Fears that the low-energy radiation emitted by cellphones could cause cancer seem to have been simmering ever since cellphones went mainstream. The latest flare up is probably thanks to two things: an article in The Nation about “Big Wireless” and a government study that recently reported some male rats exposed to huge doses of full-body cellphone radiation developed a rare type of heart tumor.
Four years ago -- before I bought my first iPhone -- I wouldn’t buy certain model cell phones because their radiation emission levels were too high. I became obsessed with researching this in the buying process, especially after finding out that a man I knew died of brain cancer and was an early mobile phone user. Suspicion was that the phone caused the cancer.
SafeSleeve's report is right up front about showing that they do not test or certify the Safe Sleeve case, rather they are simply testing the material they put into the case in a completely artificial environment, in a laboratory setting, using a signal generator and a power amplifier. Safe Sleeve includes photos showing how the measurements are taken. But that may not be how anyone will ever use their phone.
The authors found a consistent effect, in both types of studies, that cellphone radiation leads to decreased sperm motility (ability to swim) and viability, but not a decrease in overall concentration. While it’s unclear if these specific changes are enough to affect men’s fertility, the authors wrote, “mobile phone exposure may form part of a cumulative effect of modern day environmental exposures, that collectively reduce sperm quality and explain current trends in infertility.”
In addition, cellphones potentially harm our health in ways that have nothing to do with cancer. The effect on sperm is concerning to Moskowitz, the director of the Center for Family and Community Health at the Berkeley School of Public Health, and he noted that our current cellphone regulations also don’t account for these potential effects. Plus, we still don’t know what steady exposure to this kind of radiation from devices means for kids.
Then there is non-ionizing radiation, which encompasses the vast majority of light we are exposed to: visible light from lightbulbs, infrared light from an oven and from people, gigahertz light from our wifi, megahertz light to/from our cell phones, and radio waves hitting our car radio. They are not harmful in small doses because one photon does not have enough energy to ionize atoms and/or break apart molecules. In very large doses, non-ionizing radiation can be harmful. For example, a visible light laser with sufficient power (at least several hundred times more than a legal laser pointer) which is concentrated in a small enough spot will burn your skin and do worse things to your eye if it gets in there. And those of us who are old enough, remember the gerbil-in-a-microwave flash animations which went viral 17 years ago  as a humorous (but not exactly factual) representation of what would happen if you microwaved a live rodent.
People can also reduce their exposure by limiting cell-phone use when the cellular signal is weak; when traveling in a high-speed car, bus or train; to stream audio or video; or to download or upload large files. All of these circumstances cause phones to put out higher-than-normal levels of RF energy. Phones also emit RF energy when connected to WiFi or Bluetooth devices, but at lower levels.
Remember: The cancer incidence data in humans, at least to date, suggests no avalanche of head and neck tumors. Since so many people are exposed to cellphones, if there were a big risk, we’d probably see it turn up. “If cellphones caused brain tumors at the rate that cigarettes caused lung cancer,” said Otis Brawley of the American Cancer Society, “we would have figured it out by now.”
According to the WHO, the "precautionary principle" is "a risk management policy applied in circumstances with a high degree of scientific uncertainty, reflecting the need to take action for a potentially serious risk without awaiting the results of scientific research." Other less stringent recommended approaches are prudent avoidance principle and as low as reasonably practicable. Although all of these are problematic in application, due to the widespread use and economic importance of wireless telecommunication systems in modern civilization, there is an increased popularity of such measures in the general public, though also evidence that such approaches may increase concern. They involve recommendations such as the minimization of cellphone usage, the limitation of use by at-risk population (such as children), the adoption of cellphones and microcells with as low as reasonably practicable levels of radiation, the wider use of hands-free and earphone technologies such as Bluetooth headsets, the adoption of maximal standards of exposure, RF field intensity and distance of base stations antennas from human habitations, and so forth. Overall, public information remains a challenge as various health consequences are evoked in the literature and by the media, putting populations under chronic exposure to potentially worrying information.
Since 2001, the FCC has allowed manufacturers to test phones at a distance of up to one inch from the body to account for the use of a holster. In a 2012 report, however, the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional watchdog agency, noted that many cell phone owners actually keep and use their phones right next to the body, so these outdated testing policies could result in radiofrequency (RF) radiation exposure greater than the FCC’s legal limit (GAO 2012). The GAO report concluded:
The city council of Berkeley, Calif., has also acted. In May 2015, it approved a “Right to Know” law that requires electronics retailers to notify consumers about the proper handling of cell phones. CTIA-The Wireless Association, a trade group, is now trying to block that law from going into effect, as it successfully did after San Francisco passed its own Right to Know law five years ago.
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The European Union is currently running the Mobi-Kids, a case-control study in 14 countries, to better understand the effects of electromagnetic fields radiation on children and adolescents. One of the early publications from the project, looking at data on the use of wireless devices among 10- to 25-year-olds in France, found that kids are started to rely on these devices earlier and earlier in life. But the researchers are still analyzing the main results on any health impacts, and haven’t yet published their findings.
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(Some common flaws in these studies: The summaries of the evidence weren’t comprehensive, the researchers often didn’t look at the quality of the studies they found, and they failed to do other simple things that would limit bias from creeping in. They also relied on case-control studies, a poor method to determine causality — more on that soon.) So we didn’t include these eight reviews in our analysis.
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.