Smartphone radiation is not causing health issues, scientists say

The best-quality studies of radiofrequency radiation consistently show no evidence of negative health effects.

Jackson Ryan Former Science Editor
Jackson Ryan was CNET's science editor, and a multiple award-winning one at that. Earlier, he'd been a scientist, but he realized he wasn't very happy sitting at a lab bench all day. Science writing, he realized, was the best job in the world -- it let him tell stories about space, the planet, climate change and the people working at the frontiers of human knowledge. He also owns a lot of ugly Christmas sweaters.
Jackson Ryan
3 min read

Some people are still concerned that smartphone radiation could cause health problems.

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With 5G technology beginning to roll out across the world, old fears that smartphone radiation could have negative health effects are beginning to flare up. A recent report raised further concerns by suggesting that some phones are leaking more radiation than expected. Facebook groups and YouTube comments sections are filled with people voicing their concerns about radiofrequency (RF) radiation used in our communication networks. Though the scientific evidence has consistently shown there's little reason to be worried, many believe RF radiation could be harming us.

There is a huge amount of scientific data on the issue, making it increasingly complex for both consumers and health professionals to untangle. A new comment piece, appearing in the New Zealand Medical Journal on Friday, agrees the topic is complex but says any potentially harmful biological effects are more commonly seen in low-quality scientific studies.

According to Mark Elwood, an epidemiologist at the University of Auckland and first author of the piece, New Zealand's Ministry of Health asked for an independent, objective response after an article was published in the same journal last December by Susan Pockett, a researcher at the University of Auckland. The Ministry of Health thought Pockett's article, which argued public policy in New Zealand wasn't doing enough to protect public health, was misleading.

Scientists have been studying the effect of RF radiation on the human body for decades, demonstrating that the major biological effect appears to be heating of human tissue. RF radiation is non-ionizing which means it does not have the energy to do damage to DNA.

Pockett's article argued this is untrue, citing a number of studies that suggest biological effects of non-ionizing radiation go beyond heating of tissue. The new comment piece cites the numerous studies showing these biological effects, but questions their quality.

"Many of the studies showing a potential detrimental health effect are of low quality, but get published because they are interesting," Elwood said. "The word 'potential' is important. Most of the studies investigate some physiological or molecular change which could possibly be related to a health effect, but usually direct evidence of a health detriment is lacking."

Elwood points to a recent review by researchers at the University of Texas which reviewed over 200 studies and over 2000 tests of RF radiation on mammalian cells, finding only 9% of the highest-quality studies suggest genetic damage may occur, whereas half of the lowest-quality studies showed this. "This suggests that the positive results in many studies are due to failure to meet basic criteria of quality of conducting studies," he said.

The key to good science is reproducibility. It's one thing to show that exposure to RF radiation has an effect, but another thing altogether to be able to show it again and again and again. There remains unanswered questions about exposure to RF radiation, with both laboratory studies and animal studies showing no consistent health effects.

That doesn't mean research will stop, and it doesn't mean the current guidelines enforced around the world will not be further scrutinized. However, the weight of evidence currently suggests that radiation from phones is nothing to worry about. As 5G begins to roll out for everything from our phones to the Internet of Things, gaming and more, it becomes increasingly important to sort the good science from the bad.

As Sarah Loughran, a researcher at the University of Wollongong, wrote in The Conversation earlier this month, "anti-5G sentiment and campaigning might be well-intentioned, without the scientific evidence to back these sentiments, it's likely doing more harm than good."

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