Is Cell Phone Radiation A Threat? Recent Research Says Yes... And No

By Ben Wolford on March 27, 2014 5:28 PM EDT

Research over the last few years is divided about whether and how much cell phone tower radiation is affecting people's health. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Research over the last few years is divided about whether and how much cell phone tower radiation is affecting people's health. (Photo: Shutterstock)

The web is crowded with information claiming that cell phones will give you brain cancer. On the whole, the claims sound like paranoid extensions of fluoride and vaccination fears of the past. "Children have thinner skulls," announces one maker of cell phone safety gear, "which allows for up to 500 percent greater penetration of cell phone radiation." (No study was cited.)

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But there's a growing body of legitimate, peer-reviewed science making similarly bold claims about the dangers of cell phone radiation. Different experiments over the last several years have drawn conclusions about cell phone radiation exposure that range from a few people might find it harder to concentrate to you're more likely to get a brain tumor to guard your sperm.

Seriously. In 2009, a team of scientists in Australia gave human sperm an overnight dose of cell phone radiation — known as radio-frequency electromagnetic radiation, or RF-EMR for short. The next morning, the sperm behaved as though they were drunk: they could barely swim. Worse, their precious DNA cargo was corrupted. "These findings have clear implications for the safety of extensive mobile phone use by males of reproductive age," the authors wrote.

Most research, however, focuses on whether RF-EMR causes diseases. In a little more than a decade, there's been no conclusive evidence and a broad disparity in the methods of experimentation. Some rely on self-reporting. Others have actually measured RF-EMR levels from inside the test subjects' bedrooms. Critics of these studies say placebo effects and lifestyle differences beyond the scope of the studies could influence the outcomes.

"Studies on the health effects of mobile phones are very complex, and interpretation of the results necessitates understanding and careful consideration of various aspects including the timing of the study, the exposure variables of relevance, and the influence of methodological limitations," wrote Elisabeth Cardis, of Spain's Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology, in Occupational and Environmental Medicine. To prove her point, she noted that in 15 instances, the very same study had been interpreted in opposite ways. "Some have taken them to suggest that mobile phones are safe, others that they cause tumors." Still others contend there's just not enough information.

In December, one group of Spanish scientists attempted to eliminate any trace of subjectivity in one of their own experiments, conducted in 2003. They re-analyzed it last year, tossing out participants who had had previous health issues and using a different kind of statistical calculation that took into account other variables, including the use of other electronic devices. "The [RF-EMR] exposure variable remained statistically significant" for a host of symptoms, from lack of appetite to irritability, they reported in BMJ Open.

Yet underlying all of this research is a cautionary tale from 2002 about the power of the mind. A pair of Finnish scientists recruited 20 volunteers who reported feeling effects of cell phone radiation. In a lab, the researchers monitored their vital signs while exposing them to RF-EMR, asking them to report any symptoms as soon as they appeared. In a twist, sometimes the researchers weren't exposing them to radiation at all. The results were telling. "The number of reported symptoms was higher during sham exposure than during real exposure conditions," they wrote in Bioelectromagnetics. The fear of exposure proved more dangerous than actual exposure.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention remains skeptical of any hazards, as well. They say the studies linking cell phones to cancer "do not establish this link definitively." The CDC also suggests the distraction caused by using a cell phone while driving is much more hazardous than any microwaves.

Above photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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