When it comes to ionizing radiation — which we’re exposed to in X-rays, in CT scans, and during air travel — we know it’s powerful enough to damage the DNA, and that repeated DNA damage over time can cause cancer. That’s why, for example, you’re not supposed to get too many X-rays in your lifetime. (In case you were wondering, there’s no precise number on how many X-rays are too many — but the Food and Drug Administration suggests keeping track and avoiding any that seem unnecessary.)
You’ll notice radiation is split into two categories here: ionizing and non-ionizing. The waves emitted from radios, cellphones and cellphone towers, Wi-Fi routers, and microwaves are referred to as “radio-frequency” radiation. That’s a type of “non-ionizing” radiation, since it doesn’t carry enough energy to “ionize” — or strip electrons from atoms and molecules. (Other sources of non-ionizing radiation, as you can see in our chart, include visible and infrared light.)
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.
Dr Devra Davis is an internationally recognised expert on electromagnetic radiation from mobile phones and other wireless transmitting devices. She is currently the Visiting Professor of Medicine at the Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School, and Visiting Professor of Medicine at Ondokuz Mayis University, Turkey. Dr Davis was Founding Director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at The University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute —­ the first institute of its kind in the world, to examine the environmental factors that contribute to the majority of cases of cancer.
Again, non-ionizing radiation — the radiation from cellphones — doesn’t have enough energy to break our DNA, and therefore, we have traditionally thought, it couldn’t cause cancer. But there is some question about whether it’s as harmless as was once believed, or whether there might be another mechanism at play, other than direct DNA damage, that could lead to cancer or other biological problems.
“I think the overall evidence that wireless radiation might cause adverse health effects is now strong enough that it’s almost unjustifiable for government agencies and scientists not to be alerting the public to the potential hazards,” says David O. Carpenter, M.D., director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany in New York and one of the authors of the recent letter to the U.N. and WHO.
Generally, the Ministry of Health adopts the instructions of most international entities, recommending to follow the “precautionary principle” regarding mobile phone use. The instructions of the Ministry take into account the technological need of the population in Israel, along with the measure of precaution necessary according to the recent scientific information in order to balance between the population’s needs and the preservation of its health.
But there is also some ambiguity about cellphone radiation’s health effects. As Dr. John Bucher, a senior scientist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and a co-author of the NIH studies, told me, “[Our results] go against the notion that non-ionizing radiation is completely harmless.” In other words, he’s found that the type of radiation cellphones give off could cause biological changes, like promoting tumors, at least in animals.
Several national and international agencies study different exposures and substances in the environment to determine if they can cause cancer. (Something that causes cancer or helps cancer grow is called a carcinogen.) The American Cancer Society looks to these organizations to evaluate the risks based on evidence from laboratory and human research studies.
"Someone claiming they need to reduce [the safe SAR level of 2 W/kg] by 90-percent — they just have no evidence to make that claim, and they are actually playing on the fact that people will be concerned enough about the possible cancer risk, although they don't understand that there's no sufficient data yet to make a statement about an actual cancer risk," said Professor Olver.
An analysis of data from NCI's Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program evaluated trends in cancer incidence in the United States. This analysis found no increase in the incidence of brain or other central nervous system cancers between 1992 and 2006, despite the dramatic increase in cell phone use in this country during that time (22).
Perhaps more importantly, what types of radiation are causing, or likely to cause, or are suspected of causing, harm to humans? Is it the “harmonics” from the transmitter? Is it the RF from the circuitry? Is it the primary frequency on which the cell phone operates? This is important to understand. If the problem is the primary frequency on which the cell phone operates then forget the case and ditch the cell phone.
Another part of the INTERPHONE study compared more than 1,000 people with acoustic neuromas to more than 2,000 people without tumors, who served as matched controls. As with gliomas and meningiomas, there was no overall link between cell phone use and acoustic neuromas. There was again a suggestion of a possible increased risk in the 10% of people who used their cell phones the most, but this was hard to interpret because some people reported implausibly high cell phone use, as well as other issues.
Cellsafe backs its claims by publishing independent test results on its site. These test reports are detailed, complex and confusing, but the results are available for you to interpret. For example, their tests found that an iPhone 4S produced a SAR of 1.069 W/kg on the 3G 2100Mhz frequency without a case, and 0.267 W/kg with a Cellsafe case. But what in the world does that actually mean? Is a SAR of 1 W/kg dangerous? Is a reduction to 0.267 W/kg actually better, or are we just splitting hairs?
The FCC has yet to implement GAO’s recommendations to more closely reflect real-life use. For a narrow subset of smartphones – those sold with lanyards or straps – the FCC advises manufacturers to test phones at a distance of no more than 5 mm from the body (FCC 2014). Yet the FCC has done nothing to ensure more realistic testing of most other smartphones or to account for the widespread use of accessories such as cases, which many different manufacturers produce with both metallic and non-metallic components.

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).
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