Health Impact of using a Mobile Phone

Do mobile phones pose a danger to our mental and physical health? We assess the claims. 

There are expected to be more smartphones than people in the world by 2021. With this growth comes increasing concern about the health impacts of their use – both in terms of mental health and the physical affects from the phone’s radiation. But the relatively recent rise of this technology means that we are far from understanding its effects, particularly on those who have been using mobiles since childhood.

According to the European Academic for Environmental Medicine, in their 2016 Guideline on EMF, the type of radiation emitted by mobile phones:

There is strong evidence that long-term exposure to certain EMFs is a risk factor for diseases such as certain cancers, Alzheimer's disease, and male infertility... Common EHS (electromagnetic hypersensivity) symptoms include headaches, concentration difficulties, sleep problems, depression, lack of energy, fatigue and flu-like symptoms.

In 2015, 230 scientists from 41 countries expressed “serious concerns” regarding the ubiquitous and increasing exposure to EMF generated by electric and wireless devices – through wifi, 3G, 4G, and mobile phones themselves, among other things. In 2017, more than 180 scientists and doctors called for a moratorium on the roll-out of 5G wireless technology, based on these health risks. Such technology will require massively upscaling the number of antennas, and with it the radiation emitted particularly in urban areas.

Yet, the direct links between mobile phones and such health problems remain less clear.

Mobile phones and cancer risk

In 2011, Christopher Wild, Director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), said:

It is important that additional research be conducted into the long‐ term, heavy use of mobile phones. Pending the availability of such information, it is important to take pragmatic measures to reduce exposure such as hands‐free devices or texting.

His comments followed the IARC’s week-long review of the existing research on the health risks of mobile phone use, by 31 scientists from 14 countries. Since then, much more research into the issue has been done. Yet the scientific community is far from reaching a consensus.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies radiation from mobile phones as ‘possibly carcinogenic’ – along with aloe vera, pickled vegetables and being a carpenter. When the decision to class it as a possible was made in 2011 based on the evidence to date, several of the scientists on the panel argued that the higher level categorisation (“probably carcinogenic”) was already justified.

In February 2018, American scientists published two highly-anticipated studies on the link in animals. These found that exposure to the kind of radiation emitted by mobile phones increased the risk of certain types of cancer in both rats and mice. Further study is needed to determine how the findings apply to humans.

Health risks and children

Many point out that the relatively new rise of mobile phones mean that studies on their long-term impact can only now be done.

Demands for more research into the issue are particular strong when it comes to the use of mobile phones by children. A study conducted in 2006 suggests that children absorb about 60 per cent more radiation into the head than adults. UK Charity MobileWise in particular is pushing for more research to be done. It claims: “Their immature nervous system makes them more susceptible to the long-term effects. Because they now start to use mobiles at a young age, their lifetime of exposure compounds their vulnerability.”

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.

Tips for Reducing Exposure

The NHS gives the following advice about reducing exposure when using mobile phones:

  • Only make short calls on your mobile phone, and avoid using it more than necessary.
  • Children should only use mobile phones for essential purposes and keep all calls short.
  • Use a hands-free kit to keep your phone as far away from your head as possible, and keep your mobile phone away from your body when it's in standby mode.
  • Only use your phone when the reception is strong – this is often indicated by bars of energy on your phone screen. Weak reception causes the phone to use more energy to communicate with the base station.
  • Consider the specific absorption rate (SAR) of a mobile phone before you buy it – this is how much radio wave energy is absorbed into the body. Mobile phone retailers have a responsibility to make this information available to you before you buy.

Mobile phones and mental health risk

Normal use of mobile phones does not appear to increase risks of mental illness. However, a growing number of scientific studies suggest that addiction or over-use may increase likeliness of serious mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and bi-polar disorder. According to one study, teenagers who spend five or more hours a day on electronic devices are 71% more likely to have a risk factor for suicide, than those who spend less than an hour. However, it remains unclear whether addiction to mobile phones can trigger mental health problems, or whether those suffering from mental illness face increased likelihood of mobile phone addiction.

On the other hand, links between late night use and disrupted sleep are clearer. The blue light emitted from screens suppresses the secretion of melatonin, a hormone that helps you sleep. Exposure for 6.5 hours a day was found to alter circadian rhythms (our 24-hour bodily clock) by 3 hours on average. This in itself can lead to further problems. In 2018, a study of more than 91,000 individuals suggested that late night mobile phone use could increase the likelihood of developing a number of psychological problems such as depression, bipolar disorder and neuroticism.

Mobile phones and risk of infertility

Several studies have found links between mobile phone use and infertility in men. In 2014, the University of Exeter published one such paper:

This study strongly suggests that being exposed to radio-frequency electromagnetic radiation from carrying mobiles in trouser pockets negatively affects sperm quality. This could be particularly important for men already on the borderline of infertility, and further research is required to determine the full clinical implications for the general population.

Science on the health risks of using your mobile phone is uncertain. But the evidence supports calls for further research.

Has the evidence been distorted?

In 2006 Henry Lai, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington, analysed 326 studies on the safety of mobile phones conducted since 1990. He discovered a clear split in their results: 44% of them found no biological effect while 56% did. He then reanalysed the results by funding source and found that 67% of the independently funding sources did find a biological effect, while just 28% of the industry-funded ones did. In 2017, a second review published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that industry-funded studies were two and a half times less likely to find health effects than independent ones. 

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