Two people texting
Two people texting on Smartphones. Courtesy Pixabay

If you were born in or before the 1990s, you probably remember a time without smartphones, tablets, and maybe even computers. Fast forward a couple of decades and just about everyone you know owns at least one mobile electronic device.

The societal impacts of the rapid adoption of these devices are obvious and heavily discussed–productivity, efficiency and connectivity are just some of the gains, while mass manipulation, violence and bullying are a few of the consequences. But is there another risk that comes with a dependence on electronics that we aren’t talking enough about?

In today’s First World, convenience is king. So much so that it can cloud our judgment. If you are old enough to remember life without a cell phone, you may also be old enough to remember a time when cigarettes were glamorized and asbestos was touted as an inexpensive but effective form of insulation.

How does this relate to our personal electronics? Well, all electronics emit radiation in the form of electromagnetic fields, or EMF. EMF encompasses a spectrum of electromagnetic wavelengths that can be divided into two major categories: ionizing and non-ionizing.

On one end of the spectrum, you have the known cancer causers like X-rays, gamma rays and higher wavelength ultraviolet light. These are categorized as ionizing radiation because they contain enough energy to remove an electron from an atom, which can have a detrimental effect on DNA and cause irreparable damage to your body.

At the other end of the spectrum are the radio frequencies and extremely low frequencies that are emitted by personal electronics. These are considered non-ionizing because they lack the required energy to remove an electron from an atom.

However, just because non-ionizing radiation doesn’t have the energy to ionize an atom, doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous. A $25 million government-funded study was recently conducted in which rats and mice were exposed to cell phone radiation to determine the health implications. Ron Melnick, the designer of the study, concluded that there is a carcinogenic effect.

This finding led the city of Berkeley to require a notice at the point of purchase for any smartphone advising the buyer to consult their manual for proper safety guidelines. What consumers typically find in the manual is a disclaimer saying that using the device in close proximity to the body could lead to radiation exposure that exceeds the FCC guidelines.

The cell phone industry has employed a vast network of lawyers and lobbyists to try to limit the warnings, but to no avail. After several unsuccessful appeals that ultimately led to the California Superior Court upholding Berkeley’s notice requirement, the industry took the case to the Supreme Court, which also upheld the ruling.

Perhaps more alarmingly, in October the Chicago Tribune conducted a investigation and found that some Samsung and Apple cell phones exceed the current FCC limits by up to five times. In addition, those FCC limits were set in the mid-1990s and were based on tests that were conducted in the late 1980s.

Not only has the level and type of EMF emitted by a cell phone evolved massively since then, the usage patterns and demographics have also changed. Those initial studies were conducted on a simulation of a 200-pound adult male, whereas now millions of more susceptible children and teenagers are within inches of their smartphone at all times.

What Can You Do to Protect Yourself?

Health advocates are pushing for stricter regulations of EMF emissions, but these changes could take years, if they ever come to fruition. In the meantime, there are several measures you can take to reduce your exposure.

  • Use your speaker and avoid direct contact to skin
  • Keep phones out of pockets and clothing as much as possible
  • Ensure children refrain from extended electronic use
  • Avoid using your laptop or tablet on your lap
  • Use an independently lab-tested shielding device

Cary Subel is co-founder of SafeSleeve, a Carlsbad company that makes anti-radiation cases for smartphones and laptops.