In August, the Cell Phone Right to Know Act was introduced in the House of Representatives, with the hope of giving consumers more information on the link between cell phone use and cancer. It came just a month after the GAO recommended that the FCC reassess its cell phone radiation standards. But the bill was referred to committee and hasn’t gone anywhere.
The debate over the risks of cell phone radiation is one that will continue as we use our cell phones more and more, and start using them at younger and younger ages. Cell phones emit low-frequency radiation that is “non-ionizing,” like microwaves: it doesn’t damage molecules by removing electrons. This contrasts with high-frequency radiation like x-rays, which are “ionizing” and understood to increase cancer risk.
But the long-term effects of non-ionizing radiation are in question. The FCC set its standard of 1.6 W/kg for cell phone radiation (or SAR, specific absorption rate) in 1996, when cell phone use was much less prevalent. Since then, a few studies have found a link between phone use and brain tumors, especially with heavy usage over a long period of time. In 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer categorized cell phone radiation as possibly carcinogenic.
But other studies of cell phone use over periods of 10-20 years have shown no or inconclusive links between cell phones and cancer. And some actually argue that cell phone radiation cannot cause cancer, due to its low-energy nature.
If you still worry about radiation, there are ways to minimize your risk. Using a headset or holding the phone further away from your body will decrease radiation exposure. For added precaution, Android app tawkon measures SAR levels and alerts you when exposure peaks. Radiation can increase when you have bad reception – while driving, in bad weather, in an elevator, when the network is congested, or even when you’re covering your antennae with your finger, explains cofounder Amit Lubovsky.
“Most of the time – I would say around 90 percent of the time – when you use your phone, your exposure is really low,” says Lubovsky. “In the remaining 5-10 percent of the time when exposure spikes … one minute of exposure in these conditions equals something like five hours of normal exposure.”
Lubovsky points out that we haven’t been using cell phones for long enough to test their effects over an individual’s lifetime – another reason for caution.
“Research is not conclusive yet,” admits Lubovsky. “We say: play safe.”