s sleep, they even make EMF blocking canopy nets that go over your bed. Lastly, if you are curious to see just how much radiation is emitted by your electronic devices or how much radiation is around your office or home, purchase an EMF meter. Having an EMF meter is also a good way to make sure the changes you are making are actually reducing your exposure to EMF radiation.
What Other Things Can I Do to Protect Myself From Cell Phone Radiation?
More importantly, there are small changes you can make in your everyday life to better protect yourself from EMF radiation. Read on to discover the many ways you can lessen your exposure to cell phone radiation.
- Use your cell phone less.
- Try to only use your cell phone to make short calls or when you cannot use a landline telephone.
- Try to avoid phone conversations that take longer than 10 minutes.
- Reduce the time spent talking on the phone to 60 minutes or less per day.
- Do not hold the phone too close to your ear when making phone calls.
- Use your device with hands-free technology.
- Wired headphones or a headset reduce the amount of cell phone radiation you are exposed to by distancing you from your cell phone.
- On that note, wire as many of your devices as possible. Invest in an ethernet cable to connect your laptop to a Wi-Fi network, a wired keyboard and wired speakers.
- If you do not have headphones or a headset available, use the phone’s speakerphone when making a call and keep the phone at least 6-8” away from yourself.
- Wired headphones or a headset reduce the amount of cell phone radiation you are exposed to by distancing you from your cell phone.
- If you need to make longer phone calls, switch the phone between ears throughout the conversation.
- Wait until the call connects before putting the phone close to your ear.
- Do not make calls in areas with poor reception. Your phone will have to work harder to send and receive radio waves from the closest cell tower.
- Send a text instead of a call. Texts emit less radiation and you are less likely to absorb what is emitted because it is not right next to your ear.
- It is especially important to keep your phone away from your head and body when you are streaming, downloading or sending large files, as these actions require more data and therefore emit more radiation.
- Close applications you are not using. If an app is running, it is emitting EMF radiation.
- Do not use automatic updates or push notifications. If these functions are turned on on your phone, this means that your phone is having to be in constant communication with the network to update you immediately.
- Do not carry your phone close to your body in a place like your pocket, bra, or belt holster. Instead, carry it in a backpack, briefcase, or purse.
- Do not sleep with your phone. Keep it across the room from your bed or outside of your bedroom.
- Another option is to set it on airplane mode while you are sleeping. This way the emission of radiation is reduced but you can still use the alarm clock function. If you have an alarm clock in your bedroom, you can turn off your phone to reduce your exposure to EMF radiation even further.
- Choose your cell phone wisely. Some cell phone models and brands emit more radiation than others. For example, in 2017 the German Federal Office for Radiation Protection tested the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) of some of the most popular smartphones on the market. According to the National Cancer Institute, SAR is the “dose of absorbed energy from cell phones…which is expressed in watts per kilogram of body weight.” (It is important to note that most SAR numbers are based on the energy absorbed by a 200-pound male so the SAR that may be safe for you body is likely to be different than the safety guidelines set by cell phone companies and government organizations.) The following chart was produced from these tests.
- Do not allow young children to use cell phones.
- The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests zero screen time for children younger than 18 months.
- Turn off your cell phone when not using it.
As of now, the scientific community cannot say with any certainty that the radiation emitted by cell phones is safe or unsafe. We do not know if they hold the power to cause significant long-term damage, however, many short-term side effects have been shown to be caused by cell phone use. According to Professor Anthony Swerdlow of the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), even though cell phones are universally used, there has been no increase in the number of brain tumors across the globe. But, as we have also discussed, if cell phones do cause cancer, it is likely that these tumors just have not developed yet. As uncertainties abound, it is important for the scientific community and global citizens to remain cautious towards cell phone use and advocate for newer, more comprehensive studies. Going forward, doctors and researchers are looking at the effects of EMF radiation on children and teenagers, who, although they are the most vulnerable to EMF radiation, are often the ones using cell phones the most. Until scientific evidence points one way or the other, we hope you will take the necessary precautions to protect yourself and your family.