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Radiation includes any wave that can be found on the electromagnetic spectrum. All wireless electronic objects emit some form of radiation, though most of them are considered low risk. They tend to have long and slow-moving waves. However, with the dramatic rise of cell phone use, people are concerned that their handsets might be killing them. Their worry is justified, but the results are unlikely.

The Discovery of Radioactivity

In 1896, Henri Becquerel conducted an experiment that involved exposing uranium crystal to sunlight. When he was through with the first phase, he closed the crystal and a photographic plate in a drawer, doing so merely for storage. When he returned days later, he discovered the crystal left its image on the plate. Pierre and Marie Curie performed further tests on the phenomenon and ultimately coined the term “radioactivity.”

Ionizing Radiation

Ionizing radiation is at the high end of the electromagnetic spectrum with short waves and a high frequency. Exposure to high doses can cause burns, hair loss, birth defects, cancer, other illnesses and even immediate death. There was no surprise when someone was first hurt by ionizing radiation. From the moment it was discovered, scientists knew that it could do serious damage to the body. Ionizing radiation is strong enough to pull an electron from an atom, thus creating an ion. X-rays, gamma rays, alpha rays and beta rays are all examples and were researched most thoroughly through a series of experiments by Ernest Rutherford. While ionizing rays are undoubtedly harmful, there is no significant threat from occasional low-level exposure. In fact, x-rays have made it easier than ever to diagnose certain bodily problems because they penetrate the tissue but not the bone.

Non-ionizing Radiation

Non-ionizing radiation is at the other end of the spectrum with long wavelengths and a low frequency. Some types include infrared light, microwaves, and radio frequency. While researchers are quite certain about the effects of ionizing radiation, the non-ionizing variety remains a bit of a mystery because the effects are slower and require increased exposure. While 300 joules of ionizing radiation could kill a person, it would take 1.5 million joules of this type of radiation to do the same.

Radiation Resources

Mobile Phone Radiation & Health

There is a level of radiation in the soil, in the food we eat and from outer space. Over 80% of the radiation that a human being is exposed to in their average day is natural. When an object emits radiation, it usually isn’t of any concern. Cellular phones are no exception. The radiation they produce is considered radio frequency and is very much the same as those produced by power lines and household appliances. They can change brain activity during sleep, but not adversely. They may also cause headaches and affect balance minimally. However, the FDA does not find them hazardous enough to regulate their sale or manufacture in any way.

Unlike gamma and x-rays, cell phones can never ionize atoms within the body no matter how long one is used. However, prolonged exposure to non-ionizing radiation is harmful in other ways and those who use cell phones regularly over the course of ten years or more may be at risk of benign brain tumors and tissue damage. In years past, higher rates of cancer have been reported in families living very near mobile phone towers. However, these reports do not provide enough evidence and many scientists consider the diagnoses mere coincidence. 

For those who are still concerned, there are several precautions that should be taken. Firstly, use a landline (versus the cell phone) whenever possible. If a cell phone must be used, have a headset so that the phone doesn’t have to be right next to the ear. Alternately, one may choose to text which also keeps the phone away from the head and face. Finally, try to use the phone when it has a good signal. When a phone has a poor signal, it has to work harder and emit more radio waves.

A more recent concern is the impact of cellular phones on sperm. A 2008 study showed that there was a noticeable decrease in the motility, viability and morphology of sperm the more a man used a cell phone on a given day. From a proximity standpoint: holding the phone up to one’s head is considered a risk to the brain. Therefore, leaving the phone in one’s pocket may actually add risk to the sperm. There is limited research on this idea and it is far too early to draw conclusions.

Additional Resources

  • Better Health - “Mobile Phones and your Health” – an article outlining health effects based on real academic studies

  • Cell phones – do they cause cancer? - Medicine Plus explains what we already know and how we can reduce our risks

  • Cell Phone Radiation (PDF) - This extensive article is a review on the risks of cancer and other illnesses from cell phone use

  • Cell Phone Towers & Cell Phones (PDF) - A fact sheet answering frequently asked questions about radio frequency energy. Very straightforward but thorough and helpful

  • EMF & Cancer - Questions and their answers regarding the risks of magnetic field exposure

  • EMFs & Public Health - The World Health Organizations conclusions about wireless technology’s effects on public health

  • FDA - Section of the Food & Drug Administration’s website dedicated to cell phones

  • FTC - The Federal Trade Commission’s tips for avoiding cell phone radiation

  • ICNIRP (PDF) - “Exposure to High Frequency Electromagnetic Fields, Biological Effects and Health Consequences” from the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection

  • Nonionizing Radiation (PDF) - A compilation of studies

  • Radiation Protection - The Australian Government’s take on mobile telephones and their potential health effects

  • Radiofrequency Safety - Learn about radio frequency, microwaves and their effects

  • Understanding RF - Information about radiation and the electromagnetic spectrum

  • Vanderbilt - “Cell Phones and Health: Does Cell Phone Radiation Really Negatively Impact One’s Health?”

  • Wireless Communications & Health (PDF) - An outline of Motorola’s research on the health risks, or lack thereof, of their products

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