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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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Cell Phones: a new environmental hazard that can be reduced

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By Devra Davis, PhD MPH

This essay is in response to: What emerging environmental hazard should be next on the policy agenda?

Could cell phones possibly be harmful? When I first heard this possibility, I rejected it. After all, it is physically impossible for the weak non-ionizing radiation of cell phones to break the bonds that hold our cells together. While cell phones use the same frequency of radiation as microwave ovens, they use more than two thousand times less power. 

The most obvious danger from cell phones arises from serious accidents that occur because of distracted driving and the increasingly rude behaviors they foster at the dinner table, restaurants, and coffee shops. But, this is hardly the sole hazard of these now universal devices on which nearly all adults and teenagers depend. Weak, pulsed signals from cell phones are not harmless but induce a host of serious biological responses. Cell phone radiation from today’s smartphones can damage DNA, lower sperm count in both animals and humans, increase the production of damaging blood markers linked to greater cancer risk, and weaken the barrier that protects the brain from harmful exposures. In devising appropriate toxic chemical policies we should of course reduce exposures, but we also need to lower cell phone radiation to achieve this goal, because such radiation enhances the uptake of all toxic chemicals.

My new book Disconnect explains the science behind all this and documents a sophisticated and hidden pattern of deceit and denial implemented by the cell phone industry—much like that of the tobacco and asbestos industries. In truth the science and engineering of cell phones is complicated and not widely understood by most physicians or scientists. This complexity has made it easy to confuse people about the risks. Whenever studies have emerged indicating that cell phone radiation can be harmful, they have been treated as inconvenient truths to be handily dispatched by attacking the science and the scientists. It’s been easy to recruit skeptics to conduct competing research that looks like replication but really is not. This strategy has worked until now, when two major things have changed. Governments where the science has advanced are issuing rules requiring warning labels and banning advertising to children, and industry has rolled out its own fine print warnings.

In countries, cities, and states around the globe--from Finland, Israel, France, and Canada, to San Francisco, Jackson, Wyoming, and Luxembourg--regulations and proclamations are being advanced that build on the strong evidence that cell phone radiation has a range of biological impacts. Standards for phones were set more than two decades ago based on avoiding acute impacts for a large, male military recruit weighing well over 200 pounds. Of the world’s four billion phones, growing numbers are being used by children, whose brains and bodies are not just smaller than this big guy but different. That’s why companies have been issuing fine print warnings that people can read after they buy phones. And that’s why San Francisco passed right to know legislation. 

No matter who is in charge of a democratic government, democracy rests on the freely given consent of the governed. People have a basic right to know that cell phones are small two-way microwave radiating radios that can be safely used only when they are not touching the head or body, and they have the right to know this before they decide to purchase a device.  It is an insult to the intelligence of the consuming public to package phones with notices that phones cannot be safely used in the pocket or to keep phones 15 mm or .98 inches from the body.

In his October, 2010, Skeptic column in Scientific American, Michael Shermer argues correctly that cell phones lack the power to directly break the ionic bonds that hold together the complex structure of DNA. But, Shermer is completely wrong to assert that cell phone radiation cannot cause damage to DNA through other means or that cancer arises only after such damage occurs. 

Professor Frank Barnes, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, reports that radiofrequency energy can disrupt metabolic processes or cause other biologic changes such as a shift in the direction of neutrophils, which may lead to a host of other alterations. The Scientist reported this week that Tuft’s Michael Levin has found that electrical properties of one type of cell can induce other, distant cells to change their behavior, and might be "a key switch that mediates the stem cell-cancer cell distinction."

In fact, cell phones are small two-way microwave radios that rely on relatively low energy to send and receive signals. The nature of their pulsed digital signal may explain why their radiation induces DNA damage and also impairs sperm morphology, motility, and count. Twelve different European laboratories working as part of the European Union sponsored REFLEX project have found significant evidence of DNA damage from signals from modern 3G phones. Split samples of human sperm studied in six different national laboratories indicate poorer morphology, motility, and increased pathology for cell phone exposed samples.  

Shermer claims that the latest World Health Organization epidemiological studies of this problem confirm that there is no overall increased risk in brain cancer tied with cell phone use. But, in fact, this project is continuing precisely because its leaders understand the need for continued surveillance. (A user in this study was defined as someone who made one cell phone call a week for six months. No Americans were included in this analysis.) Shermer may be unaware that those who had used a phone for ten years for half an hour a day—as most of us do nowadays—had a significantly increased risk of malignant brain tumors. In fact, most studies of cell phone users have not followed people who have used cell phones for more than a few years. Every study of heavy cell phone users that has lasted beyond a few years finds that they have a significantly increased risk of malignant brain tumors a decade later. Studies in Sweden have found that those who started using cell phones as teenagers have four to five times more brain cancer as adults. (The current WHO chief of this work, Joachim Schutz, and the distinguished American epidemiologist Jonathan Samet do not share in Shermer’s conviction, noting that more studies are needed over a longer time period before reaching any firm conclusion based solely on human evidence).

Have we really learned nothing from the history of tobacco and asbestos? Studies of these agents found no increased risk of cancer ten years after people began to use these known carcinogens. The cancers showed up twenty to thirty years later. In fact, the ways we use phones and the people who use them nowadays have changed radically since cell phones were first introduced. 

No major research and training programs are underway in bioelectromagnetics in this nation and no major studies are planned on human impacts of these now-ubiquitous devices. The last national survey of exposure to microwave and other electromagnetic radiation took place in 1980. If cell phones are in fact safe, why have all the major manufacturers of smart phones issued fine print warnings saying that phones cannot be used directly next to the head or body without violating FCC standards? Why are secondary insurers no longer providing coverage for health-related damages from cell phones? 

As a matter of public policy, we must ask--should we rely solely on the limited epidemiological studies of this now ubiquitous modern device and ignore the growing body of experimental findings? When should we have acted against tobacco and asbestos? The French, Finnish, and British governments have looked at all the information on cell phone impacts and have issued advisories to use headsets and speakerphones. In France it is now illegal to sell a cell phone without a headset or warnings about safe use, and cell phone advertising to children is banned. 

Shermer has his physics right, but his biology all wrong. Taking precautions now in the ways we use two-way microwave radios makes a great deal of sense and may spare our grandchildren a tremendous health burden. 


Anonymous said ..

All these comments describe the deep pain I ferlbin my hands, fingers, and up my arms. The skin on my face and forearms has changed. Its especially thin, always dry and not soft or smooth. Any finger that touches the screen burns very quickly. My thumb pad has a small bump that can't be felt. This is so bad. Is there a place and doctors that are doing tests and/or studies? I'm done with the whole cellphone thing. Would an old phone be better than the new ones. Using a Smartphone is proving to be I credibly stupid. My grandchildren all gave them as early as 11 years old. Something has to be done. I have the Samsung Galaxy S7.

June 13, 2017
Dean Stackhouse said ..

When I got my first Android I was having severe headaches so I quit using it for a few days and they went away until once again they reappeared after I resumed using it.Using my flip phone did not cause this to happen so I spent most phone time on the flip phone.As I was using the Android close to my lap one day my thumb began to to "twitch" rapidly for a minute or so...and then later as I lay upon my sofa and surfed the net with it on my chest my heart began to "palpitate". As I had already had 2 minor strokes I determined this phone needed a New Home. I pulled the battery out and threw it in the wood stove. The phone I have now causes my hands to go numb at first then tingle and burn, ache, joints began to pop and (these are the tendons in the fingers), sometimes the nerves there pinch and make me scream. The cat just looks at me in wonder..."did I do something wrong" she must be thinking. The phone is now turned off till I see if some off these issues subside. Oh yes and my fingers were swollen and I guess you would say inflamed so I began to take some ginger root and turmeric as natural inflammatories. I think I should be a lab rat for someone.

April 9, 2017
Arnetta said ..

I have a Galaxy 7 Edge, which is a water proof phone. I dropped it in water by accident and reached quickly to remove from the water. I shook it a little and dried it with a towel. Every since then, I've been having an electrical sensation going through my hand that sometimes goes up my arm to my elbow. Now, every time I am holding or using my phone or anything with an electrical current, I get that same sensation. Now I have a burning feeling between two of my fingers, some off and on pain in my hand and every time I'm washing dishes the feeling of electricity goes through my hand. This is not only annoying but, very scary for me. I am so worried. Please Please help if you have answers.

March 16, 2017
Leah Marshall said ..

I have an iPhone 6 and am experiencing a similar pain/burning sensation in my hand that goes away if I stop using the phone for a week or so. As soon as I begin using it the pain returns. It's not muscular, like a strain, it's like my hand is burning hot.

March 10, 2017
johannes said ..

someone should explain what is happening to us,this can not be healthy,surely this can cause serious damage to our hands and arms,not to think to other body parts,SOMEONE NEEDS TO EXPLAIN....

February 20, 2017
Christy Buckler said ..

For the last year and a half I have been experiencing pain in my hands, arms and particularly my elbows. Initially, I was diagnosed with tendonitis in my right elbow. But then my left flared up. Next thing I knew, it seemed I had pain all over in different parts of my body but my arms and hands being the most symptomatic. Had full testing for RA and other inflammatory disease but none was found. But I noticed that I experience pain when I spend time on my phone. At first I thought it was just the typing on my phone possibly causing issues. But then I noticed it hurt just spending time on the phone talking. Is there a way to be tested to see if it is radiation from my phone causing this problem of inflammatory pain and problems? Because it seems kinda fishy that in a domino type effect, I would develop bursitis in one shoulder, then the other, then the hips, then pain in the hands, then tendonitis in one elbow then the next. Not to mention, the tinnitis getting worse and worse over the last few years to the point of significant hearing loss. SOMETHING is wrong with me, and I suspect my phone. Going to experiment by limiting my cell phone use and keeping it off and away from me and see if things get better.

February 17, 2017
Sarah said ..

I have the same issue. I have a nexus 6. I usually hold my phn with my left and scroll with my right while surfing the net, something I do a lot. My left hand burns very badly all the time. I know it's radiation. I'm getting rid of this phone.

February 12, 2017
gb said ..

I've also had a tingling in my hands and wrists as I use my smartphone. What do I do?

December 22, 2016
Stuart said ..

I have been getting a burning feeling when I used to hold the phone to my head. Now I avoid doing that as best I can. My head still has a dull ache. Now both my hands fell like they are burning. I rang apple and they offered me a new phone, which I'll pick up tomorrow. Bet the sensation doesn't go. I feel radiated.

December 19, 2016
Kay said ..

Please don't use your cellphone if you get pain, tingling, or burning sensation. Change to a different phone and but orginal name brand phones. I dropped my phone and now as soon as I started using it, it gave me a burning sensation on the face, though it never did before. I've stopped using it altogether now. It's better to be safe than sorry.

December 10, 2016
roberta said ..

watching on iphone 6 and laptops i have burning and stinging sensation all over my face and neck and around my eyes... do you have that ?? please help

September 6, 2016
dave said ..

I've been noticing a tingle in my hands as I use my smart phone. Not happy knowing this is not normal.

August 28, 2016
Annie said ..

I have a Droid Turbo 2 and I have been getting intense pain in my hands and fingers when I use it. I went camping for a week and used a different, older phone (that I didn't care if it broke) to take pictures with and the pain completely disappeared. Once I returned from my trip and used my Turbo again, within 10 minutes the pain returned. I had thought it was carpal tunnel as well but I've been seen by two doctors and they said it's not carpal tunnel. It is very obviously the phone doing this, though I'm not sure exactly WHAT it is doing - is it radiation? Help!!

August 25, 2016
Heidi said ..

I use an iPhone 6, and have recently noticed after a few months of use, that my hands are itching and have a burning sensation which moves around. Sometimes the burn is in my fingers sometimes in my palm. At first I was told it was part of a carpal tunnel syndrome but I do not have a repetitive use of my hands going on. Sensing that it was the iPhone, I have done some personal experiments. For periods of time I will not handle on my iPhone and the pain in my hands clears up. And, then I will use it again as usual and the pain returns. It's really quite an awful itch at first, accompanied with by a burning sensation. When I scratch it or rub it to bring relief the pain intensifies.

July 11, 2016
Mary said ..

I would like to know what the outcome was for the below person Danna Michel, as I experience very similar sensations and whether there is a phone that suits them. Danna Michel said .. I'm experiencing a burning sensation in my hands that radiates up my arms to my shoulders every time I hold my cellphone. Actually the burning occurs on any part of my body that is inches away from the phone. At first I thought it was isolated to the Apple IPhone. I changed my 6 twice with the same result. So I left apple all together and got a Samsung Galaxy note 5 and was disappointed when I started having the same signs and symptoms after a couple days. I plan on seeing my primary doctor, logging my experiences and telling my story as often as possible. January 26, 2016

June 29, 2016
Charletta tucker said ..

Im experiecing the same problem i notice last year my arms hurt so bad when using my phone it has effected my arms shoulder and hads so bad it i just wanna cry sometimes my arm just sting all day but when holding my phone it gets worser and seems like its (the painjust goes thru my bones.going to follow up with my doctor to see a specialist

May 12, 2016
Jagjit Singh Chawla said ..

I get a burning sensation while I am holding my smartphone . Also it pains on both of my hands and i dont know what us wrong with it . Please help me with solution coz i am very much scared with this problem and i have had scary nights . Please help me .

March 24, 2016
Danna Michel said ..

I'm experiencing a burning sensation in my hands that radiates up my arms to my shoulders every time I hold my cellphone. Actually the burning occurs on any part of my body that is inches away from the phone. At first I thought it was isolated to the Apple IPhone. I changed my 6 twice with the same result. So I left apple all together and got a Samsung Galaxy note 5 and was disappointed when I started having the same signs and symptoms after a couple days. I plan on seeing my primary doctor, logging my experiences and telling my story as often as possible.

January 26, 2016
NB said ..

I have a burning sensation on my hands when I use the cell phone. I believe that the cell phone manufacturers are just producing these phones and sending them out for use without proper safety precautions being done. It also seems like the governments don't care. We need to do something to make sure these phones are not harmful.

May 12, 2014
Carla said ..

I started having seizures nearly 12 years ago out of the blue. Doctors still cannot tell me the cause of them. I suspect my cell phone because I could not use it without it causing me discomfort. For me the phone gets hot, sometimes to the point where I would put something between it and myself. I have a new phone now (the Iphone) and the problem is the same. When I try to use the screen to play games I experience discomfort that is like a burning sensation. This discomfort I feel is real so I have a cover on my phone which the Iphone company suggested might assist me but it doesn't. I know for me there is a link I just need help in proving it. Any suggestions?

January 26, 2012
Devra Davis said ..

There are growing reports of localized damage such as the meningioma in the sulcus you report, as well as hearing impairment and tinnitus. Distance and reducing use is the best treatment. Exposure to radiation from cell phones may also play a role for a growing spate of serious problems, including attention and hearing deficits, autism, behavioral changes, insomnia, ringing of the ears or tinnitus, Parkinsons, Alzheimer’s and a broad array of disturbances to the nervous system.

January 17, 2012
Devra Davis said ..

Indeed, there are sensitive individuals. Regarding laptops a new type of contact dermitis has been reported in UK associated with chronic exposure to the top of the thighs. As to smart phones, they are on all the time constantly searching for towers or relays with which to communicate. Phones should be turned off when not in use.

January 10, 2011
Margaret Baco, RN said ..

I had my lap top measured for it's electromagnetic output. A range of "healthy" is 3 milligauss. The output on the lap top was between 35 to 50. I can feel the electricity in my hands immediately every time I touch the computer. I am now using an external key board. Also, I am unable to tolerate a cell phone near my head. My Ears burn. Perhaps, sensitive people should be less silent about our tactile perceptions.

November 6, 2010
Howard R. Christofersen, MD said ..

If the phone should be one inch from the head, does it need a guard which would keep it away from the head. Or is there need to have a type of reflector that would guide the outgoing signal away from the person's head.

November 4, 2010
Daniel Kerlinsky MD said ..

Does the use of internet applications on smart phones keep them on all the time, receiving automatic updates? One of my patients developed a meningioma in the sulcus just where he always held his cell phone. Tell me I'm too sensitive but these phone burn my hand with a palpable numbness after a few minutes.

November 4, 2010

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