Depending on whom you ask, mobile phones and other portable electronic devices are either the single most important technological innovation of our lifetimes or dangerous, radiation-emitting devices that pose a major risk to public health in the long term. What can science tell us?
Radiation is just energy traveling through space. Ionizing radiation means that the radiation, coming from the decay of atoms, is energetic enough to displace an electron (a tiny charged particle in an atom) out of its normal home. Powerful ionizing radiation includes sunlight (ultraviolet radiation, which can cause burns), X-rays and CT scan radiation, the high levels in the vicinity of nuclear waste and the lower, or “background,” levels from the earth and the air.
Non-ionizing radiation gets electrons excited, but it can’t actually displace them from their atom homes. It’s like the way tea might not give the same satisfying energy boost as coffee.
Here’s what we know: Exposure to different kinds of non-ionizing radiation occurs on a daily basis. Power lines emit low-frequency radiofrequency radiation — less than 100,000 hertz. Mobile phones, TVs, radios and even cordless landline phones emit up to 100 times what power lines do. Some mobile phones, microwave ovens, cordless phones, airport scanners, motion detectors and Wi-Fi setups emit microwave radiation — up to 300 gigahertz in frequency.
While physicists argue that simply exciting electrons is not enough to damage the human body, research with animals seems to suggest otherwise, and the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has declared radiofrequency electromagnetic fields a possible carcinogen to humans.
In an experiment, exposing fruit flies to only 30 minutes of radiation from a mobile phone immediately caused the generation of free radicals (damaging oxygen atoms) and the dysregulation of 168 different genes. The researchers reported the animals’ ovaries seemed to be “reprogrammed.”
Rats that were exposed to cellphones for a few hours a day for a month showed increased levels of free radicals in the blood and decreased reproductive hormone levels. And in the rats with the longest daily exposure (three hours), testicular cells began to break down. Rats with only an hour per day of exposure did not have the decreased hormone levels, indicating that duration of exposure matters (just like the duration of sun exposure determines whether a person burns or gets skin cancer over time).
Human stem cells in the lab also grow more slowly when exposed to cellphone radiation. Scientists writing in the Journal of Biomedical Physics and Engineering published an article called “The Fundamental Reasons Why Laptop Computers Should Not Be Used on Your Lap,” citing heat damage to testicular function, the laptop radiation and the Wi-Fi radiation. (And poor posture was the nail in the coffin.)
What can be done about all this radiation exposure? Minimize your use of radiation-emitting devices: Use landline phones when possible, use wired, non-Bluetooth headsets to speak on the phone and perhaps turn off the Wi-Fi router when it is not needed.
Consuming a diet high in antioxidants can also potentially help to protect our bodies from damage associated with radiation. Future research into a healthy diet’s effect on rates of cancer and other illnesses in people with high radiation exposure may help guide how we live our lives in “the sea of radiation.”