Mobile phones: a silent risk to public health?
Ever since mobile phones first became widely available in the US and UK in the 1990s, they have become an integral part of modern existence over the last 20 years. Approximately 95% of UK households own a mobile phone. Globally, there are more than 6 billion mobile phone users. Along with a growing user-ship, the amount of time people spend on phones has seen a sharp rise in recent decades. According to RescueTime, an app monitoring phone use, people spend an average of 3 hours and 15 minutes on their phones each day.
Given the massive usage of mobile phones on a global scale, isn’t it right to scrutinise their impact on public health? One emergent area of research that has sparked concern is that surrounding mobile phone radiation.
Mobile phones emit and expose users to radiofrequency (RF) radiation, a form of electromagnetic radiation. We can categorise electromagnetic radiation into ionising (emitted by x-rays and cosmic rays) and non-ionising (that emitted by mobile phones). The antenna of our mobile phones emits this RF radiation, and the parts of our body closest to the mobile antenna can absorb this energy: we typically hold mobile phones against the side of our heads when making a call, or next to our reproductive organs when its in our pocket.
Although conclusive evidence for a link between exposure to non-ionising radiation from mobile phones and a cancer risk is yet to be confirmed, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies the radiation emitted by mobile phones as possibly carcinogenic (promoting the formation of cancer) in humans.
In 2018, The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences conducted a scientific peer review of a study by the National Toxicology Program (NTP) into the emission of RF radiation from phones. It was one of the largest conducted studies into the health effects of mobile phone radiation. NTP scientists exposed thousands of mice and rats to doses of radiation equivalent to an average mobile phone user’s exposure over a lifetime. Specific biological similarities between rats and humans make them valuable indicators of risks to human health. They concluded that there is “clear evidence” that radiation from mobile phones causes cancer, noting instances of a heart tissue cancer in rats that was simply too rare to be explained as random occurrence. The NTP received criticism for potentially downplaying the extent of their findings: the peer review also found “some evidence” of cancer in the brain and adrenal glands.
A piece of investigative journalism published by The Guardian highlighted the lack of coverage by mainstream news outlets in US and Europe on the subject of mobile phone safety. They point to a disconnect between the amount of research published versus the amount of media coverage received, suggesting the presence of a strong industry lobby operating in the background. The authors suggested a parallel between the tactics used by the tobacco and oil industries in the past with the communication strategies of mobile telecommunication businesses today.
This isn’t an issue taken lightly by the World Health Organisation: “Given the immense number of people who use mobile phones, even a small increase in the incidence of adverse effects on health could have major public health implications.”
This will be one of a series of articles that we will release on the subject.
This article was brought to you by Dig Detox. Our mission is to help people use technology safely because we believe health is your most valuable asset. Please visit www.digdetox.com for more articles, research and information about the movement.
By Effie Webb
University of Oxford
First Published 06 May 2020
The National Toxicology Program
The International Agency for Research on Cancer
WHO (World Health Organisation)
The National Institute on Environmental Health Sciences