Last updated: November 2013
What's the health impact of using a mobile phone?
British neurosurgeon Kevin O’Neill, Chairman of the Brain Tumour Research Campaign, says: “It would be a mistake to ignore the mounting evidence pointing to a link between mobile phones and risks to health, especially when we know that children are much more vulnerable to phone radiation and that there are simple measures available to help them cut their exposure. We have an opportunity now to promote safety measures, mindful of the benefits of mobile phone technology but reflecting the potentially serious risks”.
The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) confirmed these concerns when, in May 2011, its expert panel of 30 scientists classified mobile phone radiation as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” after having reviewed all the existing evidence. This classification is often the first step towards an exposure being classified as probably or definitely carcinogenic. Indeed, some of the scientists on the panel argued that the higher level categorisation (“probably carcinogenic”) was already justified.
More research needed
However, WHO concluded that the lack of data for mobile phone use over time periods longer than 15 years warrant further research of mobile phone use and brain cancer risk. In particular, with the recent popularity of mobile phone use among younger people, and therefore a potentially longer lifetime of exposure, WHO has promoted further research on this group.
UK charity MobileWise highlights the fact that the use of mobiles among primary school children is on the rise and that by secondary school 9 out of 10 children are using them, many habitually. MobileWise is calling for them to be informed about how to limit their exposure – including keeping calls to a minimum, texting, using headsets and keeping phones away from the groin.
It states that phone companies should actively engage in the information campaign, providing customers with clear practical advice in marketing literature, on websites and during conversation. Small-print warnings in phone instruction manuals should be replaced with clear statements in a prominent place on phone packaging.
The Department of Health has issued warnings about the risks of mobile use, recommending that under-16s use phones only for essential calls. But MobileWise criticises the Government for doing little to publicise these warnings, citing the fact that the current Department of Health/NHS leaflet has never been printed and is only available as a pdf on the Department of Health website.
WHO gives this advice about reducing exposure levels:
- Mobile phones are low-powered radiofrequency transmitters. The handset only transmits power when it is turned on. The power (and hence the radio frequency exposure to a user) falls off rapidly with increasing distance from the handset. A person using a mobile phone 30–40 cm away from their body – for example when text messaging, accessing the Internet, or using a ‘hands free’ device – will therefore have a much lower exposure to radio frequency fields than someone holding the handset against their head.
- In addition to using ‘hands-free’ devices, which keep mobile phones away from the head and body during phone calls, exposure is also reduced by limiting the number and length of calls.
- Using the phone in areas of good reception also decreases exposure as it allows the phone to transmit at reduced power.
In addition, MobileWise recommends:
- Keep phones away from babies – before and after birth.
- Apply the same caution to cordless phones – use a corded one wherever possible.
Additional information about electromagnetic fields and public health from WHO