“Raising the Bar” on Cell Phone Radiation Risks

electromagnetic_radiationHow many times have you been told to get off the phone before a Motorola-shaped tumor starts growing in your head? Apart from exceeding your monthly minutes, this parental measure may also prevent costly hospital bills.

The global community has feared the dangers of radiation from these mobile devices as cell phone usage has continued to exponentially increase.  Not surprisingly, people neighboring cell phone towers have begun to worry over adverse effects of their close proximity. When comparing risk-perception surveys between 2005 and 2010, French researchers noticed a 20.4% increase in people who considered living near a tower to “increase risk of cancer.” Addressing its own citizens’ concerns about these budding structures, an Iranian study went so far as to measure radiation exposure levels and ensured that they fell within both national and global standards.

Currently, the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection and Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers have recommended safety exposure guidelines to protect the occupationally exposed and general public, adding regulations to limit exposure to about 0.4 W/kg and 0.08 W/kg, respectively.  That being said, on what basis did they base these “standards” on?  To understand this, we must go into the science behind this type of radiation.

In the form of microwaves, radiation from cell phones, called “radiofrequency fields” (RF), have been experimentally manipulated on animals and humans alike, and the “specific absorption rate” (SAR) measures the amount of RF absorbed by the body from a mobile handset.  RF is not a novel concept; it has been used in medicine, military, and a variety of consumer products for years.  Once the introduction of wireless communication sparked an increase in the number exposed to RF, more concerns were voiced over the harmful effects of mobile phones, and subsequently, more studies have dished out worrisome conclusions about cell radiation.

After receiving 90-minute exposure from a “typical” mobile phone everyday for 8 weeks, baby mice suffered temporary spatial memory impairment, suggesting visual information-processing mechanisms can be harmed upon long term daily exposure.  Furthermore, rats subject to this radiation experienced a “remarkable increase” in leakage of the blood brain barrier, a hydrophobic barrier in mammalian brain capillaries that prevents harmful substances in the blood from going to the brain. Worst-case scenarios toy with the idea of genotoxicity to the mammalian brain, such as unwanted alterations in the gene expression of the cortex, cerebellum, and hippocampus.

That being said, more recent reviews on these publications try to ease our tension.  The IRAC classification of RF as “carcinogenic” to humans may have been based on limited evidence since not all mutagens are carcinogens.  Each study utilized different RF exposure facilities, rates of transmission, SARs, durations of continuous/intermittent exposure, types of cells, genotoxicity thresholds, and statistical methods. And by doing so, this range of variables made direct comparison of data obtained nearly impossible, even by the same investigators conducting different experiments, and might have contributed to controversial results published. A statistical meta-analysis of these studies from 1990 to 2011 reassures there may be no significant causation between current mobile phone devices and claimed health complications, such as cancer of immune malfunctions.

At the moment, the Federal Communications Committee (FCC) has set national recommendations for “localized head/brain exposure” levels at 2.0 W/kg of body weight, yet all cell phones sold in the U.S must fall under the maximum 1.6 W/kg standard.  If your two-year contract is coming to a close, consider these facts before your next purchase: T-Mobile Samsung Galaxy Note has the lowest SAR at 0.19, and the highest SAR comes from RIM BlackBerry Curve 9310 at 1.58. Even so, the numbers cannot do all the talking.  The FCC cautions that the “most effective means to reduce exposure” are holding the cell phone away from the head or body and to use the speakerphone or hands-free accessory, as opposed to comparing to SAR values.

For now, it is up to the consumer to decide whether they are willing to take the risk, if it is really a risk at all.

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3. Nittby, H., Brun, A., Eberhard, J., Malmgren, L., Persson, B.R.R., Salford, L.G. 2009. Increased blood-brain barrier permeability in mammalian brain 7 days after exposure to radiation from a GSM-900 mobile phone. Pathphysiol. 16: 103-112.
4. Ntzouni, M.P., Skouroliakou, A., Kostomitsopoulos, N., Margaritis, L.H. 2013. Transient and cumulative memory impairments induced by GSM 1.8 GHz cell phone signal in a mouse model. Electromagn Biol Med. 31 (4): 344-355.
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6. “Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) For Cell Phones: What It Means For You.” Federal Communications Commission. FCC, 19 May 2011. Web. 07 Mar. 2013.
7. Vijayalaxmi, T.J. Prihoda. Genetic damage in human cells exposed to non-ionizing radiofrequency fields: A meta-analysis of the data from 88 publications (1990–2011).  2012. Mutation Research/Genetic Toxicology and Environmental Mutagenesis. 749 (1-2): 1-16.

Megan Flaviano is a junior studying the Biology of Global Health at Georgetown University. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.