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Is the Radiation From My Cell Phone Dangerous?

Does too much cell phone use lead to adverse health effects? Some studies say no, while others claim a definitive link. Everyday Einstein helps separate fact from fiction when it comes to our handheld devices.

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD,
June 2, 2015
Episode #149

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A quick internet search on the dangers of radiation—often called electromagnetic fields or EMF—coming from our increasingly popular handheld devices produces some pretty intimidating results. Some articles state that there is no link at all between EMF and adverse health effects. Others claim there are clear links between cancer and cell phone use, sometimes citing an even higher risk for children. So, who should we believe? Do we really need to throw out our WiFi routers, our Fitbits, and our smart phones and go off the grid for the sake of our health?

What Is Electromagnetic Radiation?

A main source of fear of the radiation coming from our cell phones is that it gets confused with other sources of radiation we already know to be harmful. So, let’s break down what exactly is meant by electromagnetic radiation.

As discussed in an earlier episode, radiation is a form of energy that describes everything from the optical light we use to see to the X-ray emission that tells us if we have a broken bone. These different types of radiation can be broken up into categories based on their wavelength, which is related to the amount of energy they carry. Short wavelength radiation, like X-rays or gamma rays, have higher energies, while lower energy levels are associated with long wavelength radiation like microwaves and radio waves.

A key difference between long and short wavelength light is the ability of short wavelength radiation to ionize the atoms in biological tissue like that in our bodies. When an atom or molecule is ionized, it goes from being neutral to having a charge (i.e. becoming an ion) through removal of an electron. This ionization can cause permanent damage, and so our exposure to it must be limited. Getting the occasional X-ray at your doctor’s office is okay, but the X-ray technician will usually step out of the office when the image is taken, so that she or he is not constantly exposed throughout the day.

Longer wavelength radio waves (sometimes called radio frequency emissions or RF emissions for short) are lower energy and not capable of ionizing tissue. Thus, they are used commonly for radio or television broadcasting, satellite communications, and, of course, cell phones.

RF emissions are also used for non-communication purposes, most notably in microwaves. The absorption of energy at microwave wavelengths is very efficient in water molecules. Microwaves work by transferring microwave radiation to water molecules, which are then heated much more quickly than in a conventional oven.

Our cell phones are also constantly sending and receiving RF emission. When a friend calls your cell phone, that message travels through a network of telephone wires until it reaches a base station that is closest to your phone. That station then sends out radio waves to be detected by a receiver in your phone where the signal is converted into the sound of your friend’s voice.

Longer wavelength radiation is not completely harmless, however. In large doses, RF emission can also cause tissue damage if it causes too high a spike in temperature. Your eyes are particularly vulnerable since the blood flow there is low and heat is not as easily dissipated. Obviously harmful doses of RF radiation, however, arise from extreme situations like spending time inside your microwave. They are thus very unlikely to occur from everyday activities. 

So, we know not to stick our head in the microwave, but what about the lower doses of RF radiation that come from WiFi-enabled devices like our smart phones? Where do we draw the line?

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