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Biological Effects of Cellular Phones
Jan 1, 2002

Cellular phones have become one of the 21st century's most indispensable tools. They serve a wide range of benefits, from being the fastest way to communicate to saving somebody's life. Now people are trying to design cell phones that will let us control home appliances remotely and even to access the Internet. But, some are asking, are they safe to use? Actually, there are good reasons to be concerned, for people using cell phones too often are radiating radio frequency (RF) energy to their heads.

In today's cellular communication systems, cellular phones operate in several frequency bands. European systems use the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) at around 900 MHz and 1800 MHz; American systems use 850 MHz and 1900 MHz, frequencies that fall between the operating frequency ranges of televisions and microwaves. This frequency range is called non-ionizing, for the wave's energy does not release electrons from atoms in living tissue. For instance, an X-ray is an ionizing wave that, to a degree, damages exposed biological material. Therefore, most concerns deal with RF energy's heating effect rather than with ionization.

Technical Motivation

The electromagnetic spectrum extends from DC (direct current) to ionizing radiation. Scientists divide this spectrum into subregions. Cellular phones fall into the ultra-high frequency (UHF) regime, specifically from 300 MHz to 3000 MHz. By itself, a continuous UHF wave carries no information and does not enhance communication. It only becomes useful when modulation, defined as means carrying the information on a high frequency carrier, like UHF, is applied. The most common modulation techniques are amplitude modulation (AM) and frequency modulation (FM).

The capacity of the spectrum's given section to carry information is limited by the Shannon Theorem. According to this theorem, channel capacity can be increased by increasing the system's signal-to-noise ratio. In wired communications, channel capacity can be increased by adding more parallel optical fibers. Channel capacity in wireless communications can be increased by transmitting weak signals that attenuate rapidly near the transmitter and thus provide a given portion of the electromagnetic spectrum to be utilized many times. How a given spectrum is allocated among users affects the channel capacity. Therefore, there are several coding techniques, the most common of which are Frequency Division Multiple Access (FDMA), Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA), and Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA).

Neglecting some small details, an electromagnetic (EM) wave's energy is expressed in terms of power density (W/m2) across a surface. Power density measures an incident EM wave's strength. Easily measured, it is a very preferable metric to UHF fields. For uncontrolled environments, the American National Standards Institute and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (ANSI/IEEE C95.1) recommend a 2 to 20 W/m2 for an average external exposure to UHF. The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) has similar power density recommendations for limiting the general public's exposure to RF energy so that people will not be overheated by RF energy. As a comparison, for example, summer sunshine peaks around 1000 W/m2.

However, as power density is not a good indicator inside a living organism, scientists have defined a Specific Absorption Rate: SAR (in W/kg). For uncontrolled environments, ANSI/IEEE limits the spatial-average SAR to 0.08 W/kg whole body and to 1.6 W/kg averaged over any 1 gram of tissue. Also, 1998 ICNIRP restrictions are similar to ANSI/IEEE's. The SAR can be estimated in three ways.

- Micro-antenna: Small antennas can determine a tissue's electric field as well as its SAR. But it is difficult to place the antenna, and the tissue's properties may not be known.

- Miniature thermal probes: Since RF energy heats the tissue, this technique detects the heat and the SAR in the neighborhood of the temperature cell, which then can be computed accordingly. However, this method also seems very difficult technologically.

- Numerical modeling: The numerical modeling of macroscopic bodies enables a numerical simulation, known as the Finite Difference Time Domain (FDTD), that can estimate the SAR. However, this process can be time-consuming and expensive.

Possible Health Issues

An EM wave can effect a biological change in living tissue in two ways: Depositing enough energy while passing through the biological material to alter some structures, or depositing packets of energy larger than the bond energy. Yet neither way seems to be possible, for the photon energy within the UHF zone is far less than the bond energy or the energy required to alter a living tissue's structures. Therefore, many scientists now argue that UHF radiation at subthermal power levels can cause some biological damage.

Due to relatively low exposure levels, relatively small populations, and a lack of reliable dose estimates, proving or disproving the existence of RF exposure's biological hazards remains an issue for epidemiology (e.g., statistical analysis of health records and animal studies).

Epidemiological Studies

Epidemiological studies were conducted among people who worked in a high frequency environment, such as radar stations. Search criteria were not limited to cellular and personnel communication system (PCS) frequencies. Due to the nature of radar and other military equipment, broader frequency ranges were covered. The epidemiology of cancer and RF radiation includes studies of cancer mortality rates among those exposed to RF energy.

Throughout these studies, people's records were searched to determine if their cancer was due to RF exposure. These studies were made in various institutions, including the Radar Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the U.S. Navy and Air Force, and the Polish military. There was no conclusive evidence that RF exposure increases the risk of cancer. Also, due to the lack of comparisons with total cancer, it was suggested that RF exposure does not have a strong effect on cancer.

Since brain cancer takes a long time to develop and epidemiological studies tell nothing about future risks, these studies have not proved or disproved that RF exposure increases the risk of cancer.

Animal Studies

Animals are the other source of information that potentially may answer people's concerns. Experiments have studied rats exposed to certain power levels of RF energy. However, these studies found no link between cell phones and cancer.

In 1999, a Motorola-funded research program concluded that exposing rats to pulse-modulated 837 MHz RF energy, very close to that radiated by a digital cell phone, does not cause or develop brain cancer. A study in April 2000 reported that this conclusion is valid for continuous-wave RF (analog cell phones). But a 1995 study at the University of Washington (Seattle) reported that exposing rats to RF radiation at an average whole-body exposure of 1 W/kg of body weight caused breaks in their brain cells' DNA, which is an indication of cancer. No other study has confirmed this finding.

Other studies have focused on different aspects of RF radiation rather than brain cancer. They searched animals for certain diseases and noticed an increase in disease rate. However, despite such research findings, animal studies seem to be far removed from human health.


Epidemiological findings and animal studies have neither proved nor disproved the health hazards of mobile phones. A February 2000 essay by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stated that: There is currently insufficient scientific basis for concluding either that wireless communication technologies are safe or that they pose a health risk to millions of users. Research activity continues. For example, France's International Agency for Research on Cancer has received a research project of 8 million euros from the European Commission for a 3-year, wide epidemiological study. Also, the FDA and the Cellular Telephone Industry Association have undertaken a $1 million research project to clarify the health risks of mobile phones.

Meanwhile, some researchers are trying to find the head's SAR by using electromagnetic simulations (FDTD). So far, they have discovered that it is strongly affected by the cell phone's position as well as the head's shape and properties. Therefore phone-makers are trying to design handset designs to reduce the SAR. However, it seems that the debate will remain until scientific proof is confirmed and made available.

  • References
  • IEEE Spectrum. Are Mobile Phones Safe? (August 2000): 23-28.
  • Moulder et. al. Cell Phones and Cancer: What is the Evidence for a Connection? Radiation Research Society, 151 (1999): 513-31.