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Cellphone FAQs

EWG's Guide to Safer Cell Phone Use: Cellphone FAQs

August 27, 2013

Frequently Asked Questions about Cell Phones

  1. What needs to be done to protect people from cell phone radiation, and how can I help?

  2. Do cell phones cause cancer?

  3. Does cell phone radiation lower sperm count?

  4. Are cell phones safe for children?

  5. Is cell phone radiation the same as radiation from an X-ray or a nuclear power plant?

  6. Is cell phone radiation the same as radiation from a microwave?

  7. Do cordless home phones give off radiation?

  8. Where is the EWG cell phone database?

  9. What are the best ways to reduce my exposure to cell phone radiation?

  10. Does radiation from cell phone transmission towers harm health?

  11. Are wireless or wired headsets better for reducing cell phone radiation exposures?

  12. Does the government regulate cell phone radiation?

  13. Would a radiation shield help reduce my exposure to cell phone radiation?

  14. Do cell phones emit radiation when they are on but not being used to text or talk?

  15. Can radiation emitted from one person's cell phone affect people nearby?

  16. Will using my phone in speaker mode reduce my exposure to its emissions?

  17. Does texting emit as much radiation as talking?

Answers

1. What needs to be done to protect people from cell phone radiation, and how can I help?

What should the government do? EWG recommends that the Federal Communications Commission update its regulations based on the latest scientific understanding of cell phone radiation risks. It should provide cell phone users with clear information about ways to reduce their cell phone radiation exposure.

Recent studies suggest that cell phones may cause health problems. Concerns about cancer and other health problems have spurred government agencies in six countries to issue warnings to consumers to reduce cell phone radiation exposures, especially for children. Yet the Federal Communications Commission and the Food and Drug Administration, two U.S. government agencies charged with oversight of radiation-emitting devices, have not kept up with recent research on cell phone radiation. The FCC issued its cell phone regulations setting maximum radiation limits back in 1996, based on recommendations offered several years prior to that by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, an industry group. Those regulations hail from an era when people used mobile devices infrequently and when few children had access to cell phones. FCC rules are based on outdated safety assessments that considered short-term, not life-long, exposure to cell phone radiation. They do not calculate the extra risks to children, whose brains are still developing and whose skulls are thinner than those of adults.

The FCC and FDA should ensure that cell phone radiation limits protect children and others who are most vulnerable.

What should cell phone manufacturers and retailers do? The cell phone industry should test each phone’s radiation in real-life scenarios, with different providers and radiation frequencies, at varying distances from cell phone towers and during different forms of use – texting, making phone calls, surfing the Internet. This information must be disclosed to the public.

Independent researchers and scientific institutions must address the questions of cell phone radiation exposure and risks it may cause, so that society is not dependent on the limited data industry decides to release.

What can cell phone users do? You can protect yourself and your family by adopting straightforward precautionary steps to reduce exposures to cell phone radiation. The simplest step is to use your phone in speaker mode or with a headset. And please help us tell the FCC to update its cell phone radiation limits.

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2. Do cell phones cause cancer?

Last year, the World Health Organization classified cell phone radiation as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” based on an increased risk for glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer that the multinational INTERPHONE cancer study has associated with long-term cell phone use. Some studies have suggested an association between frequent, long-term cell phone use, salivary gland tumors and acoustic neuromas, tumors of the nerve that links the ear to the brain.

The WHO classification is based on the opinion of a panel of 31 scientists from 14 nations, convened by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The panel did not make a categorical judgment but took the existing data as serious warning signs and called for more research. “The conclusion means that there could be some risk,” explained panel chair Jonathan Samet, M.D., chairman of the preventive medicine department at the University of Southern California and an international authority on environmental causes of disease. “And therefore we need to keep a close watch for a link between cell phones and cancer risk.”

Not all studies have discerned health problems among cell phone users. Shorter studies, involving less than five years of cell phone use, typically have not reported elevated cancer risk. In contrast, studies that have looked at cell phone use over seven years or more have reported a risk. These results make sense. Cancer, particularly brain cancer, takes a long time to develop, often 20 years or more from the time a person is first exposed to something that may cause cancer. People began using cell phones about 20 years ago, so if cell phone radiation can cause cancer, studies may only now be able to detect the disease among long-time cell phone users.

Children may face even greater risks than adults, since their brains are still developing. Childhood exposure to carcinogens has been associated with cancer development later in life. There have not been any long-term studies of children’s exposure to cell phone radiation published to date.

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3. Does cell phone radiation lower sperm count?

Ten human studies conducted in the U.S., Australia, Austria, Hungary, Poland, South Africa and Turkey link cell phone radiation to significant decreases in sperm numbers, motility and viability. Learn more in EWG's report on the issue. More research is essential, but in the meantime, EWG advises men not to keep a cell phone in a pants pocket or on a belt while talking. The possible effects of cell phone radiation on women's reproductive health are not yet known; however, research on laboratory animals and studies on children whose mothers actively used cell phones during pregnancy suggest that caution is warranted.

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4. Are cell phones safe for children?

Research groups around the world have concluded that current cell phone radiation limits may not protect children. These concerns have prompted the governments of Switzerland, Germany, France, Finland, Israel and U.K. as well as the European Parliament to recommend limiting children's cell phone use. They encourage children to keep phone calls short and to text instead of talk.

In 2008 the National Academy of Sciences published a comprehensive review of available studies on biological effects of cell phone radiation, asserting that the question of cancer was paramount. It recommended a study of childhood brain tumors, "owing to widespread use of mobile phones among children and adolescents and the possibility of relatively high exposures to the brain."

Children may be at greater risk from cell phone radiation because their bodies are still developing. Researchers in the U.S., France and Japan have reported that children's brains and bodies can absorb more radiation than those of adults. There have not been any long-term studies of children's exposure to cell phone radiation published to date.

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5. Is cell phone radiation the same as radiation from an X-ray or a nuclear power plant?

Cell phones, X-rays machines and nuclear waste all emit electromagnetic radiation — energy in the form of electric and magnetic waves that travel together. The high-energy waves of X-rays and certain nuclear waste emissions can tear apart the body's molecules, including cellular DNA. The damage from this "ionizing radiation" leads to cancer and other illnesses if doses are high enough. Cell phone radiation is different. Its lower energy waves, called "non-ionizing," penetrate the body but lack the energy to break apart molecules. Scientists do not fully understand why cell phone emissions would cause cancer and changes in the body such as altered brain metabolism and damage to reproductive organs. Some hypothesize that the body may be damaged by cell phone radiation's ability to produce free radicals that can kill cells and cause disease. More research is needed to pinpoint how cell phone radiation could damage the body.

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6. Is cell phone radiation the same as radiation from a microwave?

Microwave ovens use the same form of radiation as cell phones. Most microwave ovens operate at a frequency of 2.45 gigahertz. Bluetooth devices and many cordless phones use the same frequency range. Some radiation always escapes from microwave ovens during operation, although recent models emit less.

Your exposure to radiation from cell phones is very different from that experienced using a microwave oven. A person typically holds a cell phone next to his ear or in a pocket. Radiation is absorbed directly into the head, brain or soft tissue. In contrast, even when you stand near a microwave oven, there are inches or a foot or more between your body and the oven. Radiation weakens significantly across that air gap.

Distance matters. That's why EWG recommends you hold the cell phone away from your body when talking, whether with a headset or in speaker mode.

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7. Do cordless home phones give off radiation?

Cordless home phones give off radiation. Just as a cell phone communicates with a tower, a cordless home phone handset emits signals to the base station in your home. Like a cell phone, the cordless phone handset emits peak levels of radiation during a call. Some base stations emit radiation continually when the phone is off the base, whether you're making a call or not. Scientists have not yet determined the potential health implications of exposures to these sustained signals.

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8. Where is the EWG cell phone database?

Cell phone network technology is rapidly changing, and that has a significant effect on user’s exposure to cell phone radiation. Yet the Federal Communications Commission does not require cell phone makers and service providers to make public data that accurately and comprehensively measure emissions by type of cell phone, network hardware and software, the user’s distance from a cell phone tower and other factors that come into play in the real world. The FCC’s inaction makes it impossible for EWG to present a cell phone database that accurately reflects how consumers are using today’s phones today.

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9. What are the best ways to reduce my exposure to cell phone radiation?

EWG's researchers have developed six simple safety tips to help you reduce your exposure to cell phone radiation. Among the most important — use your phone in speaker mode or with a headset, hold the phone away from your body when you're using it, and make phone calls only when the connection is good.

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10. Does radiation from cell phone transmission towers harm health?

Cell phones communicate via radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation. Cell phone towers send high-power signals that travel hundreds of meters to establish contact with individual cell phones. These signals essentially bathe the user's body in low levels of sustained radiation. Risks from these whole-body exposures may be very different from risks associated with concentrated, intermittent cell phone radiation that penetrates a small area of the head or another area of the body. Scientists do not yet understand the effects of long-term exposure to cell phone tower radiation because the necessary studies have not been completed.

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11. Are wireless or wired headsets better for reducing cell phone radiation exposures?

The jury is out — but either type of headset is preferable to a phone held to the ear.

The governments of Switzerland, Germany, Israel and Finland and the European Parliament all recommend using a headset or an earpiece as a precautionary measure. But expert advice differs on the type — some recommend wired, some wireless.

A wireless headset such as one incorporating Bluetooth technology uses radiofrequency radiation to communicate with a cell phone. This is the same form of radiation emitted by cell phones. But the signal travels only inches from the Bluetooth headset to the phone, so wireless headset emissions are lower than emissions from a cell phone, which transmits to a distant tower.

Some wireless headsets emit continuously, even when you're not on a call. EWG recommends that if you use a wireless headset, take it off between calls.

Multiple research teams have found that corded headsets reduce the overall radiation exposure to the head. But some scientists report that the wire of a corded headset can act as a secondary antenna, transmitting some small amount of radiation toward the head of a user.

Whether you choose a wired or a wireless headset, don't keep an actively transmitting phone near the waist (such as in a front pocket or clipped to a belt.) In this case, radiation will be transmitted towards the torso and absorbed by internal organs. Ten studies now connect cell phone radiation to declines in sperm count and impacts to sperm health. The possible effects of cell phone radiation on women’s reproductive health are not yet known; however, research on laboratory animals and studies on children whose mothers actively used cell phones during pregnancy suggest that caution is warranted.

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12. Does the government regulate cell phone radiation?

The Federal Communication Commission is responsible for cell phone certification, which means ensuring that cell phones on the market comply with the radiation limits established by the FCC in 1996. Yet, these limits have never been updated, even though a significant body of data indicates that they may not fully protect the public from radiation risks.

Government agencies in Germany, Switzerland, Israel, United Kingdom, France and Finland, the European Parliament, and multiple national and international organizations and scientific expert groups have recommended adopting a precautionary approach by taking steps to decrease exposures to cell phone radiation, especially for young children.

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13. Would a radiation shield help reduce my exposure to cell phone radiation?

Radiation shields such as antenna caps or keypad covers reduce the connection quality and force the phone to transmit at a higher power with higher radiation. At the moment, public health agencies in the U.S. and other countries unanimously recommend against the use of such devices since they are untested and don't undergo government review.

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14. Do cell phones emit radiation when they are on but not being used to text or talk?

When a phone is on and not in use, it send outs an intermittent signal to connect with nearby cell phone towers. The phone’s “check in” communication with the tower is significantly lower than the level of radiation used for actual conversation, but it never falls to zero. Because of this, EWG recommends against keeping a cell phone on the body. A handbag, briefcase or a nearby surface is probably a better place for a cell phone in the "on" position.

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15. Can radiation emitted from one person's cell phone affect people nearby?

Yes, someone standing next to a person who is speaking into her phone is exposed to some radiation. The dose is significantly smaller than that to which the user is subjected.

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16. Will using my phone in speaker mode reduce my exposure to its emissions?

Using the speaker mode is a good option for reducing radiation exposure. In general, holding the phone away from the head and torso is a safer choice. EWG recommends against holding a phone against the ear, in a pocket or on the belt where nearby tissues would absorb radiation.

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17. Does texting emit as much radiation as talking?

Cell phones use less power and emit less radiation when they send text rather than voice signals. Texting keeps radiation away from your body.

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