Six Questions About Cellphone Radiation and Your Health

In April, the city of Berkeley, Calif., won a major decision in a federal appeals court, allowing the city to go forward with its ordinance requiring cellphone retailers to provide consumers with information about safe cellphone use. The court denied a request by the the mobile phone industry's lobby, CTIA-The Wireless Association, which had fought the city’s attempts to educate its citizens.

Berkeley’s ordinance, in effect since March 2016, requires the following notification:

To assure safety, the Federal Government requires that cellphones meet radiofrequency (RF) exposure guidelines. If you carry or use your phone in a pants or shirt pocket or tucked into a bra when the phone is ON and connected to a wireless network, you may exceed the federal guidelines for exposure to RF radiation. Refer to the instructions in your phone or user manual for information about how to use your phone safely.

EWG agrees. While the federal government is dragging its feet to protect Americans from radiation emitted by cellphones and other wireless devices, cities and citizens are taking steps to promote sensible use of this technology, limiting high exposures and making sure that children don’t get too much cellphone radiation.

Last month, under court order, the California Department of Public Health released draft guidelines on cellphone safety that outlined the health risks from cellphone radiation, and advised people to limit use and keep phones away from the body. In 2011, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer declared the kind of radiation emitted by cellphones a “possible carcinogen” based on human epidemiological studies that found increased gliomas and acoustic neuromas in long-term cellphone users.

Yet the wireless industry continues to insist that the public need not worry and fights efforts to inform the public. To clear up some of this confusion, EWG answers your top questions:

Am I exposed to the same radiation when I browse the internet as I am on a cellphone call?

Radiofrequency energy is a form of non-ionizing radiation given off by cellular and portable phones, Wi-Fi routers, baby monitors and countless other devices. Scientific studies have linked electromagnetic radiation from long-term cellphone use to an increased risk of brain cancer and other health problems.

Some research suggests that electromagnetic radiation interferes with our body’s natural processes—even damaging our DNA. While cellphones emit relatively weak electromagnetic radiation, it still affects nearby cells and tissues because the devices are used frequently and kept close to the body.

Cellphones emit radiation whenever they transmit the signal outward, toward the cellphone tower. Some amount of radiation is emitted no matter what the activity, even when the phone is on, but not in use. Speaking into the phone would produce more radiation emission than receiving a signal, such as during a data download.

Cellphones also emit the most radiation when they are attempting to connect to cellular towers. A moving phone, such as used while riding a train, or a phone in an area very far from cellphone towers, has to work harder, giving off more radiation. Users can avoid using their cellphones in elevators or whenever the signal is very weak if they want to reduce their exposure, experts say.

How does the cellphone case contribute to the problem? Doesn’t the case provide a minimal barrier between the phone and your head?

Most cellphone cases are made by companies other than the original cellphone manufacturers. Cellphone cases can partially block the antenna, making the phone work harder to transmit a signal and intensifying the radiation that strikes the user’s head and body. Using a case also can lead to dropped calls and depleted battery power.  See EWG’s report Does Your Cellphone Case Raise Your Radiation Exposure?

Cellphone cases are essentially unregulated by the Federal Communications Commission, even though they can increase the radiation experienced by the user. EWG has urged the FCC to require testing of cellphones with and without a case, so as to reflect real-life use conditions.

Is Wi-Fi as risky as cellphone radiation?

Wireless communication technologies are always changing, using different frequency bands, which are measured in megahertz (MHz) or gigahertz (GHz). In the U.S., 2G and 3G cellphone technologies have primarily operated in the 800-1900 MHz range. You can find the frequency range in which your phone operates from your cellphone carrier. 4G technologies have used frequency bands in the same range, as well as moving to higher frequencies in the gigahertz range.

Most home Wi-Fi routers operate in the 2400 MHz (which is the same as 2.4 GHz) range. 5G Wi-FI operates in a higher range, around 5 GHz or greater.

Here’s the catch: Scientists really don’t know what are the effects of these different frequency ranges on human health, because most studies, including the research that gave rise to cellphone radiation classified as a possible carcinogen, have been done on conventional cellphone radiation. When it comes to 4G and 5G, we are left guessing.

Distance matters – the closer the body is to the source of radiation, the more radiation users will absorb.

Cellphones are frequently used directly next to the body, and the potential for radiation absorption is great. Wi-Fi routers are typically farther away, decreasing exposure. Some experts recommend against keeping a Wi-Fi router next to the bed or the bedroom but rather placing it in the area of the house where people spend less time.

What about tablets and laptops? These can be in constant touch with the body and are used wirelessly for most people.

When using tablets and laptops, there are two things to keep in mind: distance from the body and type of use. Like phones, these wireless-enabled devices transmit more radiation when they send the signal out – for example, when talking into a tablet. A good rule of thumb is to keep the tablet or laptop on a table or supported by its own stand, rather than holding it on your lap.

Can EWG point to a source that explains how it all works?

Now more than ever, American cellphone users need real-world, relevant data on how much radiation phones, and the other wireless devices all around us, emit under various circumstances. Please see EWG's Cellphone Radiation FAQs.

What about cellphones and children?

Some studies suggest that cellphone radiation can make the blood-brain barrier more permeable. While these investigations are ongoing and not all conclusions have been confirmed, research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse clearly demonstrated that cellphone radiation alters brain activity, as EWG described in 2013.

Children’s and teens’ brains and bodies are developing and growing rapidly. Age and head/body shape differences matter when it comes to radiation absorption. The brain of a child or slight woman, with their smaller, thin skull bones, would absorb significantly more radiation than that of a large man. The FCC cellphone radiation regulations do not account for the potentially higher risks of cellphone emissions to children and other vulnerable populations.

The solution is to teach children how to use a headset and speaker phone rather than having them hold the phone close to their ear while they talk. Some experts recommend parents to limit their children's cellphone use to texting, important calls and other emergencies.

Finally . . .

While research on the effects of Wi-Fi and cellphone radiation on our health is ongoing, it is prudent to reduce your exposure by increasing distance from the phone (use the speaker phone when possible) and using a headset.

We at EWG all continue to use our cellphones. Like you, we couldn’t do our jobs without them. But we try to follow our own advice. For more tips, see EWG’s Guide to Safer Cellphone Use.

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