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Unless you've had your cell phone permanently glued to your ear, chances are you've heard the recent health buzz: Mobile devices may cause cancer. While it's true that the National Cancer Institute has ruled them safe, a growing number of independent researchers and the nation's best doctors disagree.
Those experts point out that the FCC wireless regulations on cell phone safety are largely based on something called specific absorption rate (SAR) levels, or the rate at which our bodies absorb radiation. Most phones do comply with the federal standards, but SAR monitors only thermal effects. (In other words, if the radiation from your phone isn't cooking your brain, it's regarded as safe.) But mounting scientific evidence suggests that nonthermal radio frequency radiation (RF)—the invisible energy waves that connect cell phones to cell towers, and power numerous other everyday items—can damage our immune systems and alter our cellular makeup, even at intensities considered safe by the FCC.
"The problem is that RF can transfer energy waves into your body and disrupt its normal functioning," explains Cindy Sage, an environmental consultant in Santa Barbara, California, who has studied radiation for 28 years. "Here's why that's crucial: Overwhelming evidence shows that RF can cause DNA damage, and DNA damage is a necessary precursor to cancer."
The 2010 Interphone study, the largest to date on RF exposure from mobile phones, has spawned a quagmire of controversy, says health researcher and medical writer Kerry Crofton, Ph.D., who spent four years reviewing RF science for her book Wireless Radiation Rescue: Safeguarding Your Family from the Risks of Electro-Pollution. Many groups, including the National Cancer Institute and the telecom industry, read the results of that study as a green light for wireless calling. Others, like Crofton, point out that because it was largely based on lower cellphone usage in the '90s, the research has little bearing on today's world, in which 285 million Americans have mobile phones and 83 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds are "wired" all the time and sleep with their cell phones next to their heads.
One thing the Interphone study did find? People who chatted via cell for just 30 minutes a day for 10 years saw their risk of glioma (the type of brain tumor that killed Ted Kennedy) rise 40 percent. As a result, many European countries are considering banning cell phones for children under age 6 (RF penetrates little kids' brains more easily), and France has already banned all wireless technology in some schools and many public places, notes physician and epidemiologist Samuel Milham, M.D., a leader in the growing field of electromagnetic research.
All parties agree on this: More studies need to be done. In the meantime, it's best to take easy precautions—and not just with mobile phones. "Never before in human history have we gone from one radiated environment to another," says Crofton. "We're going to wireless offices and living in wireless homes. Even beaches and parks are going wireless. We're exposed everywhere."
The good news is that you don't need to ditch your gadgets. This advice will let you stay plugged in—and keep you healthy.
When your phone is on (which it probably is even as you read this) it's constantly sending and receiving RF signals to and from the nearest cell tower to keep you in service. The farther you are from a tower, the harder your phone has to work and the more RF it emits, explains David Carpenter, M.D., director of the Institute for Health and Environment at the University at Albany. The activity really amps up when you're, say, driving through rural areas. Plus, within the close confines of a car, your entire core is exposed to the radiation.
The safer solution: Keep your phone off when driving until you really need it, says Carpenter. And no matter where you are, avoid holding a cell phone directly to your noggin (the Interphone study showed gliomas were more prevalent on the side of the head people continuously pressed phones to), always keep it at least six inches or more from your body (in your purse, not your pocket), and use either speakerphone or a corded headset (not a wireless headset). Or text up a storm. If you have a smartphone that's loaded with games, music, and movies, turn your wireless settings off while playing or rocking out. Similarly, don't ever use your cell phone as a bedside alarm clock without first disabling the wireless mode.