How Safe are Cell Phones?

Portrait of businessman talking cell phone
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Cell phones are almost as common as pocket change these days. It seems nearly everyone, including an increasing number of children, carries a cell phone wherever they go. Cell phones are now so popular and convenient that they are surpassing landlines as the primary form of telecommunication for many people.

Health Risks

In 2008, for the first time, Americans are expected to spend more on cell phones than on landlines, according to the U.S. Labor Department. We not only love our cell phones, we use them: Americans racked up more than a trillion cell phone minutes in the first half of 2007 alone.

Yet, as cell phone use continues to grow, so does concern about the possible health risks of prolonged exposure to cell phone radiation.

Cell Phones and Cancer

Wireless cell phones transmit signals via radio frequency (RF), the same kind of low-frequency radiation used in microwave ovens and AM/FM radios. Scientists have known for years that large doses of high-frequency radiation—the kind used in X-rays—causes cancer, but less is understood about the risks of low-frequency radiation.

Studies on the health risks of cell phone use have produced mixed results, but scientists and medical experts warn that people should not assume no risk exists. Cell phones have been widely available for only the past 10 years or so, but tumors may take twice that long to develop.

Since cell phones haven’t been around very long, scientists haven’t been able to assess the effects of long-term cell phone use or to study the effects of low-frequency radiation on growing children. Most studies have focused on people who have been using cell phones for three to five years, but some studies have indicated that using a cell phone an hour a day for 10 years or more can significantly increase the risk of developing a rare brain tumor.

What Makes Cell Phones Dangerous

M​ost RF from cell phones comes from the antenna, which sends signals to the nearest base station. The farther the cell phone is from the nearest base station, the more radiation it requires to send the signal and make the connection. As a result, scientists theorize that the health risks from cell phone radiation would be greater for people who live and work where base stations are farther away or fewer in number—and research is beginning to support that theory.

In December 2007, Israeli researchers reported in the American Journal of Epidemiology that long-term cell phone users who live in rural areas face a "consistently elevated risk" of developing tumors in the parotid gland compared with users who live in urban or suburban locations. The parotid gland is a salivary gland located just below a person’s ear.

And in January 2008, the French Health Ministry issued a warning against excessive cell phone use, especially by children, despite the lack of conclusive scientific evidence linking cell phone use with cancer or other serious health effects. In a public statement, the ministry said: "As the hypothesis of a risk cannot be entirely excluded, precaution is justified."

How to Protect Yourself From Cell Phone Radiation

“Precaution” seems to be the approach recommended by an increasing number of scientists, medical experts, and public health agencies, from the French Health Ministry to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). General recommendations to minimize the potential health risks include talking on cell phones only when necessary and using a hands-free device to keep the cell phone away from your head.

If you’re concerned about your exposure to cell phone radiation, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires manufacturers to report the relative amount of RF absorbed into a user’s head (known as the specific absorption rate, or SAR) from every type of cell phone on the market today. To learn more about SAR and to check the specific absorption rate for your phone, check the FCC website.