Technology Trade-offs, Part One: Cell Phones

by Ellen

Mobile cellular has been the most rapidly adopted technology in history. Today it is the most popular and widespread personal technology on the planet, with an estimated 4.6 billion subscriptions globally by the end of 2009 — International Telecommunications Union¹

Cell phones are amazing. Aside from all the cool extra features found on many mobile phones, just being able to pull a little device out of your pocket and call someone is absolutely Jetsons-like! When I go out without my phone I suffer panic at the thought of “what if?” despite having spent many adult years wandering around without the benefit of a mobile device.

It would be hard to dispute the convenience of the mighty cell phone. It’s there for emergencies or double-checking a grocery list right from the store aisle. We call for directions, to say we’re stuck in traffic or just as a way to pass the time. As long as our batteries don’t run out or we aren’t too far out in the boondocks, we have a portable connection to just about every aspect of our lives.

But, the cell phone has meant even more to developing countries whose technology is just now beginning to catch up.  Where there were few or no landline phones ten to fifteen years ago, cell phone towers have popped up.  Mobile technology has allowed huge leaps and bounds in connectivity to occur.

While other aspects of development lag in many countries, cell phone technology has grown rapidly. The International Telecommunications Union, an agency of the United Nations, also reported:

In 2008, mobile phone penetration in developing countries had reached that of Sweden under ten years earlier; for infant mortality, the rate in developing countries in 2007 was at the level where Sweden was 72 years earlier.

What then, are the trade-offs?

Unfortunately, cell phones don’t come without some risks. Far from trying to scare people away from them, I feel it’s important to begin addressing the risks now, so that safe, healthy use of mobile technology will become the norm in the future.

Here are a few of the cons of cell phones:

1) Automobile Accidents

Using a cell phone to talk or text while driving is downright dangerous. Cell phone usage while driving has been banned in many places around the world. Click here for a list of countries with restrictions. It’s interesting to note that the United States seems to be lagging behind much of the world.

In Massachusetts, drivers are required to keep at least one hand on the steering wheel while holding a phone. (!!!)

2) Pedestrian Accidents

It seems that people get pretty distracted while using cell phones and tend to become less aware of their surroundings. In a study of children using virtual reality software to simulate real crosswalks, researchers found that all of the children exhibited more risky behaviors when they attempted to cross the street while talking on cell phones.

In the virtual environment of the study, the children on cell phones were 43% more likely either to be hit by a car or have a close call.  Specifically, the cell phone users began crossing the street later, gave themselves less time to make it across in front of on-coming traffic, and looked both ways 20% fewer times.²

3) Radiation

Okay, here’s where we get controversial. There are loads of studies out there that seem to indicate that cell phone use is perfectly safe (with regard to health, not driving!).   I’m playing devil’s advocate today and not citing those studies. If they are correct, wonderful! What if they aren’t and we haven’t let enough time pass to obtain accurate data?

While we can measure the amount of radiation coming from a mobile phone (Radio Frequency-Electromagnetic Radiation or RF-EMR), and we can measure the specific energy absorption rate by tissue, or SAR, we can’t say exactly what health effects will result years in the future. Cell phone technology is still so new that it’s difficult to find studies that will convince the non-believers of health risk. Cancer takes a while to develop.

However, there are some studies that indicate that cell phone use increases the risk of cancer. For example, a study out of Israel found that cell phone users had a 50% greater chance of developing tumors of the salivary gland. Israel is a special population because cell phone use started there early, so there are more years of usage to study.³

The World Health Organization is also slated to release results of an analysis of mobile phone studies from thirteen different countries (Interphone). Live Science tells us:

The WHO effort reportedly involved studies in 13 countries looking at the difference in cell phone use between tumor sufferers and those in good health. Six of the eight studies that looked at a dangerous brain tumor called glioma showed some increased risk. Two of seven examining benign tumors of the nerve between the ear and the brain showed some increase. One study showed an increased risk of tumors of the parotid salivary gland.

Here are some other reports and studies you might want to read more about:

• From the Environmental Working Group:

EWG’s Cell Phone Radiation Report

Epidemiological evidence for an association between use of wireless phones and tumor diseases

Long-term use of cellular phones and brain tumours: increased risk associated with use for ≥ 10 years

Mobile Phone Use and Risk of Tumors: A Meta-Analysis

Dr. George Carlo EMF Cell Phone Dangers Interview

4) Cell Phone Radiation Affects Children MORE

Way back in 2005 Professor Sir William Stewart, chairman of the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) in the United Kingdom, released a report on Mobile Phones and Health. One recommendation of the report was that children under the age of eight should not use cell phones. This recommendation came despite the findings that “…uncertainties remain and a continued precautionary approach to their use is recommended until the situation is further clarified.”

In fact, in many countries around the world children are protected simply because it appears there is a good chance they will suffer long-term poor health consequences due to cell phone radiation.

From EMF Journal:

Countries ban use of cell phones by Children

· India – No use in children under 16 years of age (also it is an illegal offense for an expecting Mother to use the cell phone)

· Israel – No use in children under 12 years of age

· Russia – General limitation; no use under 12 years

· France – No long calls, no use under 16, banning of advertising to children under 12, mandatory earphones with all cell phones

· Japan – General limitation under 18 years of age

· Tajikistan – in Central Asia bans mobile phones from schools and Universities (11MAR09) to boost education. If caught carrying or talking on a cell phone, they will be fined.

· United Kingdom – General limitation under 12 years of age

· Torontos public health department has recommended children under eight should use a cell phone only in emergencies.

· Health warnings for children and the use of WiFi in the classroom have also recently arisen out of Germany.

In the July, 2009 issue of the International Journal of Oncology Drs. Lennart Hardell and Michael Carlberg reported findings from two large case-control studies using cancer cases identified from the Swedish Cancer Registries. The results were shocking: Patients with a certain type of brain cancer, astrocytoma, were five times as likely to be heavy cell phone users who began using cell phones ten years earlier AND who were under twenty when they first started using mobile phones.4

Unfortunately, as usage by children continues to rise, cell phones are being marketed to younger and younger children. The Firefly Mobile is intended for children as young as four. According the June 23, 2009 issue of The Times, more than half of British children aged five to nine own a mobile phone.

Research has shown that cell phone radiation penetrates the skulls of children much more effectively (deeply) because children’s skulls are less thick than adult skulls. Scroll down to page 1893 of Electromagnetic Absorption in the Human Head and Neck for Mobile Telephones at 835 and 1900 MHz to see photos of models of a 5-year old brain and a ten-year-old brain.5 (Update 5/7/11:  I’m linking to a new source of this article. Click on page 10 to see images.)

Devra L. Davis, PhD, MPH, Healthy Child Advisory Board Member and Director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is especially worried about children and cell phone use.  She’s quoted in the Epoch Times:

“Radiation gets much more deeply into the head of a 5-year-old or a 3-year-old than it does into that of an adult,” epidemiologist Devra Lee Davis explained.

She says children, because they have thinner skulls, are more at risk. “The science needs more work, but I want to ask, are we really prepared to risk our children’s brains until we find out for sure whether this is a hazard?”6

Dr. Davis testified before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on September 14, 2009 about the health effects of mobile phone radiation. This is a looooong video. If you are interested in hearing Dr. Davis, skip to around 54 minutes.

Here is another one of her short videos with very scary implications for children:

5) Weak Signal = More Radiation

If your signal is weak, your cell phone needs to use more power to maintain a connection and you are exposed to more radiation.  It’s best to turn it off until you reach an area with better coverage.

Similarly, in rural areas with few cell phone towers radiation emissions are larger because the towers must use more power to transmit signals.  (See page 11 of the EWG Report.)

6) Other Health Problems

Numerous health issues have been blamed on cell phones.  Problems range from “phantom” vibrations (when you think your phone is vibrating, but it’s not) to low sperm count.  Some complain of eyestrain and sore thumbs due to texting.  There was even a study linking cell phone use to low self-esteem.

Other complaints include dizziness, sleep disturbances, headaches, and behavioral problems.  ADHD and Alzheimer’s Disease are both being examined as having links to cell phone use.

In a study where rats were exposed to microwave radiation from a cell phone at the level of normal use, researchers found leakage of albumin across the blood-brain barrier as well as significant neuronal damage to the cortex, hippocampus, and basal ganglia of the brains.7

Why are these findings important?  The Swedish researchers (Hardell and Carlberg) who found the five-fold increased risk of brain cancer in children who use cell phones discuss similar animal studies as a means of explaining how chemicals may seep across the blood-brain barrier and cause cancer.  From Mobile Phones, Cordless Phones, and the Risk for Brain Tumours:

Several animal studies have shown dysfunction of the blood-brain barrier (BBB) caused by radiofrequency fields […].  Leakage of albumin into the brain has been demonstrated. The BBB consists of endothelial cells and endfeets of astrocytes. Thus, one mechanism might be that microwaves induce BBB dysfunction so that carcinogenic substances may leak into the brain whereby especially the astrocytes might be exposed. There is some support for that mechanism in our study since we found an increased risk for astrocytoma but not consistently so for other types of malignant brain tumours.

What Can We Do?

  • Use the speaker on the phone and hold it away from your head. Better yet, place the phone on a table while you talk.
  • Restrict use of cell phones by children whenever possible. When they must use the phone, have them use the speaker function or text messaging.
  • Don’t carry a cell phone on your body, unless it is turned off. Keep it in your purse or backpack, instead.
  • Don’t text while driving!
  • Don’t sleep with a cell phone near your head.
  • Use a special ear piece that has an air-filled tube.
  • Buy phones that emit less radiation. Doing so will put pressure on phone manufacturers to create less dangerous phones. The Environmental Working Group puts out a list of cell phones and radiation levels. Or, find the FCC identification number on your phone and visit their website.
  • When the signal is weak, limit your time on the phone.
  • Don’t stand too close to someone else using a cell phone!
  • Use wired phones in the home, if possible.


Our kitchen phone cord is long. It can easily reach the sink or the stove, but usually manages to knock over a glass of water on its way across the table. Yet, we remain corded in our house.

Stayed tuned for Part Two of my mini-series on Technology Trade-offs!

Update:  You might also like:


1) The World in 2009: ICT Facts and Figures. International Telecommunications Union

2) Cell Phones Dangerous for Child Pedestrians, Study Finds: Science Daily, January 27, 2009.

3)  Tel Aviv University. “Heavy Cell Phone Use Linked To Cancer, Study Suggests.” Science Daily 15 February 2008. 4 January 2010 <­ /releases/2008/02/080214144349.htm>

4) Hardell, L and Carlberg, M. “Mobile Phones, Cordless Phones, and the Risk for Brain Tumours”. International Journal of Oncology. 2009 Jul;35(1):5-17

5) O.P. Gandhi, G. Lazzi, and C. M. Furse, “Electromagnetic Absorption in the Human Head and Neck for Mobile Telephones at 835 and 1900 MHz, “IEEE Transactions on Microwave Theory and Techniques, Vol. 44, pp. 1884-1897, 1996

6) Researchers Urge Cell Phone Users to Take Precautions: The Epoch Times. September, 23, 2009.

7) Salford, LG, AE Brun, JL Eberhardt, L Malmgren and BRR Persson. 2003. Nerve cell damage in mammalian brain after exposure to microwaves from GSM mobile phones. Environmental Health Perspectives 111:881-883.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

Jim January 7, 2010 at 10:09 am

Do those Bluetooth earpieces also cause damage? I would assume so.

BodyEarth January 7, 2010 at 7:55 pm

Jim, some people think the Bluetooth earpieces are bad because they act as both receiver and transmitter. Others think it’s better to use Bluetooth than to hold a cell phone to your head.

Megan January 18, 2010 at 7:51 am

I wonder at one point the risk occurs. 10 minutes a day? 30 minutes a day but only if done straight through? I have no doubt that talking on my cell phone is not a great habit, but I love my mother and sister, and they don’t live close, so I struggle with how to stay connected. (Email just isn’t the same – nor do I want to sit in front of a computer all the time!)

Megan January 18, 2010 at 7:51 am

whoops – I meant at WHAT point!

BodyEarth January 18, 2010 at 8:32 am

Thanks for your comment, Megan!
Yes, I know that it’s really hard for a lot of people who have *only* cell phones and no landlines anymore. I wish I had an answer for you, but I really don’t know. I have a feeling it will take researchers a long time to figure out a safe time limit, since that would be so hard to accurately study — people vary the amount of time they use their phones.
It seems that holding the phone right up to your head is a risk. Maybe you can use speakerphone or an earpiece to talk to your family? For me, just being aware of the risk makes me try to take the extra steps to keep it away from my head when I can. There are still plenty of times when I make a quick call with it up to my ear, though!

Mary Jane March 2, 2010 at 11:57 am

Could there be a therapeutic use for cell phones? Just adding a link from National Geographic on cell phones and Alzheimers: Cell Phone Use May Fight Alzheimer’s, Mouse Study Says.

BodyEarth March 2, 2010 at 1:51 pm

I guess every cloud has a silver lining, Mary Jane!
Yes, it could be a really good discovery if the same or similar kinds of radiation could be used therapeutically. I think there is someone in the UK who uses helmets that emit near infrared on Alzheimer’s patients. Maybe all different kinds of insults to the brain stimulate cellular repair!

Ari August 18, 2010 at 4:20 pm

The cell phone is a way to control population growth; in other words, eugenics.

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