Never Use Your Cell Phone in a Plane, Train or Metal Building -- Here’s Why ...

By Vicki Warren, CIE, BBEC, BSEE

cell phone, trainOver the past several years there has been a lot of discussion in the media regarding the hazards of "second-hand smoke." So much so, that many states and communities have banned smoking indoors and other areas where exposure to second-hand smoke is possible.

More recently, there has also been a focus in the media regarding the link between long-term cell phone usage and cancer. [1],[2],[3]

The question then arises -- if using a cell phone is a potential health risk for the individual, could there possibly be a risk from second-hand "electro" smoke from cell phone usage?

As more and more people are using cell phones and wireless communications of any type, and the amount of data being transmitted to and from these devices are rapidly increasing, the production of second-hand electro smoke an issue we can no longer ignore.

Can my cell phone use cause damage to someone else?

To answer that question we'll look at two different groups that could be impacted:

  • Proximity -- the first group will be those that are within the general vicinity of the cell phone user
  • Neighborhood -- the second group will be those that are within the neighborhood impacted by the signal from the cell tower antenna

Potential Impact by Proximity to Other Cell Phone Users

With cell phones, there are two potential classes of health hazards -- thermal and non-thermal. (See the article titled: Cell Phones Emit More Harmful Radiation than FM Radios, and for more information about health hazards with cellphones, see the paper Cellphones and Brain Tumors -- 15 Causes for Concern. [4] )

For the thermal impact, which is the only effect addressed by the industry, the range from the phone to the person must be quite small to be a problem -- less than an inch for most cell phones and eight inches for a digital cordless telephone.

Therefore, the likelihood of this being a cause of second-hand electro smoke is unlikely, but possible in close quarters – such as airplanes, stadium seating, or between a parent and child.

For the non-thermal impact, however, the radius of impact is much larger.

Though difficult to properly measure, when a cell phone is being used to send and/or receive data (voice conversation, searching the internet, downloading music) the distance of the impact for non-thermal biological effects from the cell phone itself depends on the strength of the signal from the tower.

The higher the tower strength -- the more signal bars you have -- the less energy your cell phone must generate to maintain communication.

It varies from model to model, but in general when a cell phone is being used in a full-strength signal area, the signal from the cell phone can have a potential impact on anyone within approximately 6ft (2 meters) of the cell phone.

As the signal strength decreases, and therefore the cell phone strength increases, this distance increases proportionally.

The actual distance of effect depends entirely on the direction and magnitude of the signal and whether the signal transmission is occurring within an enclosed area where there is significant reflection, such as an airplane, car or train.

Potential Impact by Proximity to Cell Phone Tower

Every time you use your cell phone it is necessary for a nearby cell tower antenna to transmit and receive your signal. Therefore, anyone within the wide neighborhood of the cell tower will be impacted by your action.

As with your cell phone, there are two potential impacts from the energy of the cell tower -- thermal and non-thermal.

As before, the thermal impact requires someone to be in close proximity to the antenna, however, because of the amount of energy that can be produced by a cell tower this distance is much farther than with a single cell phone -- up to hundreds of feet.

The non-thermal effect generated by cell tower transmission can affect occupants in homes thousands of feet away from the originating signal.

And unfortunately, because there are multiple antennae all transmitting simultaneously, it is highly possible that one location is being impacted at the same time from different directions. This is especially true of upper level floors in high-rise buildings located within urban areas.

There is no way to predict a safe distance or location, as the signal strength is continually changing, the reflection off buildings is unpredictable, and because of the rapid deployment of wireless devices the quantity of antennae changes daily.

As described in the article Creating a Sleeping Sanctuary, your body is more susceptible while sleeping.

It is at night that your body regenerates, your organs detoxify, and your natural melatonin that fights off cancer is produced. Thus, it is critical for your health and your neighbors' health that the nighttime environment is as "smoke" free as possible.

Helpful Tips to Avoid Creating Second-Hand Electro Smoke

  • Only use a cell phone when you have maximum signal strength from the tower as this means your phone will be producing less energy.
  • Step at least 6ft away from anyone while using a cell phone.
  • Holding the cell phone against your head ensures that you will absorb most of the energy and thereby protecting those nearby, albeit causing the most damage to yourself.
  • Do NOT use a cellphone in an enclosed area such as a car, train, airplane, or metal building (if using an external antenna in a car, the biological impact to the occupants is greatly reduced).
  • Do NOT use a cell phone at night when those in your neighborhood are sleeping.

Note: Though this article focuses on cell phones, the same impact is observed for all wireless communications, including WI-FI networks.

Vicki WarrenAbout the Author

Vicki Warren is an electrical engineer and a Certified Building Biologist who specializes in creating healthy and environment-friendly homes and workspaces. She is the former Executive Director and Indoor Environmental Consultant of the Institute for Bau-Biologie and Ecology (IBE), a non-profit educational institution that integrates technical knowledge, biological understanding and ecological sensitivity to make healthy homes and workplaces.

Vicki is also the founder of Wings of Eagles Healthy Living (WEHL), a non-profit organization based in Middle Tennessee, that conducts seminars, programs and consultations on building healthier homes and workplaces.


[1] The Link Between Cell Phones and Cancer [cited 23 Nov 09]

[2] Evidence Still Fuzzy on Cell Phones, Cancer  [cited 23 Nov 09]

[3] World Health Organization Says Cell Phones can Cause Brain Cancer  [cited 23 Nov 09]

[4] Cellphones and Brain Tumors: 15 Reasons for Concern [cited 23 Nov 09]

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