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Among the hundreds of smartphone cases available for iPhone and a bevy of popular Android phones, there are some that claim to reduce the amount of radiation your body absorbs when you have the handset close to your body. Pong Research is a US brand that offers a range of products fitting this description, as is Cellsafe, a company based in Victoria, Australia.
This 2017 review, published in Neurological Sciences, looked at case-control studies on cellphone use, focusing on glioma, meningioma, and acoustic neuromas. This review was interesting because the researchers divided the studies by quality, and higher-quality studies — which tended to be funded by the government and not the cellphone industry — showed a trend toward an increased risk of brain tumors, while lower-quality studies did not. Overall, though, their meta-analysis found an increased risk of brain cancers (mostly gliomas) among people who were using cellphones for 10 or more years, and no increase in the risk of acoustic neuroma.
When we think of harmful radiation, things like X-rays or gamma rays usually come to mind, but these types of radiation are different from mobile phone radiation in important ways. Radiation on the ultraviolet side of visible light, like those types just mentioned, has a wavelength that is short enough to alter some of the chemical properties of the objects it interacts with. It is referred to as ionizing radiation, for this reason. Non-ionizing radiation, which includes visible light, microwaves and radio waves, is typically regarded as harmless. Large amounts of it can produce a heating effect, like in a microwave oven, but no short-term damage has been linked to exposure to non-ionizing radiation.
The cellular phone industry was born in the early 1980s, when communications technology that had been developed for the Department of Defense was put into commerce by companies focusing on profits. This group, with big ideas but limited resources, pressured government regulatory agencies—particularly the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—to allow cell phones to be sold without pre-market testing. The rationale, known as the “low power exclusion,” distinguished cell phones from dangerous microwave ovens based on the amount of power used to push the microwaves. At that time, the only health effect seen from microwaves involved high power strong enough to heat human tissue. The pressure worked, and cell phones were exempted from any type of regulatory oversight, an exemption that continues today. An eager public grabbed up the cell phones, but according to Dr. George Carlo, “Those phones were slowly prompting a host of health problems.”
While the Federal Communication Commission limits how much radiofrequency radiation can come out of your cellphone, the Food and Drug Administration can have a say about whether those limits are safe. So the FDA asked the National Toxicology Program (NTP), a division within the National Institutes of Health, to investigate. Based on the NTP’s results, as well as hundreds of other studies, the FDA is still confident that the current limits on cellphone radiation are safe, according to a statement from Jeffrey Shuren, the director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health.
Researchers have carried out several types of epidemiologic studies in humans to investigate the possibility of a relationship between cell phone use and the risk of malignant (cancerous) brain tumors, such as gliomas, as well as benign (noncancerous) tumors, such as acoustic neuroma (tumors in the cells of the nerve responsible for hearing that are also known as vestibular schwannomas), meningiomas (usually benign tumors in the membranes that cover and protect the brain and spinal cord), and parotid gland tumors (tumors in the salivary glands) (3).