Is cell phone radiation harmful in pregnancy and childhood?

Cell phones have become a major part of everyday life in the last few decades. With the increase in cell phone usage across all ages, races, and socio-economic status, there is growing concern for consequences of cell phone radiation exposure in pregnant women and children. Below we’ll explain the major issues with cell phone radiation and its possible health hazards for adults and children.

What type of radiation do cell phones emit?

There are two major types of radiation: ionizing and non-ionizing. Ionizing radiation is considered more harmful and is the type that is  given off by x-ray machines and nuclear weapons. Non-ionizing radiation is found in low frequency/low energy sources such as cell phones. This means that cell phones send and receive non-ionizing radiofrequency (RF) waves to and from nearby cell towers. For example, every time you send a text, make a call or use data, your phone receives and emits RF radiation from a cell tower.

How much radiation do cell phones give off?

The RF exposure drops dramatically with increasing distance from your phone. For example, if you are texting or using a hands-free device you are exposed to less RF radiation than someone who is holding their phone up to their ear. Cell phones operate at a range of 450-2700 MHz with peak powers of 0.1-2 watts.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has regulated the maximum amount of power cell phones can emit (1.6 watts/kg). This limit is based on possible effects on adults (see below) and has not been updated since 1996.

Does radiation from cell phones cause cancer?

DNA changes can lead to cancer, but the radiation from cell phones doesn’t have enough power to affect DNA. It falls between radio waves and microwaves on the frequency range, so it is weak. Nevertheless, in 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) stated that RF radiation is a possible carcinogen because studies found an increased risk of brain tumors in people with higher exposures to RF radiation.

A 2016 study from the U.S. National Toxicology Program evaluated the possible cancer-causing effects of RF radiation on rats and mice. Rats exposed to RF radiation developed two main types of brain cancer (glioma and schwannoma). The results from the study were deemed  inconclusive mostly because the animals were exposed to more radiation for longer periods of time (9 hours a day, 7 days a week) than humans typically are. Also, the rats that developed tumors lived longer than those not exposed to radiation, which was a confusing finding. Therefore, current research doesn’t show a definite answer about cell phone use and cancer.

What is the risk from cell phone use during pregnancy?

A 2015 study from Norway that evaluated pregnant women’s cell phone use and consequences for newborns did not find any adverse outcomes. The study specifically looked for birth defects, low birthweight, preterm birth, placental issues, neonatal death and found no cases associated with use of cell phones. The study also evaluated the use of cell phones among fathers before the pregnancy and did not find any associations between cell phone use and health effects on the offspring.

What is the risk of cell phone exposure in children?

Children are at higher risk of health effects from long-term environmental exposures, including cell phone radiation, because they have more years of exposure ahead of them to develop cancer compared to adults. It has been shown that cell phone RF exposure in children can be up to 3 times higher than exposure in adults. Not enough research has been done to see how this higher, longer-term exposure affects children.

Recent human studies have looked at behavioral, cognitive, motor and language development of children who were exposed to cell phones while their mothers were pregnant. While some studies have shown behavioral problems in young children who were exposed before birth, other studies have showed no effects on motor, cognition or language up to 1.5 years old. More studies need to be done before it can be stated definitively that there are no harmful effects of cell phone radiation.

Animal studies have looked at cell phone radiation exposure before and after birth and found that there are fewer memory cells in rats that were exposed to 1 hour of RF exposure for 28 days compared to rats who weren’t exposed. No similar studies have been done among humans.

How can I reduce my exposure to cell phone radiation? Here are some good precautions to take, whether or not you are pregnant:

  • Keep your phone a few feet away from your body
  • Use hands-free methods (speaker phone, headphones). Wireless and wired headsets give off less RF radiation than cell phones.
  • Send text messages instead of talking on the phone, or reduce the length of time of phone conversations.
  • When streaming or downloading media, keep your phone away from your head or body.
  • Remove headphones from ears when not in use. They can still emit a small amount of RF radiation even if not on a call or listening to music. Decrease the use of your phone when it is using high levels of RF energy
  • One or two bars indicate a weak signal which means your phone uses more energy to maintain the signal, so avoid using your cell phone when you have a weak signal.
  •  Streaming/downloading media: Download them first and then listen/watch them in airplane mode to decrease your exposure to high RF energy.
  •  While in an elevator, car, bus or train, your phone has to use more energy to maintain connections with cell phone towers to prevent dropping calls, so avoid using your cell phone in these locations.

February 2018. This post was written by Tosha Songolo, medical student at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine, and edited by Dr. Susan Buchanan. The Region 5 PEHSU is part of a national network of experts in children’s and reproductive environmental health who provide medical consultation for health professionals, parents, caregivers, and patients on health risks due to natural or human-made environmental hazards. Call our hotline at (866) 967-7337 for questions about environmental exposures.

References: 

American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Cell Phone Radiation & Children’s Health: What Parents Need to Know. Last revised: 6/13/2016. Available at http://www.healthychildren.org. Accessed December 18 2017.
Bas, Ozen; Odaci, Ersan, et al. The Effects of 900 Megahertz Electromagnetic Field Applied in the Prenatal Period on Spinal Cord Morphology and Motor Behavior in Female Rat Pups. Neuroquantology 2013;11:573-581.

Baste, Valborg; Oftedal, Gunnhild; Mollerlokken, Ole Jacob; Hansson Mild, Kjell; Moen, Bente E. Prospective Study of Pregnancy Outcomes After Parental Cell Phone Exposure: The Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study. Epidemiology 2015;26(4):613-621.

California Department of Public Health: Division of Environmental and Occupational Disease Control. How to Reduce Exposure to Radiofrequency Energy from Cell Phones. Available at https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CCDPHP/DEODC/EHIB/CDPH%20Document%20Library/Cell-Phone-Guidance.pdf. Accessed December 18 2017.

Divan HA, Kheifets L, Obel C, et al. Cell phone use and behavioural problems in young children. J Epidemiol Community Health 2012;66:524-529.
Divan HA, Kheifets L, Olsen J. Prenatal cell phone use and developmental milestone delays among infants . Scand J Work Environ Health 2011;37(4):341-348.

Vrijheid, Martine; Martinez, David; Forns, Joan; Guxens, Mònica; Julvez, Jordi; Ferrer, Muriel; Sunyer, Jordi. Prenatal Exposure to Cell Phone Use and Neurodevelopment at 14 Months. Epidemiology 2010;21(2): 259-262.

World Health Organization. Electromagnetic fields and public health: mobile phones. Last revised October 2014. Available at http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs193/en/. Accessed December 18 2017.

 

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