Just as cigarettes were once regarded as harmless if not downright beneficial, the smartphone today is seen as a natural extension of one’s body. Most of us carry our phones with us day and night. We put them in our pocket or purse and place them on our bedside tables when we retire for the night.
Is this insane? Some public health officials — most recently, the California Department of Public Health — think it may be and scientists around the world are cautious in their statements on the potential risk. In the U.S., the telecommunications industry flatly denies that there is a serious risk and many publications that should know better irresponsibly brand any statement of concern as fantasy, conspiracy-mongering or worse.
But the simple fact is that smartphones are radio transceivers and, just like all radio transmitters, they emit electromagnetic waves that under certain conditions could cause changes at the cellular level in humans and other animals. Defenders say the risks are vanishingly small, in part because the devices are so low-powered.
But others note that, unlike most transmitters, smartphones are constantly sending out brief bursts of data that keep them in touch with the nearest antennas. And when used for streaming music or video, the smartphone sends a nearly constant stream of “OK, got it” signals confirming the receipt of each of the millions of data packets that make up a single music or movie selection.
Science still evolving
While this may not be all that treacherous for consumers who are already adults, researchers are concerned about the effects on long-term effects on children, who now begin toting smartphones around almost before they can walk and who thus face a lifetime of exposure to low-power but constant streams of radio emissions. It’s this concern that the California health officials noted in a recent announcement.
“Although the science is still evolving, there are concerns among some public health professionals and members of the public regarding long-term, high use exposure to the energy emitted by cell phones,” said CDPH Director and State Public Health Officer Dr. Karen Smith. “We know that simple steps, such as not keeping your phone in your pocket and moving it away from your bed at night, can help reduce exposure for both children and adults.”
Smith noted that about 95 percent of Americans own a cell phone, and 12 percent rely on their smartphones for everyday Internet access. In addition, the average age when children get their first phone is now just 10 years old, and a majority of young people keep their phones on or near them most of the day and while they sleep.
“Children’s brains develop through the teenage years and may be more affected by cell phone use,” said Smith. “Parents should consider reducing the time their children use cell phones and encourage them to turn the devices off at night.”
The CDPH guidance makes these recommendations to reduce exposure to radio frequency energy from smartphones:
- Keeping the phone away from the body
- Reducing cell phone use when the signal is weak
- Reducing the use of cell phones to stream audio or video, or to download or upload large files
- Keeping the phone away from the bed at night
- Removing headsets when not on a call
- Avoiding products that claim to block radio frequency energy. These products may actually increase your exposure.