Cell Phones and Health Risks:
Is There a Connection?
Delaware Valley University
Cell Phones and Health Risks: Is There a Connection?
The World Health Organization estimated that there were 6.9 billion cell phones in use around the world in 2014. In some countries, including Italy, Israel and Hong Kong, there are more cell phones than people (Sachdev, Vats & Kohli, 2009). The number of phones is probably even higher today in 2018. Mobile phones went from being a luxury item when they were first introduced to being an essential item for everyone. People use cell phones for much more than just their basic communications. Smart Phones are now multi-function devices for daily tasks, tools for social networking, and can even be used for entertainment. We carry them on our person, usually in a pocket, or keep them close by at all times. The demand for mobile technology has not come without concerns about its safety. Some reports suggest that the phones cause health problems, some as severe as cancer. This paper will investigate if cell phones are a human health risk. Many scientific studies have been done to answer that question. Several experiments show a connection between cell phone usage and medical conditions, such as tumors. However, other studies dispute those findings and claim that any linkage is not valid. As consumers, we need be knowledgeable about this controversy in order to make good decisions about our health. The goal of this paper is to find a direct correlation of how cell phones may adversely impact our health and quality of life.
To understand the potential health risks it can be helpful to have background on the technology. Researchers who reviewed the technology and its consequences explained the systems’ fundamentals in the introduction of their analysis. The Agarwal, Singh, Hamada ; Kesari (2011) study provided this description:
Cell phones emit radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation waves to nearby relay base stations or antennas. When speaking into a cell phone, the sound wave from the speaker goes through a transmitter that converts the sound into a sine wave. The transmitter then sends the signal to the antenna, which then sends it out into space in all directions. This electric sine wave also creates and electromagnetic field around it. As the electric current moves back and forth, the fields continue to build and collapse, forming electromagnetic radiation (p. 433).
In addition to learning the basic functions, it is important to know that modern advances in cell phone technology systems have changed the energy by increasing the signal frequency (Agarwal et al., 2011). Original 1980’s analog cell phones operated at 902.5 MHz; current digital phones operate at 1800 MHz; the higher the frequency, the more energy the waves carry (Agarwal et al., 2011). In addition, analog phones emitted radiation in pulses, where emission from modern devices is continuous (Sachdev, Vats &Kohli, 2009). A method to measure the effect of radiofrequency electromagnetic waves on the human body was developed, called the Specific Absorption Rate, or SAR value. In 1996 the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) set a maximum legal SAR value for the wireless industry to test their handheld devices and all cell phone manufacturers have been required to label their phones to show the SAR level since 2000 (Agarwal et al., 2011). To illustrate the increase, Agarwal, et al (2001) compared SAR values: In 2005 the most popular phone was a Motorola RazR, with 0.89 SAR; by 2008 the Apple iPhone had a SAR value of 1.388.
Radiation from cell phone technology has been identified as having potential adverse health consequences. The biological effects on the human body are hypothesized by two types of potential damage: thermal and non-thermal. Thermal effects happen at high frequencies, with the radiation having heating properties, which increase body or tissue temperature. This in turn may cause the disruption of cell function or development. The tissue damage might occur if the body is unable to dissipate the heat (Agarwal et al., 2011). The non-thermal effect is thought to disrupt cell membranes due to the absorption of radiation. Sachdev et al., (2009) proposed that non-thermal damage occurs from a person’s brain acting as a receiver to catch the radiation similar to an antenna. Another theory is that radiation exposure causes non-thermal damage by affecting the pineal gland and reducing melatonin, a necessary antioxidant. In addition, the study suggests the exposure affects DNA repair, leading to increased potential mutations and significantly increases the risk of cancer, including brain cancer (Sachdev et al., 2009).
As these theories were studied, reports were published that linked cell phones to cancerous tumors. In 2011 the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B), based on an increased risk for glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer associated with wireless phone use. Dr. Jonathan Samet, Chair of the IARC Working Group, said, “The evidence, while still accumulating, is strong enough to support a conclusion and the 2B classification. The conclusion means that there could be some risk, and therefore we need to keep a close watch for a link between cell phones and cancer risk” (Gaudin, 2011).
Numerous studies have been done to either confirm the detrimental effects of cell phones on human health, or to disprove them and establish that there is no harm. In addition, many of the articles that say that there is no connection between cell phones and health problems often point to the drawbacks of the studies. In the articles that I reviewed, several examples of flaws were cited, including the practice of comparing animals to humans. Differences in geometry, size and physiological responses between man and experimental animals imply that the results in animal studies should be interpreted with caution (Makker et al., 2009). In addition, Sachdev et al.’s (2009) study titled “Cell Phones and Tumors: Still in No Man’s Land” notes the following significant limitations of research studies:
Few studies assess the risk of cell phone use of more than 10 years. Exposure to radiofrequency radiation varies with phone models, use of hands-free devices and whether calls were made from rural or urban locations. Many studies have relied on either self-reporting or retrospective interviews to determine the amount of cell phone usage. The nature of data collection in existing human studies allows for possible recall bias, such as overestimating true use. (p.7).
An additional obstacle to the studies is the perceived conflict of interest and influence of industry groups. One scientist, Lennart Hardell, wrote a very critical article in the International Journal of Oncology in which he voiced frustration with the lack of public education on the dangers of cell phone radiation, the lack of effort to reduce exposures and loyalty to the wireless industry (Hardell, 2017). He faulted the WHO for allowing wireless industry leaders to participate in scientific policy assessments and noted the discrepancy between the WHO’s carcinogen designation and its formal policy. Hardell (2017) made an analogy about how these
issues are being handled by comparing them to “the tobacco industry sowing doubt and confusion about the dangers of second hand smoke in the 1990’s.”
A selection of five scientific journal articles provides factual evidence that cell phones are connected to health risks. The studies with positive correlation cover a wide range of testing areas, from behavioral effects to kidney concerns and serious infertility, as well as the harmful impact on childhood development. An additional study demonstrates how the concentration of radiation in a closed car using Bluetooth is a higher risk than just using a cell phone alone.
People who regularly spend a lot of time texting or using phones for games are likely to have a sedentary lifestyle, lose physical fitness and be at risk for health problems (Lepp et al., 2013). This behavioral research explored the relationship between cell phone use and physical activity for college students using objective measures of fitness. Today’s college students are the first cohort of young people raised entirely in the digital age and integration with daily life is the cultural norm (Lepp et al., 2013). The investigation was done in two phases. Phase 1 consisted of data collected from a random sample of the student population of a large mid-western U.S. university. The students self-reported their total cell phone use per day, total number of text messages per day, and total number of calls per day. Phase 2 assessed physical and sedentary activity and cardio-respiratory fitness. The second phase was done in an exercise lab, where students gave detailed medical histories and were measured for height, weight and body fat, followed by interviews about daily activities, behavior, motivation, and experience with phones. Lastly, participants did treadmill tests. The results showed that the sample students averaged just
over 5 hours of cell phone use per day (Lepp et al., 2013). In addition, the Lepp et al (2013) data analysis concluded that:
High cell phone use is a marker for sedentary behaviors, similar to earlier studies on watching TV or using a computer. The negative relationship between cell phones and fitness can be explained by phone use disrupting leisure time physical activity and promoting sedentary behaviors among high frequency users, who are more likely to forgo opportunities for physically active pursuits in favor of Facebook, Twitter, apps or games (p.8).
Kidneys have an essential body function; they filter 20% of the body’s blood each minute and are vulnerable to harmful substances (Koca et al., 2013). A research team investigated the impact of cell phones worn on belts or clothes in the area of the kidneys, which may allow radiation to be absorbed by the kidneys more than other organs. The study used rats divided into three groups. The control group had no exposure to cell phones; the other groups had varying levels of exposure. A Phillips cell phone was used with the highest SAR available at that time. The experiment showed that the control group rats had no changes, while the others had tubular damage, edema, and inflammatory cell infiltration. Renal failure can be caused by tubular damage. The authors concluded by recommending that, “individuals at high risk should take preventative measures and if the findings are supported by further clinical studies, legal regulations should be enacted to minimize the risk” (Koca et al., 2013).
Studies suggest linkage between cell phone usage and alterations in sperm count, motility and viability. Infertility affects up to 25% of couples as one of the most common diseases, with males responsible for half of the cases (Agarwal et al., 2011). This initiative comprehensively evaluated ten cell phone male infertility studies from 2005 to 2010. The authors analyzed the evidence from the previous scientific work and confirmed that cell phone usage has an adverse effect on male fertility. The findings showed a significant reduction in sperm count involving 231 men over a 13 month period; for heavy cell phone users sperm counts averaged 30% lower than for men who did not have or use a cell phone. Similar results were found with semen samples with a significant decrease in motility and viability, leading to a conclusion that cell phone radiation leads to an increase in oxidative stress in human sperm (Agarwal et al., 2011).
Young children are becoming the focus of recent studies because they are increasingly exposed to cell phones. A 2017 article profiled new evidence of the role the exposure may play in causing neuro-developmental and neuro-behavioral problems in childhood development. The conditions observed by the evidence include abnormal development and functional changes similar to autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which can occur with exposure to cell phone radiofrequency (Sage & Burgio, 2017). The study authors focused on epigenetics, which is the heritable changes in gene expression that do not involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence in response to environmental changes (Sage & Burgio, 2017). They analyzed how wireless technology triggers epigenetic changes to negatively impact childhood development in fetuses, infants and young children. In addition, they suggest that a growing reliance on mobile devices by children and expansion into the schools may actually be hindering,
rather than helping, academic performance (Sage & Burgio, 2017). The authors concluded that chronic exposure to even low levels caused diminished capacity to grow and develop normal immune, neurologic, and metabolic functions, leading to serious health and learning impairments and chronic diseases (Sage & Burgio, 2017). Notably, Sage and Burgio (2017) also described the evolution of “an ‘electronic environment’ that is deeply imbedded in children’s lives, with a concentration in urban, low-income populations” and they urge reductions in preventable exposures as a top public health and school district priority.
Bluetooth enables hands-free cell phone tasks and has been touted as a solution for distracted driving accidents. But what if this tool that is supposed to make us safer is actually worsening our risk of toxic radiation? That is what a 2015 study looked at and determined that combined total exposure intensity and SAR values are considerably higher than a human body can safely absorb (Dhami, 2015). In fact, the increase with Bluetooth was over 300% higher when compared to just a cell phone by itself. The study measured the exposure on a human brain both inside and outside a car. The study concludes that the combined radiation effect of a cell phone and Bluetooth are at levels at which biological changes start taking place inside a human body (Dhami, 2015).
The articles that document a connection between cell phones and health problems certainly seem compelling. However, research reveals evidence that supports the opposite perspective on cell phone safety. The following five sources offer views that disprove a linkage between cell phones and health risks. Similar to the positive evidence, the negative studies cover many areas, including gland function, brain cancer, sleep habits and cognitive functions. In
addition, I will share some government policies on cell phone radiation that downplay human health concerns.
Scientists involved in an experiment on salivary gland alterations said they found molecular evidence that the exposure of the parotid glands to cell phone use does not alter salivary flow, protein concentrations or levels of proteins of genes that are directly or indirectly affected by heat-induced cellular stress (De Souza et al., 2014). They tested the parotid glands because they are the largest of the salivary glands and they are located on either side of the mouth and in front of the ears where cell phones are placed when making calls. People with no diagnosed history were evaluated, including those who preferred to hold their cell phone on one side of their heads. The study tested the hypothesis that if there is a link between cell phones and tumors, it likely comes from stress caused by heating of the tissue (De Souza et al., 2014). There was no difference in the measurements of people who spent more time on their phones or for those who favored one side.
A systematic review of medical literature on tumors was done using a database of indexed journals, an analysis of relevant case reports and various studies (Sachdev et al., 2009). The researchers acknowledged that some studies linking cell phones with cancer have had contradictory results. However, they concluded that the vast majority of studies have found no positive correlation between cell phone usage and increased risk of brain cancer, including neuroblastoma, acoustic neuroma, intra-temporal facial nerve tumors and glioma or meningioma (Sachdev et al., 2009).
The effect of cell phones on sleep patterns was deemed to not have any significant changes in sleep quality, sleep latency and rapid-eye-movement sleep in healthy people exposed to 900 MHz for 30 minutes (Makker et al., 2009). The study concluded that radiofrequency exposure is transitional and affects only the initial sleep phase. A review of cognitive function had similar results. Human volunteers showed neither negative changes in word, number, or picture recall, nor any change in spatial memory (Makker et al., 2009). The study also asserted that memory is unaffected by cell phone exposure because the brain’s memory function is so deep in the hippocampus. One test showed that cell phone radiation exposure actually increased accuracy in working memory tasks (Makker et al., 2009).
Government agencies have experts to assess various risks and issue public policies on behalf of their citizens. The WHO publishes a fact sheet titled “Electromagnetic Fields and Public Health: Mobile Phones.” It describes cell phone technology and radiofrequency exposure. It also includes the following policy statement: “To date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use” (Fact Sheet, 2014). In the United States, the FCC publishes a Consumer Guide called “Wireless Devices and Health Concerns.” The FCC states, “According to the FDA and the WHO, among other organizations, to date, the weight of scientific evidence has not effectively linked exposure to radiofrequency energy from mobile devices with any known health problems” (Guide, 2017).
There is no consensus of opinion within the scientific community about the dangers of cell phone technology. The conflicting evidence summarized in this report illustrates the challenges of resolving the controversy, which makes the future of cell phone research very
important. Because the results of previous studies have had mixed results, more long-term and large-scale studies must be done, such as well-designed and prospective studies (Sachdev, Vats and Kohli, 2009). Some scientists have also recommended using pigs or other primates in future studies to more closely match human biology (Sachdev, Vats and Kohli, 2009). The sedentary behavior study suggested that future research include non-students, other age groups, and diverse ethnicities and socioeconomic groups (Lepp, 2013). New research should focus on children, who may be more sensitive to radiation than adults (Hardell, 2017). The Sachdev et al., (2009) study noted that Grade school age children have become the new marketing targets for cell phones. In addition, their skulls are thinner bone so stimuli may have stronger effects and they are potentially exposed to the radiation effects for longer (Sachdev et al., 2009). Going forward, cell phone studies should eliminate mixed messages from government agencies, such as the FDA’s assurance of no association between cell phones and adverse health outcomes, while at the same time it recommends additional research to address gaps in knowledge (Agarwal, et al., 2011).
How can a person have an informed opinion on this controversial and complex topic? Cell phones do not carry public health warnings, so we are on our own to make sense of the conflicting reports. On the one hand, there are scientists who have identified a cause and effect relationship between cell phone radiation and significant threats to our well-being. Conversely, there are an equal number of qualified professionals who have assessed the same risks and declared there is no connection. People who are unsure about the potential hazards of cell phones can monitor ongoing studies and new developments. They should also be aware that the current findings include several precautions to reduce radiofrequency energy exposure. For example,
avoiding a sedentary lifestyle can be achieved by not taking a cell phone along in a pocket or purse to resist the ever-present invitation to “sit and play” (Lepp et al., 2013). The Bluetooth article suggests using a speaker and a hands-free phone without an earpiece as the safer way to talk and drive (Dhami, 2015). The FCC’s Consumer Guide also offers preventive measures, including increasing the distance between the device and your body and consider texting rather than talking – but don’t text while driving (Guide, 2017). The WHO recommends limiting the number and length of calls, as well as using a phone in areas of good reception because it allows the phone to transmit at reduced power (Fact Sheet, 2014).
I have personal concerns about cell phones as a result of this project. Initially, I perceived rumors of cell phones causing cancer as “internet legends” and I was skeptical that there could be any truth to them. After all, how could so many people be exposed to a major health risk and no one know about it? In reality, there is a large body of fact-based research that favors a cause and effect relationship. Cancer touched our family with the loss of my cousin, Megan, who died at age 39 from a rare soft tissue cancer. I am not saying that her disease was tied to cell phones. However, I believe that any findings that cell phones cause adverse human health consequences should not be ignored. There are historical cases of supposedly safe things that later cause us harm. While the results may not be conclusive, there is enough evidence of a connection between mobile phones and health issues to use them with caution. Now that I am aware of this controversial issue, I will keep my phone somewhere other than my pocket and take steps to reduce exposure. I do not have children yet, but I empathize with parents who might be alarmed about exposing them to this potential long-term hazard. Finally, I believe the public relies on our government to protect our welfare. I worry that a big technology industry making billions cannot be trusted to do the right thing. The government should sponsor appropriate independent research so that we will soon have a more definitive resolution of this topic.
Agarwal, A., Singh, A., Hamada, A., & Kesari, K. (2011). Cell phones and male infertility: a review of recent innovations in technology and consequences. International braz j urol, 37(4), 432-454. doi:10.1590/s1677-55382011000400002
De Souza, F. T., Correia-Silva, J. F., Ferreira, E. F., Siqueira, E. C., Duarte, A. P., Gomez, M. V., Gomes, C. C. (2014). Cell Phone Use and Parotid Salivary Gland Alterations: No Molecular Evidence. Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention, 23(7), 1428-1431. doi:10.1158/1055-9965.epi-13-1357
Dhami, A. K. (2015). Studies on cell phone radiation exposure inside a car and near a Bluetooth device. International Journal of Environmental Research, 9(3), 977-980. doi:10.22059/ijer.2015.985
Electromagnetic fields and public health: mobile phones. (2014, October). Retrieved from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs193/en/
Gaudin, N. (2011, May 31). Media Centre – IARC Press Releases. Retrieved from http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2011/index.php
Hardell, L. (2017). World Health Organization, radiofrequency radiation and health – a hard nut to crack (Review). International Journal of Oncology, 51(2), 405-413. doi:10.3892/ijo.2017.4046
Koca, O., Gökçe, A., Öztürk, M., Ercan, F., Yurdakul, N., & Karaman, M. (2013). Effects of intensive cell phone (Philips Genic 900) use on the rat kidney tissue. Urology Journal, 10(2), 886-891. doi:10.1016/s1569-9056(13)60309-7
Lepp, A., Barkley, J. E., Sanders, G. J., Rebold, M., & Gates, P. (2013). The relationship between cell phone uses, physical and sedentary activity, and cardio-respiratory fitness in a sample of U.S. college students. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 10(1), 79. doi:10.1186/1479-5868-10-79
Makker, K., Varghese, A., Desai, N. R., Mouradi, R., & Agarwal, A. (2009). Cell phones: Modern man’s nemesis? Reproductive BioMedicine Online, 18(1), 148-157. doi:10.1016/s1472-6483(10)60437-3
Sachdev, A., Vats, H., & Kohli, D. (2009). Cell phones and tumor: Still in no man’s land. Indian Journal of Cancer, 46(1), 5. doi:10.4103/0019-509x.48589
Sage, C., & Burgio, E. (2017). Electromagnetic fields, pulsed radiofrequency radiation, and epigenetics: How wireless technologies may affect childhood development. Child Development, 89(1), 129-136. doi:10.1111/cdev.12824
Wireless Devices and Health Concerns. (2017, September 8). Retrieved from https://www.fcc.gov/consumers/guides/wireless-devices-and-health-concerns