Cell Phone Safety: Electromagnetic fields are a cause for concern

Cell Phone Safety: Electromagnetic fields are a cause for concern

Chances are, you’ve heard reports linking cell phones to brain cancer—then a second later, you might have pulled your iPhone out of your pocket to answer a call. Nonetheless, a sliver of doubt may have remained in your mind: “Should I be worried?”

For starters, every electronic device in your home emits an electromagnetic field (EMF), from lamps to laptops to Wi-Fi routers. And in the past, certain devices—like TVs and microwave ovens—sparked similar fears that we were frying our brains with radiation. These suspicions proved to be untrue. According to a report by the World Health Organization, a color TV emits an electric field strength of 60 volts per meter. The accepted limit: 5,000 V/m. So, clearly, your Downton Abbey addiction won’t hurt your brain.

Cell phones, however, have been a bigger cause for concern because unlike most electronic devices, they’re held close to your head. And proximity makes a big difference: A cell phone’s electromagnetic field is one-fourth the strength at a distance of two inches, and 50 times lower at three feet. In fact, most cell phones come with a warning:

Do not hold closer than one inch from your body. In Israel, you can’t buy a cell phone without a headset. In Belgium, it’s illegal to give a cell phone to children under age seven because their brains are still developing and particularly vulnerable to radiation’s effects.

But what, exactly, can an electromagnetic field emitted by a cell phone do to us? Most studies have found that the field is too weak to damage DNA. But it can change the behavior of neutrophils, which are disease-fighting cells in the body, says Dr. Devra Davis, an epidemiologist who wrote about this phenomenon in her book Disconnect: The Truth about Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide It, and How to Protect Your Family. “In studies, sperm exposed to cell phone radiation die three times faster,” she says.

And that’s not all: In research on animals exposed to cell phone radiation, autopsies revealed that 2 percent of the brain’s neurons were shrunken and degenerated. The researcher, Leif Salford, chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at Lund University Hospital in Sweden, called the potential implications “terrifying,” saying such degeneration could damage areas of the brain associated with learning, memory, and movement, resulting in conditions such as early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. “We have good reason to believe that what happens in rats’ brains also happens in humans,” he said.

In 2011, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer gathered 31 scientists from 14 countries to assess the health impact of electromagnetic fields. Based on data that indicates heavy wireless phone use could increase the risk of glioma (a type of brain tumor), they classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” The classification has a broad-ranging list of nearly 900 substances, from lead and diesel to coffee and pickled Asian vegetables. The WHO also acknowledged that more research must be done before we come to any firm conclusions, saying, “Some gaps in knowledge about biological effects exist and need further research.”

Davis herself is quick to acknowledge, “Neither the danger nor the safety of cell phones is yet certain. But does the absence of proof of danger really mean we’re safe?” She doesn’t think we should ban these useful gadgets, just that we should take precautions. For instance, Davis still owns a cell phone but uses a headset, and she asks that her grandkids use the phone only on speaker or airplane mode. She also cautions that cell phone chargers, cordless-phone base stations, and baby monitors should not be kept on your nightstand where you sleep—phones create EMFs even when they’re in passive use or being charged.

Hers is a minority viewpoint. “One colleague said to me, ‘This is not a good career move,’” she recalls of her decision to study the health effects of cell phones. “I told him, ‘This is not about my career. I think this is a huge problem, and if we don’t do something about it, we could pay the price.’”


Follow these tips to reduce your exposure to EMFs.

Read the fine print

Choose a cell phone with the lowest possible SAR, or specific absorption rate, which is a measure of the strength of the magnetic field absorbed by
the body.

Distance yourself

Using a headset or speakerphone or texting at arm’s length can reduce your exposure. If you must put the phone to your head, switch sides regularly and keep your call short.

Don’t carry it close to your body

Avoid carrying your cell phone in a pocket as much as possible. Use a purse, bag, or backpack instead. If you must keep it on you, keep the front positioned toward your body so that the EMF is transmitted away from you rather than through you.

Beware a weak signal

Avoid using your phone when the signal is weak because the electromagnetic field is at maximum while a connection is sought. The same is true when you’re moving at high speed like in a car or train because your phone repeatedly attempts to connect to a new relay antenna.

Keep away from kids

Because kids’ skulls are thinner and their brains are still developing until their mid-20s, cell phone radiation can penetrate more deeply and do more damage. Have them use cell phones only during emergencies, play games in airplane mode, and text with the phone held away from the body.

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