Hazards in Your Cellphone

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

Story at-a-glance -

  • In 2017, Wendy Mesley with Canada’s CBC News conducted an investigation into a hidden warning in cellphones
  • The warning states to keep the phone a certain distance away from your body — usually 5 to 15 millimeters (mm) — to limit exposure to radiofrequency (RF) exposure to under the federal safety limit
  • If you carry your phone in your pocket or your bra, or hold it against your ear when you talk, you’re violating this warning and increasing your RF exposure with unknown health consequences
  • When cellphones were tested right next to the body, RF exposure went up significantly, by three to four times, exceeding the safety limit in all cases
  • Research found exposure to radio frequency radiation (RFR) used by cellphones was associated with an increase in DNA damage, which could lead to tumors
  • Avoid carrying your cellphone on your body unless in airplane mode and never sleep with it in your bedroom unless it is in airplane mode

In 2017, Wendy Mesley with Canada's CBC News conducted an investigation into a little-known fact about cellphones. Inside the manual is a warning, one that could drastically change the use of cellphones as you know it — if only it were taken seriously.

In short, the warning states to keep the phone a certain distance away from your body — usually 5 to 15 millimeters (mm), or two-tenths to six-tenths of an inch — to limit exposure to radiofrequency (RF) exposure to under the federal safety limit.

In the video Mesley asks random cellphone users to try to find the warning hidden in their phone, and none are successful. She pulls it up on her iPhone, reading:

"To reduce exposure to RF energy, use a hands-free option, such as speakerphone … Carry iPhone at least 5 millimeters away from your body to ensure exposure levels remain at or below the as tested levels."

If you carry your phone in your pocket or your bra, or hold it against your ear when you talk, you're violating this warning with unknown health consequences.

Berkeley's 'Right to Know' Ordinance

Perhaps the only place in the U.S. where the hidden cellphone warning is not so hidden is Berkeley, California, which Mesley visits.

In 2015, the Berkeley City Council passed the ordinance, which requires retailers to either post or provide flyers with a safety message warning consumers that those who carry cellphones next to their bodies could be exceeding the U.S. Federal Communication Commission's (FCC) safe exposure guidelines.

The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) sued the city of Berkeley, calling on former Big Tobacco attorneys to stop the ordinance, but it was ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court in December 2019.1 Ellie Marks, executive director of the California Brain Tumor Association, told The Daily Californian:2

"I started working on this cell phone 'Right to Know' with the Berkeley City Council in 2009 — it's been a 10-year journey. I'm thrilled that we had a victory. I think people should have access to this information so that they can make an informed decision (on) how they and their children can use (cell phones)."

Marks also noted that the warning being posted in Berkeley is the same one the FCC already asks cellphone companies to provide to its customers, but this certainly makes it appear as though the manufacturers have hidden the warning on purpose so consumers cannot easily find it.

Testing Highlights Outdated One-Size-Fits-All Model

In the film, Mesley brings three newly purchased cellphones to RF Exposure Lab in San Marcos, California, one of several labs across the U.S. that conducts specific absorption rate (SAR) testing for cellphones. SAR is a measure of how much RF energy your body will absorb from the device when held at a specific distance from your body.

One concerning aspect of the test is revealed right off the bat: The simulated head is based off Army measurements of an average-sized human head, and as Mesley states, it appears quite large. The anthropomorphic mannequin (SAM) used to measure SAR is modeled after attributes of the heads of the top 10% of military recruits in 1989 — in other words, a 6-foot, 2-inch-tall, 220-pound male, which is larger than most of the U.S. population.

The head certainly doesn't represent the exposure levels that would be received by a child with a much smaller head, and greater susceptibility to radiation harms, suggesting the testing is outdated. According to Om P. Gandhi, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Utah:

"RF exposure to a head smaller than SAM will absorb a relatively higher SAR. The SAR for a 10-year-old is up to 153 percent higher than the SAR for the SAM model. When electrical properties are considered, a child's head's absorption can be over two times greater, and absorption of the skull's bone marrow can be 10 times greater than adults."3

Mesley then visits Devra Davis, Ph.D., founder and president of the Environmental Health Trust, who has warned for years not only about the risks of cellphones in general but, in particular, about the risks to pregnant women and their unborn children, noting that prenatal animal studies have shown exposure to radiation from cell phones:

  • Altered DNA
  • Altered brain metabolism
  • Compromised spinal cords
  • Affected learning abilities

Children's brains contain more liquid than adults', which impacts the amount of radiation absorbed, with children absorbing far more. Among teens who use cell phones from a young age, the risk of brain cancer is about four to five times higher than that of teens who didn't use cellphones.4

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Cellphone Study Finds Tumors, DNA Damage

Davis mentions two government-funded studies conducted by the National Toxicology Program (NTP), an interagency research program currently under the umbrella of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.5 The $25-million research found male rats were more likely to develop tumors in their heart known as malignant schwannomas.6

In making their conclusions, NTP uses the labels "clear evidence," "some evidence," "equivocal evidence" and "no evidence." They found "clear evidence" that exposure to cellphone radiation led to heart tumors in the male rates, along with "some evidence" that it caused brain and adrenal gland tumors in the rats.7

The studies also found evidence of DNA damage and damage to heart tissue in exposed male and female rats, but not mice, as well as prostate, liver and pancreatic tumors in both rats and mice.8 In October 2019, NTP published a follow-up evaluating DNA damage in three regions of the brain, the liver and blood cells of rats and mice that were removed at an earlier time point from the two-year ongoing study.9

DNA damage is concerning because, if not repaired, it can lead to tumors. The study found exposure to radio frequency radiation (RFR) used by cellphones was associated with an increase in DNA damage, with significant increases in DNA damage found in the:

  • Frontal cortex of the brain in male mice
  • Blood cells of female mice
  • Hippocampus of male rats

What Happens When Phones Are Tested Against the Body?

Mesley then asks to have the phones tested the way people actually use them: very close, if not immediately next to, their body. The tests start out further away, with exposures 5 mm to 15 mm from the body — the way cellphone manufacturers conduct their tests. Under these conditions, RF exposure comes in within the safety limit.

Next, the test is done with no gap, a test rarely done by manufacturers since it's not required. RF exposure went up significantly, by three to four times, exceeding the safety limit in all cases. According to Mesley, 7 out of 10 people say they carry their cellphone in their pocket or against their body, which means they're being exposed to radiation levels above safety limits.

While Health Canada said their safety limits include a wide safety margin, Davis says the system is out of date and doesn't gauge risks according to the way cellphones are actually used.

More than 200 studies have been submitted to Health Canada showing harm from RF radiation at levels below the safety limit for which cellphones are tested, Mesley says, but Health Canada claims many of these studies simply aren't good enough for them to change their recommendations.

Further, independent SAR testing paid for by the Chicago Tribune revealed several popular cellphones emit far higher levels of RF radiation than legally permitted. For instance, at a distance of 5 mm from your body (the distance used by Apple), the iPhone 7 was found to emit anywhere between 2.5 and 3.46 W/kg, which is 1.6 to 2.2 times the legal limit.10

At a distance of 2 mm from the body — which mimics carrying your phone in your pocket — the results ranged from 3.5 W/kg on the low end to 4.69 W/kg on the high end, which are 2.2 to 2.9 times above the legal limit.

The three Samsung Galaxy smartphones tested, Galaxy S9, S8 and J3, were all within the legal limit at 10 to 15 mm from the body (the distance used by Samsung), but RF radiation levels skyrocketed at 2 mm from the body, raising serious questions about the safety of keeping a phone in your pocket.

At the very least, if you use a cellphone, do not carry it in your pocket, bra or on your body, and don't allow children to use cellphones except in an emergency. Unfortunately, the planned implementation of 5G is bound to further magnify the health risks associated with cellphones and other wireless devices.

Tips for Safer Cellphone Use

To protect yourself and your family from cellphone radiation and other sources of harmful electromagnetic fields, consider taking the following precautions:

Avoid carrying your cellphone on your body unless in airplane mode and never sleep with it in your bedroom unless it is in airplane mode. Even in airplane mode it can emit signals, which is why I put my phone in a Faraday bag.

When using your cellphone, use the speaker phone and hold the phone at least 3 feet away from you.

Seek to radically decrease your time on the cellphone. Instead, use VoIP software phones that you can use while connected to the internet via a wired connection.

Connect your desktop computer to the internet via a wired Ethernet connection and be sure to put your desktop in airplane mode. Also avoid wireless keyboards, trackballs, mice, game systems, printers and portable house phones. Opt for the wired versions.

If you must use Wi-Fi, shut it off when not in use, especially at night when you are sleeping. Ideally, work toward hardwiring your house so you can eliminate Wi-Fi altogether. If you have a notebook without any Ethernet ports, a USB Ethernet adapter will allow you to connect to the internet with a wired connection.

Shut off the electricity to your bedroom at night. This typically works to reduce electrical fields from the wires in your wall unless there is an adjoining room next to your bedroom. If that is the case you will need to use a meter to determine if you also need to turn off power in the adjacent room.

Use a battery-powered alarm clock, ideally one without any light. I use a talking clock for the visually impaired.

If you still use a microwave oven, consider replacing it with a steam convection oven, which will heat your food as quickly and far more safely.

Avoid using "smart" appliances and thermostats that depend on wireless signaling. This would include all new "smart" TVs. They are called smart because they emit a Wi-Fi signal and, unlike your computer, you cannot shut the Wi-Fi signal off. Consider using a large computer monitor as your TV instead, as they don't emit Wi-Fi.

Refuse smart meters as long as you can, or add a shield to an existing smart meter, some of which have been shown to reduce radiation by 98% to 99%.11

Consider moving your baby's bed into your room instead of using a wireless baby monitor. Alternatively, use a hard-wired monitor.

Replace CFL bulbs with incandescent bulbs. Ideally remove all fluorescent lights from your house. Not only do they emit unhealthy light, but more importantly, they will transfer current to your body just being close to the bulbs.