How harmful is smartphone radiation and how to stay safe?

Cell phones have become ubiquitous tools of our everyday - the number of users has gone up to 5 billion in a world of 8 billion people. Accordingly, the exposure of the general population to their radiofrequency (RF) fields is on the constant rise. This development has massively increased concerns about the safety of using wireless devices and all of the possible health hazards they might bring about. At the same time, the general lack of knowledge about RF radiation and its effects persists. In the first part of our new blog series, we try to demystify some of the main concerns about RF radiation and provide solutions on how to protect ourselves from its harm.

Radiation is the emission of energy from any source - even our own bodies. It exists across an electromagnetic spectrum: from very low-frequency radiation such as radiation from power lines to very high-frequency radiation such as the x-rays.

We are commonly exposed to two types - ionizing radiation which includes the UV and x-rays, and non-ionizing radiation which includes radio frequency (RF) emission from mobile phones and other wireless devices. It is known that ionizing radiation has a lot of damaging health effects - it boosts cancer risk by shredding molecules in the body and destroying the DNA. But for RF as the non-ionizing radiation, scientists’ opinions on the existing data are divided. So far it has one known biological effect - an ability to heat the tissue by exciting its molecules. However, scientific studies show that prolonged exposure to even very low levels of RF radiation, possibly by unknown mechanisms other than heating, makes experimental animals prone to tumors. Countless other studies on experimental animals have proven that long-term exposure to RF radiation from mobile phones and Wi-Fi affects the production of hormones, causes cognitive decline, and induces anxiety-like behaviors, among many other health-deteriorating effects.

aAccording to the World Health Organisation, RF radiation is currently classified as “possibly carcinogenic”, which should already set off alerts considering its potential impact on health. For comparison: tobacco now belongs to the group of substances classified as “carcinogenic for humans”, but it took many years, research, and a global epidemic for its fatal harm to be recognized and classified as such. It is not hard to imagine that RF radiation, just like tobacco, will one day be officially ‘promoted’ into higher ranks of harmfulness. Researchers just haven’t been able to cope with the speed of the uncontrollable growth of technology and the influence of the tech companies. Same as the ‘big tobacco’, the ‘big wireless’ industry thrives on self-serving lobbying and propaganda. Meanwhile, billions of cell phone users are subjected to an ongoing public-health experiment without being aware of it.

Cancer risks aside, research studies have shown that low-intensity RF radiation elicits a range of pathophysiological conditions in experimental animals and humans alike. Still, as there is limited evidence of effects on humans, and scientists interpret existing data differently, a universal agreement is yet to be reached. The momentary lack of officially agreed upon evidence that RF radiation is harmful clearly doesn't mean it is safe.

In recent years we have witnessed the proliferation of RF radiation devices in all domains of our lives - they are in our homes and offices, right next to our beds when we sleep, attached to our bodies when we’re on the go. And yet, we are still not informed enough on how their radiation interferes with us, or how the manufacturers of these devices recommend us to use them safely. With this lack of knowledge, many of us fail to take the needed steps to prevent ourselves from harm. For example, many do not know that cell phones and other wireless devices emit RF radiation continually, even when they are turned off. Or that the effect of this RF radiation intensifies the closer the device is to the body, and therefore it should always be kept at a certain distance. The biggest exposure and health hazard is when such a device is placed next to the head. Every millimeter counts since the exposure raises in quadratic proportion when the phone is at a distance of 5 mm or less from the body. However, companies testing phones for compliance with the safety limit usually test at a 5 to 15 mm distance, while in some countries, the permitteddistance stretches up to 25 mm.

fine print radiation warning of a smartphone

Screenshot of the legal fine print in the settings of the Motorola One Action 2019

All mobile phones must meet the RF exposure standard, but medical and biological experts generally agree that, regardless of the standard, adverse health effects can occur. For users who wish to reduce the RF radiation absorption, it doesn’t make a significant impact to just choose a phone with a lower specific absorption rate (SAR). The most effective way is to hold the phone away from the head or body and to use speaker mode or hands-free accessories such as headphones or earbuds. It is also recommended to avoid making calls when the signal is weak as this causes phones to boost RF transmission power. Other helpful measures include shortening your phone calls or texting instead, reducing the time you spend near the phone and other devices that give off RF radiation, as well as reducing the time you spend with a phone placed against your ear or close to your body. Carrying your phone in your pockets or keeping it on your nightstand next to your bed should be maximally avoided.

Whenever it is not possible to keep a distance between you and your phone, products developed specifically for blocking radiation - such as Toca Smart Pouch and No Signal Sleeve - can protect you from its harmful effects. The use of special fabrics in these products is comparable to wearing a special lead vest that protects you when exposed to x-rays, or putting on sunblock when going out in the sun. Even though UV and x-rays are considered more harmful due to their official classification as carcinogenic, the negative impact of RF radiation from our phones needs to be taken just as seriously, if not more. After all, it is still on each of us to discover the warnings hidden in the fine print and find ways to guard our own wellbeing.

Written by Adela Lovric

Artwork by Denis Altschul

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