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Cell Phone Radiation Series - Part 1: The Science

Thursday, October 8, 2009

To a lot of people, it might sound about as worrisome as walking under a ladder or not forwarding an email chain letter, but really, what is the deal with cell phone radiation? Is it something you should actually be concerned about?

We were curious -- though we did figure that the radiation was probably more dangerous than deleting a chain letter. So we launched a 10-month investigation into the latest science of cell phone radiation. The result was our recently released report, Cell Phone Radiation Science Review, and a brand-new cell phone database.

Given the huge response to this report's release, turns out we weren't the only ones confused and concerned about cell phone radiation.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be breaking down the report piece by piece - there's a lot of great information in there, and not many of us have the time to sit down and read through it all.

Today we kick off our blog series by looking at the science itself.

What is cell phone radiation anyway? "Radiation" is simply the movement of energy through space from one place to another in the form of waves or particles. There are two types: ionizing and non-ionizing. Ionizing radiation (such as the kind that comes from nuclear reactions and radioactive substances) has enough energy to knock an electron out of an atom's orbit. When it comes into contact with biological systems, like your body, it has the potential to cause mutations and cancer.

Cell phones send out electromagnetic waves, a type of non-ionizing radiation (a lot like the signals going to your TV or radio). Non-ionizing radiation has less energy than ionizing radiation and so can only make electrons more excited -- not knock them out of an atom. Still, it has been accepted for years that even non-ionizing radiation can penetrate the body and harm sensitive tissue (scientists are still trying to figure out the exact mechanism by which this occurs). And it's important to note that with both types of radiation, the waves move in all directions -- so when you talk on your phone, just as much energy goes inward toward your ear as outward toward the cell station. Can cell phones cause cancer or other illnesses? The research is unclear but troubling. The bottom line is that we don't have a definite answer about the relationship between cell phone radiation and your health: cell phones haven't been around long enough for scientists to study their effects over a lifetime of use.

Early, short-term studies did not find an association between cell phone use and increased risk of brain cancer or other health problems. However, more recent, longer-term studies (which looked at cell phone use over ten or more years) have found that frequent cell phone talkers have a higher risk of developing certain types of brain and salivary gland tumors on the side of the head where they tend to hold the phone.

Recent studies have also associated cell phone use with increased risk of migraines and vertigo, Alzheimer's disease and decreased sperm count. The effects on children may be more problematic An estimated 71 percent of American tweens and teens carry cell phones, and more than half use them daily (according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project), but few studies have focused on the effects of radiation on still-developing brains and bodies.

What research there is has shown that twice as much cell phone radiation penetrates the thinner, softer skull of a child than that of an adult. Also, a recent study showed that young children who use cell phones and whose mothers used cell phones during pregnancy are 80 percent more likely to suffer emotional and hyperactivity problems.

More research is needed Until the scientific studies catch up with the way that people actually use their phones (often, for many years and starting at a young age), EWG recommends reducing your exposure to cell phone radiation. Stay tuned for the next post in our blog series where we cover how to find a low-exposure phone and other tips to reduce your exposure. (Or if you can't wait, take a look at the report itself.)

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