California health officials are offering guidelines on limiting exposure to radiation from cellphones, updating recommendations from a previously secret report that a court order be made public earlier this year.
“This is a response to concerns that have been expressed to us, over and over again, by the general public,” California Department of Public Health Director Dr. Karen Smith told the Huffington Post this week. “Our response is, if you have a concern, here are some very practical things you can do.”
The recommendations generally advise limiting physical contact with mobile phones, especially for children and young adults. They include background information on the type of radiation cellphones emit and current research on possible health risks.
It’s an expanded version of a 2014 draft that the Public Health Department was ordered to publish in March, following a lawsuit to make the guidelines public.
In its defense, the health department denied any conspiracy in keeping the draft private. Instead, it said it didn’t want to cause unnecessary panic, noting that national guidelines by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the time emphasized a lack of rigorous scientific data on a connection between cellphones and disease.
“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 cellphones,” Dr. Smith said in a statement issued last week alongside the updated report. “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.”
Cellphones emit radio frequency energy, the same type of radiation found in microwaves, televisions, phone towers, remote controllers, baby monitors and other everyday items.
These low-frequency electromagnetic waves are called “non-ionizing” radiation, which can increase heat. However, the radiation hadn’t been shown to cause cellular damage that can lead to cancer.
Last year, the National Institutes of Health Toxicology Program published preliminary results from a wide-ranging study on the effects of non-ionizing radiation, showing that prolonged exposure on mice and rats increased the risk of developing certain brain and heart tumors.
“There was a hypothesis out that non-ionizing radiation could not cause cancer,” said Ronald Melnick, a retired researcher with the National Toxicology Program and a senior adviser to the medical advocacy group Environmental Health Trust.
Dr. Melnick helped lead the design of the Toxicology Program study.
“The animals were exposed and unfortunately we found that the radio frequency radiation did cause tumors so I think that hypothesis has now been disproven,” he said.
California’s guidelines join a growing body of warnings by health officials and researchers about the unchecked dangers of cellphone radiation, which in addition to cancer are believed to cause infertility, and memory and learning disabilities. Other drawbacks of increased cellphone use are behavioral, with recent research showing that teenagers who spend five or more hours on a smartphone report increased feelings of depression and thoughts of suicide.
Dr. Melnick said that the risk of radiation exposure decreases the farther someone is from the antenna in a cellphone.
“In fact it decreases at the square of the distance — so the exposure intensity, if you double the distance from the antenna, is fourfold lower than holding the antenna closer to the body,” he said.
Children and young adults are at an increased risk because not only their bodies and brains are still developing but also their exposure begins at an earlier age than adults.
“Because children will have many more years of exposure, any studies that have been conducted in adults will underestimate that risk to a child who will have much longer years of exposure to radio frequency radiation,” Dr. Melnick said.
To decrease the amount of exposure to cellphone radiation, the California Health Department recommends:
• Avoid holding a cellphone to your head; use a headset or speakerphone.
• Send text messages instead of talking on the phone.
• Avoid using a cellphone if it has only one or two bars of service.
• Avoid using a cellphone in a fast-moving car, bus or train because as the phones emit more radio frequency energy to make a connection.
• Don’t sleep with a cellphone in your bed or near your head.