The early days of cell phone ownership were rife with conspiracy theories about major health effects caused by exposure to radio frequency (RF) energy, or as it is more generally referred to, radiation. While many of those warnings were overblown or outright nonsense, the idea of limiting exposure to the RF energy from a cell phone isn’t a bad one. The State of California recently released guidelines for mobile phone owners on reducing this exposure, and one big recommendation is to avoid putting the phone against your head entirely when possible.
The new guidelines were issued as “the use of cell phones has increased dramatically in recent years,” according to the California Department of Public Health. The guidelines note that “some scientists and public health officials” think RF energy exposure could have some unwanted effects on human health, though it is careful to note that the “science is still evolving.”
Concerns revolve around extensive long-term mobile phone usage, which covers the way most people use their smartphones…or, as they’re known for a large number of people, the only phone access they have. On the severe end of that spectrum lies potential brain cancer and acoustic nerve tumors, which among other things could make a person deaf and cause chronic vertigo. Salivary gland tumors are also a potential issue.
Long-term, extensive exposure to cell phone radiation could also lower sperm counts, cause learning and memory issues, headaches, behavior issues, and sleep disruptions. None of these are a certainty, and the guidelines stress that “scientists disagree about whether cell phones cause these health problems and how great the risks might be.”
The idea behind these guidelines appears to be: why risk it? It’s easier than ever to avoid holding a phone against your head, after all.
The guidelines suggest ways to reduce your RF energy exposure, the biggest (and least practical) being that you keep a few feet between your body and your phone. That’s the opposite of falling asleep with it in your hands and waking up to find it somewhere under your body, mind. When taking or making a call, the guidelines suggest avoiding putting the phone up against your head: that means putting it on speakerphone, using a pair of earbuds with an in-line microphone, or using an actual headset.
Other suggestions include texting as an alternative to talking, keeping away from the phone when you’re downloading large files or streaming content, and carrying the phone away from your body (in a bag instead, for example); the big exception here is when it is in airplane mode, which means there’s no RF energy being emitted because it isn’t working to stay connected with a cell tower.
There are also some scenarios in which RF energy levels are higher and the guidelines advise cell phone owners to exercise caution in those cases. In addition to downloading/streaming, the advisory warns that phones output more RF energy when in a fast-moving vehicle and when signals are weak.
If you are using a headset rather than speaker phone, the guidelines say to remove it when you’re not on a call, as even the headsets produce a little bit of RF energy. If you are planning to fall asleep with the phone near your head (under a pillow, maybe) or in the bed, the guidelines suggest you put it in airplane mode first.
Finally, California’s guidelines say that radiation shields that promise to block phone radiation/RF energy could actually increase your exposure by forcing the phone to work harder to get a signal; therefore, they should be avoided. Feeling concerned? The FCC has a large series of FAQ on RF energy exposure, including the difference between RF energy and other types of radiation.