Mobile phone safety

The use of radio waves and magnetic fields in relation to mobile phones and base stations has become a safety concern for some people.

Information written and reviewed by Certified Doctors.

Contents

Introduction

The use of radio waves and magnetic fields in relation to mobile phones and base stations has become a safety concern for some people.

Most current research suggests it is unlikely mobile phones or base stations increase the risk of any type of cancer (see below). However, it is acknowledged this evidence is based on use of mobile phones over 15 years and long-term effects are not fully known.

This means there are recommendations for mobile phone safety that aim to lower your exposure to radiowaves. Any risk from mobile phone use is likely to be higher in children.

You are four times more likely to have an accident when using a mobile phone while driving. For now, this is considered the biggest risk to your health from using a mobile phone.

Read more information about the risks of mobile phone use.

Mobile phone use

Radio waves are low-energy radiation waves that transmit through antenna on a mobile phone. The radio waves transmit to the base station and back again. Base stations are surrounded by electromagnetic fields, an energy force created when electricity is generated.

What research has been done?

There has been a huge amount of scientific research into health effects of mobile phone use since widespread use started in the 1990s.

In April 2012, the largest review yet of published research from the Health Protection Agency's independent advisory group on non-ionising radiation (AGNIR) found no clear evidence that radio waves from mobile phones caused brain tumours or any other type of cancer.

The review, Health Effects from Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields, considered hundreds of scientific studies on the effects of mobile phone radiation on cells, animals and people.

However scientists cautioned research only covered exposure of up to 15 years and further monitoring of risks was necessary.

Read about recent research and other frequently asked questions about mobile phone safety.

FAQ's

Frequently asked questions about mobile phone safety:

What research has been carried out on the health risks of mobile phones?

Do mobiles affect brain function?

Do mobile phones and mobile phone masts cause unpleasant symptoms?

Are there biological reasons to believe that mobile phones might be harmful?

Are mobile phone masts dangerous?

Where are mobile phones most dangerous?

Do scientists know everything about mobile phones and health?

What research has been carried out on the health risks of mobile phones?

The possibility of health risks arising from mobile phones is of public concern. Many studies are being carried out in Europe and elsewhere following media reports that mobile phones could cause cancer and other health problems.

The COSMOS study

The COSMOS study involves scientists from the UK, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and The Netherlands monitoring about 250,000 mobile phone users in Europe to identify any possible health issues linked to using mobile phones over a long period of time.

The UK part of the study, run by Imperial College London, will follow the health of approximately 90,000 to 100,000 mobile phone users older than the age of 18 for 20 to 30 years.

Scientists will look at any changes in the frequency of specific symptoms over time, such as headaches and sleep disorders, as well as the risks of cancers, benign tumours and neurological and cerebrovascular diseases.

The study is funded by the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme (MTHR) and the UK government.

The INTERPHONE study

The INTERPHONE study (PDF, 176kb) was a multi-national study set up in 2000 involving research in 13 countries. The aim was to see whether mobile phone use is associated with an increased risk of head and neck tumours.

In May 2010 the results were released and concluded that there was no increased risk of tumours with mobile phone use. However, the study also concluded that the potential effect of long-term heavy use of mobile phones needs further investigation.

Do mobiles affect brain function?

The MTHR’s set of volunteer studies of brain function is one of the largest carried out anywhere. None of the studies found exposure to radio frequency fields generated by mobile phones has an effect on brain function. They looked at factors such as memory and response times, and found no changes.

Do mobile phones and mobile phone masts cause unpleasant symptoms?

The MTHR’s research did not find any evidence to suggest some people suffer unpleasant symptoms due to signals from mobile phones or masts. Its research programme included some of the largest and most robust studies of their type.

The MTHR recognised specific concerns about TETRA radios and base stations used by emergency services. It is carrying out further work in this area.

Are there biological reasons to believe that mobile phones might be harmful?

The Stewart Report noted that, in a small number of experiments, mobile phones cause biological effects in cells and animals. The MTHR conducted careful studies of two possible cellular effects identified in the Stewart Report: stress protein production and calcium signalling.

Stress proteins are produced when the temperature is increased above critical value. Previous research had shown these proteins were also produced in nematode worms when exposed to mobile phone emissions thought to be too weak to result in temperature rises above the critical value. However, the very careful studies supported by MTHR showed this was not the case. The stress proteins were in fact produced by heating in the normal way. Since the committee did not find any “convincing new evidence of cellular effects”, it does not propose to support further work in this area.

Research into other possible biological effects of mobile phones, such as the activation of calcium signals, is continuing and has not yet been published.

Are mobile phone masts dangerous?

Levels of exposure to radio frequency radiation near mobile phone masts (base stations) are low – well below international guidelines. Exposures are usually 0.002% to 2% of guideline values and, at their highest, less than 10% of guideline values.

Where are mobile phones most dangerous?

The biggest known threat that mobile phones pose to health is their use when driving, said the MTHR report. Using them at the wheel impairs driving performance and increases the risk of accidents. But there is no statistical evidence that mobiles are more of a distraction than a conversation with a passenger. However, passengers are normally aware of traffic conditions, so they are likely to stop talking in potentially dangerous situations.

Do scientists know everything about mobile phones and health?

No, and research is continuing. There is little research on the effects of using mobile phones for more than 15 years, so it is impossible to be certain that long-term use is 100% safe.

There is also little research on the effects of mobile phones on children, who are more sensitive than adults to many environmental agents, such as lead pollution and sunlight. Government advice is to be on the safe side and limit mobile phone use by children.

Recommendations

Although current evidence suggests mobile phones are safe to use, there are some recommendations to help lower any potential long-term risks. Using a phone while driving is currently the greatest risk to your health.

You can lower exposure to radio waves in the following ways.

  • Only make short calls on your mobile phone, and do not use it more than necessary.
  • Children should only use mobile phones for essential purposes and keep all calls short.
  • Find out the specific absorption rate (SAR) of a mobile phone before you buy it. This is how much radio wave energy is absorbed into the body from the mobile phone. SAR can vary between different types of phones. Mobile phone retailers have a responsibility to make this information available to you before you buy.
  • Keep your mobile phone away from your body when it is in standby mode.
  • Only use your phone when the reception is strong: this is often indicated by bars of energy on your phone screen. Weak reception causes the phone to use more energy to communicate with the base station.
  • Use a mobile phone that has an external antenna. This keeps the radio waves as far away from your head as possible.

Driving

Please see the recommended the following guidelines for safe use of mobile phones in cars.

  • Keep your mobile phone switched off when you are driving. You can use voicemail, a message service or call diversion to pick up your messages at the end of your journey.
  • If you need to use your mobile phone, stop in a safe place. Do not stop on the hard shoulder of a motorway unless it is an emergency.
  • Avoid using a hands-free device. These can be just as distracting as using the phone itself.

Risks

Recent research indicates using mobile phones is safe. However, long-term risks are still not completely known. Using a mobile phone while driving is banned as this poses a health risk to yourself and others.

Radio waves and body absorption

Radio waves received and sent by mobile phones transmit in all directions to find the nearest base station. This means that some of the radio waves will be directed at your body when you use a mobile phone.

Radio waves are absorbed into your body tissue as energy, which adds to the energy being produced by your body's metabolism. This can cause a very small rise in temperature in your body and, more specifically, in your head.

This effect of radio waves on your body is measured using specific absorption rates (SAR). SAR is a measure of the amount of energy absorbed. The units of measurement are watts per kilogram (W/kg) or milliwatts per gram (mW/g). The higher the SAR, the more energy your body is absorbing, and the higher the rise in temperature.

Current research shows radio waves from mobile phones cause a rise in temperature of up to 0.1C. This does not pose a known risk to health. Some mobile phones have better specific absorption rates (SARs) than others. You can obtain this information from your mobile phone manufacturer or retailer.

Risks to children

Children are thought to be at higher risk of health implications from the use of mobile phones. This is because their skulls and cells are still growing and tend to absorb radiation more easily.

It is recommended that children use mobile phones only if absolutely necessary.

Research and evidence

Continuing research is being carried out to see if there are any substantial health risks associated with mobile phone use and base station emissions.

In April 2012, the largest review yet of published research from the Health Protection Agency's independent advisory group on non-ionising radiation (AGNIR) found no clear evidence that radio waves from mobile phones caused brain tumours or any other type of cancer.

The review, Health Effects from Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields (PDF, 3.4Mb), considered hundreds of scientific studies on the effects of mobile phone radiation on cells, animals and people.

There is no clear evidence that people living or working near base stations are at risk from radiation. Base stations do not need planning permission before masts are erected. However, schools should regularly monitor the emissions of base stations situated inside or close to school grounds.

If you think that a base station near you needs to be audited, you can apply for it to be considered by Ofcom free of charge.

Driving and mobile phones

Around 80% of drivers have or regularly use a mobile phone. Surveys suggest you are four times more likely to have an accident if you are using a mobile phone while driving.

Mobile phones and hospital equipment

Different hospitals have different rules regarding mobile phone use. Therefore, always check with hospital staff before you use your phone.

Mobile phones can cause disruption in hospitals. They can disturb patients who are resting and could be confused with alarm bells on medical equipment.

The radio waves from mobile phones can also interfere with medical devices, such as monitors.

If a hospital does not allow the use of mobile phones on their site, they will display posters around the building saying so. All patients, visitors and staff should follow the hospital's rules.

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