For example, cellphone manufacturers currently test these devices for compliance with FCC standards by placing them against the head, and near the torso with some separation. Just check out Apple’s iPhone manual: The company tests the specific absorption rate at a 5mm separation from the body. But if you wear your device in your pocket, you’re probably not going to have that 5mm separation, meaning you may be exposed to more radiation — perhaps enough to exceed current standards.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is part of the World Health Organization (WHO). Its major goal is to identify causes of cancer. The IARC has classified RF fields as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” based on limited evidence of a possible increase in risk for brain tumors among cell phone users, and inadequate evidence for other types of cancer. (For more information on the IARC classification system, see Known and Probable Human Carcinogens.)
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Phone radiation isn’t like the radiation from, say, a nuclear meltdown. That’s what’s known as “ionizing” radiation — it’s high energy and capable of damaging your DNA, which researchers have determined leads to cancer. Phones emit a much lower energy radiation (lower even than visible light) that’s considered to be “non-ionizing.” We know non-ionizing radiation doesn’t damage DNA the way that ionizing radiation does. But the question remains whether it could still react with the body in some other way that might lead to problems from longterm exposure.
Finally, the measurement of cell phone use in most studies has been crude. Most have been case-control studies, which have relied on people’s memories about their past cell phone use. In these types of studies, it can be hard to interpret any possible link between cancer and an exposure. People with cancer are often looking for a possible reason for it, so they may sometimes (even subconsciously) recall their phone usage differently than people without cancer.
To find out about the state of research on the link between phones and cancer, we spoke with Jonathan Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health and an expert in phone radiation who led a World Health Organization working group on the subject. In 2011, the WHO group deemed phone radiation “possibly carcinogenic,” which is less certain than other classifications, but isn’t an outright “no” either. Six years later, Samet said the evidence in either direction is still mixed and that for the time being, there remains “some indication” of risk.
The only consistently recognized biological effect of radiofrequency radiation in humans is heating. The ability of microwave ovens to heat food is one example of this effect of radiofrequency radiation. Radiofrequency exposure from cell phone use does cause heating to the area of the body where a cell phone or other device is held (e.g., the ear and head). However, it is not sufficient to measurably increase body temperature. There are no other clearly established effects on the human body from radiofrequency radiation.