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Are Cell Phones Safe?

In just a few short years mobile phones have revolutionized the way people communicate with each other. There is no disputing their convenience, but are cell phones safe? No one knows for sure. Scientific research is inconclusive. Even manufacturers admit there is no proof that wireless phones are absolutely safe.


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To understand the potential problem, it helps to understand how cell phones work. They are actually advanced versions of the walkie-talkie, which allows communication via radio frequency. But while walkie-talkies transmit messages within a short range, cell phones relay messages for miles via an elaborate network of transmitting towers (some up to 270-feet tall!) positioned throughout the country. Each tower is equipped with radios, computerized switching equipment, and antennas for both receiving and transmitting radio frequency signals. A tower’s functional range is largely determined by surrounding geography. This service area is known as a cell. Thus, mobile phones using these transmitting towers are part of a computer-controlled cellular system and phones using this system are called cell phones.

The Question of Radio Frequency

Potential health concerns involve the nature of radio frequency (RF), a form of low-intensity microwave radiation known to generate heat in exposed tissue, a result of friction produced from highly energized molecules. Because the phone’s antenna is placed close to the earpiece, cell phones can emit active RF radiation directly into the user’s head. Ominously, short-term memory is located near the right ear in the human brain.


Not surprisingly, research funded by the British government concluded in 1999 that there was strong evidence for adverse affects on “cognitive function, memory, and attention.” Other studies determined that RF weakens the blood/brain barrier, whose function is to prevent potentially dangerous chemicals from entering the brain. The good news is that, so far, both short-term memory loss and weakened blood/brain barrier conditions appear to revert to normal soon after radiation exposure ends. Still, opponents voice concern that RF radiation may cause long-term damage (such as brain tumors and harmful changes to DNA), but there is no hard evidence to confirm these fears.


Cellular phones are a relatively new technology, and we do not yet have full information on health effects. In particular, not enough time has elapsed to permit epidemiologic studies. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is monitoring the problem. In 1996 it adopted new RF exposure standards for cell phones, including a maximum absorption rate (SAR) of 1.6 watts per kilogram (1.6 W/kg). All cell phones manufactured after 2000 are required to comply with this standard.

Cell Towers

What about RF radiation created by cell-phone towers? Again, there is no hard evidence to suggest a problem exists. As with all electromagnetic radiation, power decreases rapidly as one moves away from the antenna. RF exposure on the ground is therefore much less than exposure near the antenna and in the path of a transmitted radio signal.


Green Advice

Be a responsible consumer. When your cell phone has outlasted its usefulness, recycle it. More than 500 million cell phones are in landfills now, with another 125 million headed to shelves and landfills each year. Don’t throw your old cell phone away! Trade it in or donate it, instead. Try the Red Cross Collective Good program (, or a no-kill animal shelter through Phones for Bones ( Want to be even greener? Use a solar battery to charge your phone--$80 through

Make Your Cell Phone Safer


To make your cell phone safer, the FCC recommends:

  1. Don't hold prolonged conversations on your cell phone. Select a phone designed with the antenna away from the head, or use a headset and carry the phone away from your body.
  2. If you're still concerned, put an RF shield on your phone. A company called Less EMF (which sells these shields, on-line only at reports SAR testing confirms shields reduce RF radiation to the brain by 99 percent.
  3. Until more is known, play it safe and avoid living on a hill in a path between two towers. If you’re concerned about proximity of a tower near where you live or work, find out which company owns it and ask company officials to measure RF to be sure exposures do not exceed recommended limits.

With thanks to Lynn Bower for valuable research.




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Are Cell Phones Safe?:  Created on May 10th, 2007.  Last Modified on January 11th, 2010


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About Linda Mason Hunter

Linda Mason Hunter

Linda Hunter is a pioneer in the home ecology/green movement. Her first book, The Healthy Home: An Attic-To-Basement Guide(1989, Rodale Press) was the first book on home ecology written for the layperson. Linda was featured in The New York Times and on "Good Morning, America." She has since authored two more "green" books: Green Clean (Melcher, 2005) and Creating a Safe and Healthy Home (CPI 2005). Linda is a field editor for national magazines and a consultant. Linda Mason Hunter's Website is She also founded Healthy Home Designs.



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