You are currently viewing The Health Risks of Cellphones

While there’s no hard evidence that they cause cancer, we don’t really understand the health risks of cellphones. It’s best to play it safe.

Up until I had a child I never gave much thought as to how cellphones work and what the health risks of cellphones are. As a parent, is my concern about not allowing my toddler to play with my cellphone justified?

“Cellphones emit radio-frequency energy; this energy is a form of electromagnetic radiation,” is what I first read when I went in search of the facts.

The very word radiation sends out an air of alarm. However, fear is apparently unfounded as electromagnetic energy can be divided into two types: ionising and non-ionising. Ionising energy is what sends radiologists scurrying from the room seconds before your x-ray fires. But what about non-ionising energy – the kind emitted by a cellphone? These are the same waves used to cook a chicken in a microwave oven – albeit at a much lower frequency.

How safe are cellphones?

Is it safe to have cellphones glued to our ears? No empirical evidence exists to say we shouldn’t. But, according to Devra Davies, a North American-based epidemiologist and writer, “the absence of evidence of any kind does not translate into proof of safety”.

So, it’s best to apply  the “precautionary principle” to the use of cellphones, particularly in children and teens.

Thankfully some large-scale worldwide research on the health risks of cellphones is currently underway. The Mobi-Kids project is dedicated exclusively to children. Davies believes that current research results, which claim that there is no risk, are largely flawed as brain cancer can take several decades to develop, and so we need to wait for the results to arrive. Furthermore, she believes we should have learned from the tobacco saga and not use the existence of uncertainty as a reason to delay action. While the jury is out, we should perhaps be practising prudence.

Playing it safe

Several countries have issued warnings against children using cellphones. In America, the state of Maine in America put forward a proposal that would enforce cellphone manufacturers to apply a permanent, non-removable warning label to every unit sold there. The label would cover at least 30% of the plain area of the phone and caution users to hold the unit several inches away from their heads or to use earphone-and-speaker technology. While in France a proposed bill may result in a ban on advertising cellphones to children under 12, and a further ban on the sale of phones to be used by those under six; it could also become compulsory for all handsets to be sold with accompanying earphones. France has also stipulated that manufacturers bring onto the market a phone that only allows texting, thereby eradicating the need to place the unit near the head.

And, finally, what of South Africa? Vodacom, in their brochure entitled A Parent’s Guide to Cell Phones states: “Science can never provide a guarantee that a situation or a technology is completely safe. Because of this, and the fact that cellphones have only been in widespread use for a relatively short time, research continues to provide further understanding.”

 We give you some helpful advice on deciding the right time to give your child a cellphone.

How to reduce your risk

According to CANSA, there is no conclusive evidence that cellphone use causes cancer, but they are continuously monitoring the situation.

Precautionary measures

Cansa recommends the following as precautionary measures:

  • Limit the number and duration of calls.
  • Use text messages when practical.
  • Switch sides of the head when the call is long.
  • Use a hands-free kit or the speakerphone mode to keep the phone at a distance from the head.
  • Instruct children and teenagers to limit calls to emergencies, as they are more vulnerable to long-term health effects.
Other precautionary measures
  • Do not sleep with a switched-on cellphone beside you.
  • Ensure children, especially teens, are not sleeping with the phone under their pillow to text friends after dark.
  • Do not use the cellphone if the signal bar is low as the signal will “try harder” to make contact.
  • Keep your phone out of trouser and breast pockets – sperm-count problems, as well as cardiovascular problems, have been noted.
  • Some evidence suggests that the radiation levels are at their highest just as the connection is made, so waiting for the person to answer before putting your phone to your ear may significantly cut radiation levels.
  • Radiation-protection covers are likely to increase the RF signals, as the signal increases as it attempts to make contact.

Donna Cobban