Is mobile phone radiation carcinogenic? There’s no evidence – so far

How does mobile phone radiation affect our bodies, if at all? Radiation protection experts and cancer researchers have some clue as to what risks smartphones might pose. — dpa

BERLIN: Your wallet, your keys and – your mobile phone, of course! If you’re like most people, you never leave home without this trusty trio. But our attachment to our phones has sparked concerns that exposure to the radiation they emit is a health risk.

Mobile phones use radio-frequency (RF) electromagnetic fields to send and receive voice and text messages. Sometimes referred to as electromagnetic pollution or electrosmog, RF radiation is non-ionizing – it can’t break chemical bonds – but heats tissue in the area of the body where the phone is held, says Julia Ketteler, a research assistant at the German Federal Office for Radiation Protection’s (BfS) Competence Centre for Electromagnetic Fields.

Susanne Weg-Remers, head of the German Cancer Research Centre’s (DKFZ) Cancer Information Service (KID). explains how: “Picture electromagnetic fields sending an impulse to the molecules making up our body,” she says, adding that the impulse causes the atoms in the molecules in our cells to move faster.

“This is basically the biochemical equivalent of heat.”

The body can offset the heat to a certain extent, she says – with a mechanism known in physiology as thermoregulation.

To prevent excessive heating of body tissue, manufacturers are required to ensure that their mobile phones meet strict RF emission limits. Given as a unit called the specific absorption rate (SAR), which is a measure of the amount of RF energy absorbed by the body when using a mobile phone, the limit in the European Union is 2 watts per kilogramme.

This is the equivalent of a standard LED lamp, with a thermal output of 4 watts, heating 2 litres of water, according to the BfS.

The less radiation a phone emits, the lower its SAR. Most mobile phones, both older and newer models, have a SAR far below the limit.

A data bank can be accessed courtesy of the BfS that shows phones’ SAR. The Xiaomi Poco F2 Pro has a SAR of 0.79 W/kg, for instance, and the iPhone 12 a SAR of 0.98 W/kg. Even the Samsung E1080, which came out in 2009, has a SAR far below the limit: 0.64 W/kg

Possible health effects of mobile phone use, particularly whether RF magnetic fields are carcinogenic to humans, have been a subject of research for years. After review of more than 1,000 scientific publications, the BfS says it currently sees no connection between mobile phone use and the risk of developing a brain tumour, for example.

“Cancer occurs when cells in our body start to divide and don’t react to the stop signal from their surroundings,” says Weg-Remers, explaining that it usually happens by chance since the process by which DNA makes a copy of itself during cell division is error-prone.

DNA “mistakes”, or mutations, can lead to cancer during the course of your life.

Among the factors that can increase the risk of cancer, she notes, are ultraviolet radiation, X-rays, human papillomavirus (HPV) infections and unhealthy habits such as smoking. Genetic predisposition can play a role as well. But Weg-Remers rules out mobile phone use.

“There’s no evidence that the electromagnetic fields emitted by mobile phones can cause DNA mutations.”

Links were observed, however, when mobile phones were still quite large and emitted strong electromagnetic fields, she says, but notes that the findings of these studies are highly debatable from today’s perspective and haven’t been duplicated in more recent studies.

While the research data is reliable, according to Ketteler, researchers are awaiting further findings to lessen the “residual uncertainty” owing to the long-term nature of some studies and meticulousness of scientific work. It’s simply impossible, she says, to prove there’s absolutely no risk at all. – dpa

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