A carrier wave oscillates at 1900 megahertz (MHz) in most phones, which is mostly invisible to our biological tissue and doesn’t do damage. The information-carrying secondary wave necessary to interpret voice or data is the problem, says Dr. Carlo. That wave cycles in a hertz (Hz) range familiar to the body. Your heart, for example, beats at two cycles per second, or two Hz. Our bodies recognize the information-carrying wave as an “invader,” setting in place protective biochemical reactions that alter physiology and cause biological problems that include intracellular free-radical buildup, leakage in the blood-brain barrier, genetic damage, disruption of intercellular communication, and an increase in the risk of tumors. The health dangers of recognizing the signal, therefore, aren’t from direct damage, but rather are due to the biochemical responses in the cell.
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.
Several studies that will provide more information are under way. Researchers from the Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology in Spain are conducting another international case–control study—Mobi-Kids—that will include 2000 young people (aged 10–24 years) with newly diagnosed brain tumors and 4000 healthy young people. The goal of the study is to learn more about risk factors for childhood brain tumors.
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But manipulation by the industry had begun almost immediately at the start of research. While Dr. Carlo and his team had never defined their research as being done to prove the safety of cell phones, the industry internally defined it as an insurance policy to prove that phones were safe. From the outset, what was being said by the cell phone industry in public was different from what was being said by the scientists behind closed doors.
“The evidence so far doesn’t prove that cell phones cause cancer, and we definitely need more and better research,” says Michael Hansen, Ph.D., a senior scientist at Consumer Reports. “But we feel that the research does raise enough questions that taking some common-sense precautions when using your cell phone can make sense.” Specifically, CR recommends these steps:
When turned on, cell phones and other wireless devices emit RF radiation continually, even if they are not being actively used, because they are always communicating with cell towers. The dose intensity tails off with increasing distance from the body, and reaches a maximum when the devices are used next to the head during phone calls or in front of the body during texting or tweeting.
At high power levels, RF waves can heat up water molecules (which is how microwave ovens work). Scientists used to focus their concerns on the possibility that such heating of human tissue, which is mostly water, might damage cells. In fact, the FCC’s test of cell-phone emissions—which was set in 1996 and which all phones must pass before being allowed on the market—is based on that effect.
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First, studies have not yet been able to follow people for very long periods of time. When tumors form after a known cancer-causing exposure, it often takes decades for them to develop. Because cell phones have been in widespread use for only about 20 years in most countries, it is not possible to rule out future health effects that have not yet appeared.
One of the most robust animal studies in the world comes from the US government. In 1999, during the Clinton administration, the Food and Drug Administration asked the National Toxicology Program (NTP) to study the toxicity and cancer-causing capability of cellphone radio-frequency radiation. At the time, health officials felt epidemiological studies in humans wouldn’t answer these questions, so the NTP embarked on studies in rats and mice.
Wearable tech such as the Apple Watch might as well be called a wearable EMF device. These watches are even worse than mobile phones in that they remain in constant, direct contact with your skin. New York Times columnist Nick Bilton covered this issue in March 2015, noting that constant, low-level radiation from such devices can trigger the formation of cancerous tumors, blood abnormalities, and more.
Dr. Carlo, however, refused to be an easy target. He quickly recruited a group of prominent scientists to work with him, bulletproof experts owning long lists of credentials and reputations that would negate any perception that the research was predestined to be a sham. He also created a Peer Review Board chaired by Harvard University School of Public Health’s Dr. John Graham, something that made FDA officials more comfortable since, at the time, the agency was making negative headlines due to the breast implant controversy. In total, more than 200 doctors and scientists were involved in the project.
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.)
Over time, the number of cell phone calls per day, the length of each call, and the amount of time people use cell phones have increased. Because of changes in cell phone technology and increases in the number of base stations for transmitting wireless signals, the exposure from cell phone use—power output—has changed, mostly lowered, in many regions of the United States (1).