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.
A few epidemiology studies have reported higher rates of tumors inside the skull among people who use cell phones heavily for 10 years or more. Of particular concern are benign Schwann cell tumors called acoustic neuromas, which affect nerve cells connecting the inner ear with structures inside the brain. These growths can in some instances progress to malignant cancer with time. But other studies have found no evidence of acoustic neuromas or brain tumors in heavy cell phone users.
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Studies in people: Another type of study looks at cancer rates in different groups of people. Such a study might compare the cancer rate in a group exposed to something like cell phone use to the rate in a group not exposed to it, or compare it to what the expected cancer rate would be in the general population. But sometimes it can be hard to know what the results of these studies mean, because many other factors that might affect the results are hard to account for.
However, there have been some studies that have shown that rats can develop a specific type of brain tumor, called a schwannoma, if they're subjected to prolonged radiofrequency radiation. These studies examined thousands of rats and mice, and exposed them to a variety of radiations — everything from "near-field" (which is what you get holding a phone to your ear) to "far-field" (which is what you get walking through everyone's Wi-Fi signals at Starbucks).
Though some findings were reassuring, others do raise concerns. Specifically, three of the studies—one from Sweden, another from France, and a third that combined data from 13 countries—suggest a connection between heavy cell-phone use and gliomas, tumors that are usually cancerous and often deadly. One of those studies also hinted at a link between cell phones and acoustic neuromas (noncancerous tumors), and two studies hinted at meningiomas, a relatively common but usually not deadly brain tumor.
Many respected scientists join them. “We found no evidence of an increased risk of brain tumors or any other form of cancer” from cell-phone radiation, says John Boice Jr., Sc.D., president of the National Council on Radiation Protection & Measurements and a professor of medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn. “The worry should instead be in talking or texting with your cell phone while driving.”
As Jonathan Samet — the dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, who advised the World Health Organization on cellphone radiation and cancer — told me, you can argue anything based on the science we currently have “because there’s not enough evidence to start with.” Actually, there’s not enough high-quality evidence. Before we get into why, and what we know, we need a quick primer on cellphone radiation.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that studies reporting biological changes associated with radiofrequency radiation have failed to be replicated and that the majority of human epidemiologic studies have failed to show a relationship between exposure to radiofrequency radiation from cell phones and health problems. The FDA, which originally nominated this exposure for review by the NTP in 1999, issued a statement on the draft NTP reports released in February 2018, saying “based on this current information, we believe the current safety limits for cell phones are acceptable for protecting the public health.” FDA and the Federal Communications Commission share responsibility for regulating cell phone technologies.
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.”
Use the speaker mode on the phone or a hands-free device such as a corded or cordless earpiece. This moves the antenna away from your head, which decreases the amount of RF waves that reach the head. Corded earpieces emit virtually no RF waves (although the phone itself still emits small amounts of RF waves that can reach parts of the body if close enough, such as on the waist or in a pocket). Bluetooth® earpieces have an SAR value of around 0.001 watts/kg (less than one thousandth the SAR limit for cell phones as set by the FDA and FCC).
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.
“It’s quite informative that the NTP data found evidence of an increased tumor risk in the male rats for glial cells and in the [heart] Schwann cells,” said Joel Moskowitz, director of the Center for Family and Community Health at the Berkeley School of Public Health (who writes about electromagnetic radiation here). “That’s compelling evidence that what we’re seeing in humans — even though the signal is not clear — is highly suggestive, and that there is indeed something real going on with regard to tumor risk in humans.”
A recent large study by the US National Toxicology Program (NTP) exposed large groups of lab rats and mice to RF energy over their entire bodies for about 9 hours a day, starting before birth and continuing for up to 2 years (which is the equivalent of about 70 years for humans, according to NTP scientists). The study found an increased risk of tumors called malignant schwannomas of the heart in male rats exposed to RF radiation, as well as possible increased risks of certain types of tumors in the brain and adrenal glands. But some aspects of this study make it hard to know just how well these results might be applied to cell phone use in people. For example, there was no clear increased risk among female rats or among male or female mice in the study. The doses of RF radiation in the study were also generally higher than those used in cell phones (ranging from 1.5 W/kg to 6 W/kg in rats, and 2.5 W/kg to 10 W/kg in mice), the animals’ entire bodies were exposed, and the amount of time they were exposed was longer than most people typically spend on the phone each day. The male rats in the study exposed to RF waves also lived longer, on average, than the rats who were not exposed, for unclear reasons. Because of this, the NTP has noted that the study results cannot be directly applied to humans. Still, the results add to the evidence that cell phone signals might potentially impact human health.
Just as inevitably, worries about brain cancer spawned a market for products that supposedly protect cell phone users. For $62, you can order a Delta Shield, a thin polyester patch that contains a microchip that allegedly renders cell phones harmless. Users are instructed to place the patch on their cell phone battery. The similar BIOPRO Cell Chip, sold online for $35, attaches to the outside of the phone. The penny-size WaveShield 2000 Gold, selling for about $25, fits on the earpiece.
I don't know why, but I recently had a concern about the fact I keep my smartphone in my pocket for a good part of the day. Was this a "smart" idea, or was there a potential problem with phone radiation? To address this concern, I searched for answers on the Internet. There were a lot of contraptions, many of which seemed to be too good to be true. The one that looked the most promising was Blocsock, not cheap at $24 for the high-end model with the pouch, but it did say it blocked 96% of the cell phone radiation from your body by having special radiation-blocking material on one side, with the side facing away from your body regular material so the phone could still communicate with the outside world. Cheap eBay knockoffs had material on both sides, meaning when you put your phone in them, your phone could't communicate with the outside world! Others did not have the testing results that assured how well the blocking material worked. There is a very detailed SAR test report validating the Blocsock, which I found at sustainablemobile.com. You can Google it. It is a very exhaustive testing report!
Unfortunately, regulatory boards do not require third-party phone accessory manufacturers to consider how their product will work in tandem with the smartphone. Neither do governments require smartphone manufacturers to conduct extensive research on whether their SAR will still meet the FCC’s allowable radiation exposure limits when their devices are using a phone case or other 3rd party accessories.
In a February 2 statement, Jeffrey Shuren, director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, wrote that despite the NTP study’s results, the combined evidence on RF exposure and human cancer—which by now amounts to hundreds of studies—has “given us confidence that the current safety limits for cell phone radiation remain acceptable for protecting the public health.” Chonock says that for him, evidence from the Ramazzini study does not alter that conclusion. “We continue to agree with the FDA statement,” he says.
The authors of these studies noted that the results were preliminary and that possible health outcomes from changes in glucose metabolism in humans were unknown. Such inconsistent findings are not uncommon in experimental studies of the biological effects of radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation in people (4). Some factors that can contribute to inconsistencies across such studies include assumptions used to estimate doses, failure to consider temperature effects, and lack of blinding of investigators to exposure status.