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Health risks associated with the use of mobile phones

| October 22, 2011 | 0 Comments


The mobile phone industry has grown substantially from 1 billion mobile subscriptions in 2002, to 4.1 billion at the end of 2008 (Guardian, 2009). This growth has been based on the benefits mobile phones bring to users, which amongst others is the ease with which it allows effortless communication between people; anywhere there is a mobile network. However, mobile phones operate on microwave signals that are sent from the caller’s mobile phone to base stations, and then to the receiver’s mobile. Microwave signals are part of a larger family of electromagnetic radiation, one of which is X-Rays and Gamma Rays, which are known to cause cancer in individuals after prolonged exposure.

Therefore, the major aim of this essay is to assess and talk about the health risks associated with the everyday use of mobile phones today, as it could present a significant health effect if it were found that it does result in adverse health conditions. Numerous studies exist on the health effects of mobile phone to users, telecom workers, and communities near base stations, and a common factor amongst these studies is the inconsistency of their results, and a significant gap in the information regarding the health effect, which then prompts further studies.



The World Health Organisation defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (Repacholi, 2001).  Whilst worldwide mobile phone use tops 4 billion, the concern over health risks associated with their use continues to exist.  As the number of mobile phone users increases, the impact of possible risks becomes exponential.    Possible health risks linked to mobile phone use include: brain tumours, brain and neck cancer, neurological changes, changes in blood pressure, increased health risks in children using mobile phones, and the use of mobile phones whilst driving.

The major concern regarding health risks associated with mobile phone use stems from the fact that these devices transmit extremely low frequency (ELF) radiation through radiofrequency emissions.  Potential health risks can be categorised as either thermal or non-thermal, in which holding the handset close to the body causes thermal effects, and non-thermal effects are a result of both handsets and mobile base stations (Heathcote, 2003).



One concern associated with mobile phone use is the risk of developing a brain tumour.  Although brain tumours themselves are relatively rare, there is still some concern amongst the general public that their causes could be associated with mobile phones.  This concern has resulted in multiple studies being conducted to research whether or not the low levels of radiation produced by mobile phones contribute to brain tumour development.  One such study conducted in theUKin 2006 of 2,500 people concluded that there was no connection between mobile phone use and gliomas, which is a type of tumour that accounts for half of all brain tumours (Inskip, 2001).

Another study conducted in 2007 looked at several different aspects of mobile phone use and their possible effects on brain tumours.  This study not only looked at mobile phone use, but also a user’s years of use, complete number of calls, total hours of use, and whether an analog or digital mobile phone was used (Hardell, 1999).  As with the study mentioned above, the results of this study concluded that there was no evident link between mobile phone use and brain tumours.

Yet another study entitled Interphone conducted in 14 countries by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) recently suggested that studies found a 24% increased risk for glioma as a result of regular use of a mobile phone on one side of the head over a prolonged period of time (IARC, 2010).  However, the study also stated that the results were inconclusive and that further research is required to substantiate these claims.  To this end the IARC has embarked upon further research in several areas, including brain tumours, regarding the effects of mobile phone use on user’s health.



Leading on from the concern regarding brain tumours, is that of actually developing brain or neck cancer from using a mobile phone.  This concern is arguably the greatest concern amongst mobile phone users.  It is believed that that the low levels of radiation emitted from mobile phones can cause cancer over prolonged use, specifically in the brain and neck where the handset is normally positioned.  As with the concern over mobile phones leading to brain tumours, numerous tests and studies have been conducted in order to determine whether the concerns over developing brain and neck cancer are in fact legitimate.

The U.S. General Accounting Office (2001), or U.S.GAO, states that two major types of studies exist to assess the health risks associated with mobile phones: epidemiological studies and laboratory studies.  The former study investigates the associations between attributes of people and their environment and health effects, whilst the latter are used to determine a contributory relationship between human health and certain risk factors (U.S. GAO, 2001).  One epidemiological study conducted on mobile phone users inDenmarkfrom 1982 to 1995 found that there was no association between mobile phone use and brain.  The National Cancer Institute also conducted similar tests from 1994 to 1998 and found the same results; mobile phone use does not lead to brain or certain other cancers (U.S. GAO, 2001).

Whilst these studies seem to be consistent, the concern still exists as mobile phone use continues to increase.  Currently there is concern over different types of mobile phones, analog or digital, and if different phones pose different risks to users health.  Carlo and Thibodeau (2001, p. 80) suggest “it seems unlikely that a brain cancer hazard will be found in epidemiological studies of users of digital mobile phones, because the hazard associated with digital radio-telephone use is distributed across the entire brain, whereas the hazard from analog mobile phones is localized in one particular region of the brain.”  They also suggest that more studies need to be undertaken in order to offer more exacting information regarding the use of mobile phones and brain or neck cancer.  Studies would need to look at all types of brain and neck cancer in order to gain more information regarding digital mobile phone use, whereas tumours in a particular region of the brain would be more appropriate when studying the effects of analog mobile phone use (Carlo and Thibodeau, 2001).



The concerns over mobile phones possibly causing neurological changes in users have been derived from the two concerns mentioned above: brain tumours and brain cancer.  It is believed that because of the position in which users hold a mobile phone, close to the head and ear, that certain types of cancer and tumours can be developed in and around these areas.  It is then assumed that these tumours and cancers can ultimately result in neurological changes.  A change in the neurological system can effect things such as one’s coordination, sensation, consciousness, and can even lead to muscle weakness, paralysis, or changes in behaviour.  Hence, studies have been conducted to determine if in fact mobile phone use can cause changes to the neurological system.

The U.S. GAO (2001) reports that laboratory studies conducted on human volunteers have taken place in order to test whether mobile phone radiofrequency emissions have noncancerous effects, including neurological changes or changes to blood pressure, changes in brain activity, response times, and sleep cycles.  The World Health Organisation concluded that these studies resulted in small effects but did not pose any major risks to human health.  However, the WHO also suggested that more research in these areas is required to confirm the findings of these laboratory studies.

Repacholi (2001) has published information regarding laboratory studies utilising animals to determine whether or not radiofrequency emissions effect behaviour.  These studies exposed primates to high radiofrequency emissions, which resulted in behaviour changes.  Repacholi concluded that these changes could potentially result in health consequences at lower levels of radiofrequency exposure.  He further concluded that more studies and replication are needed to confirm whether or not health consequences exist with lower levels of radiofrequency exposure.

Another such study (ICNIRP, 1998) looked at whether response times can be effected by intense pulsed radiofrequency fields revealed that such exposure did have an effect on laboratory mice.  However, the study also revealed that the mechanism for the effects was not conclusive and that more studies needed to be conducted.

Chou et al. (1985) conducted laboratory studies using primates to test whether or not low-level radiofrequency fields had an effect on the retina, iris, and cornea.  These studies revealed that the primate’s eyes were in fact susceptible to this testing, especially when the radiofrequency fields were pulsed.  However, test replication was unsuccessful.  It was therefore concluded that further studies needed to be conducted in order to substantiate the original findings.



Similar to neurological changes mentioned above, changes in blood pressure have also become a concern for users of mobile phones.  A study published in the Electromagnetic Hazard and Therapy journal (Borbely et al., 1998) showed that German researchers measured blood pressure in 10 volunteers by attaching a mobile phone to the side of their head.  The scientists revealed that a slight increase in blood pressure did occur when the phones were switched on.  They concluded that this was probably a result of the arteries being constricted, which they believe was caused by the radiofrequency fields emitted from the mobile phones.

Barker et al. (2007) conducted a similar study using 120 human volunteers.  In their study, the scientists exposed the volunteers six different times to a different radiofrequency signal each time using both analog and digital mobile phone handsets.  The study looked at blood pressure and heart rate variability directly after the radiofrequency exposure, during the exposure, and 24 hours after the exposure to the radiofrequency signals.  The studies resulted in no detectable rise in either blood pressure or heart rate as a result of exposure to radiofrequency signals.



It has been suggested that children are more susceptible to health risks associated with mobile phones due to the fact that their nervous system is not yet fully developed and their skulls have not fully matured (Encyclopaedia of Family, 2005).  More and more children are starting to use mobile phones, and at a younger age, therefore this concern has become widespread.

A recent article published in the Telegraph (2010) suggested that government health advisors warn that children under the age of 12 should not use mobile phones.  The article also reported that evidence of health risks in children due to mobile phone use have become more evident within the last five years, and that studies suggest that there may be increased health risks to children.  Studies conducted inSweden,Holland, andGermanywere cited in the article as further evidence that there may be increased risks to children from radiofrequency emissions.  As stated above, these risks are thought to be linked to the fact that the nervous systems and skulls of children are not fully developed.

Study results released by the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme (2007) revealed that to date, mobile phones do not pose any increased health risks to either children or adults.  However, the study did also suggest that more tests are needed in order to confirm the long-term effects of mobile phone use in both children and adults.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (U.S. GAO, 2001) also suggests that information to date indicates that mobile phone use does not result in adverse health effects in either children or adults.  However, the FDA also suggests that not enough information exists to completely eliminate adverse health effects related to mobile phones, and that more research is needed.



Although not considered to be a direct effect of mobile phones themselves, it is suggested that an increased risk to one’s health does exist as an indirect effect of mobile phone use.  This indirect effect can be attributed to the use of a mobile phone whilst driving.  Heathcote (2003) states that there is a possible increased risk of using a mobile phone whilst driving.  This concern has become so significant that many countries have introduced legislation to prohibit the use of mobile phones whilst driving.

A study conducted by the University of Utah Psychology Department (Strayer et al., 2003) tested 40 human volunteers under three different conditions whilst driving: a baseline test, a test with blood alcohol level at 0.08%, and a mobile phone use test.  The results of the test can be seen in the table below.

Means and standard errors (in parentheses) for the Alcohol, Base line, and Cell-Phone conditions



Base line

Cell Phone

Total Accidents




Brake Onset Time (msec)

888 (51)

943 (58)

1022 (61)

Braking Force (% of maximum)

69.6 (3.6)

56.4 (2.5)

55.2 (2.9)

Speed (MPH)

52.8 (.08)

54.9 (.08)

53.2 (.07)

Following Distance (meters)

26.5 (1.7)

27.3 (1.3)

28.5 (1.6)

½ Recovery Time

5.4 (0.3)

5.4 (0.3)

6.2 (0.4)

Adapted from University of Utah, Department of Psychology, “Fatal Distraction? A Comparison of the Cell-Phone Driver and The Drunk Driver”, 2003

Whilst the scientists do not encourage drink driving, their findings indicate individuals using mobile phones whilst driving exhibited more impairment than those who were intoxicated.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents published a report that suggested mobile phone use whilst driving cannot only lead to accidents, but can also impair a driver’s performance.  Whilst this may be true, the report released by the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme (2007) suggested that mobile phones do not pose any more risk to a driver than do any other distractions that my occur whilst driving.



Many claims of health risks associated with mobile phones exists; some claims suggest biological affects of radiofrequency emissions, others suggest brain tumours, or even cancer, still others suggest increased risk to children and drivers, however, little research exists to substantiate these claims.  If there is in fact no adverse health effects associated with mobile phone use and radiofrequency emissions, then why do the claims continue to surface?

The FDA (U.S. GAO, 2001) reports that laboratory studies conducted to determine the adverse health effects of radiofrequency emission from mobile phones on humans predominately result in no evidence.  However, the FDA also suggests that certain studies warrant more attention.  It is also suggested that little research has been done on digital phones, which are becoming more dominant, and more studies need to be undertaken to rule out any adverse health effects caused by these mobile phones.  Therefore, the general consensus is that not enough research has been conducted regarding the adverse health effects of mobile phones and that more research needs to be done concerning the long-term effects of mobile phone use.

To this end, several countries and agencies have sanctioned studies to get to the bottom of the mobile phone health risk question.  In 1996 the World Health Organisation established the International Electromagnetic Fields Project.  The goal of this project is to measure the health and environmental effects of electric and magnetic fields.  The International Agency for Research on Cancer (2010) has committed to conducting further epidemiological studies.  It is stated that these studies will be larger than those previously conducted, and will test for a wider range of health risks associated with mobile phones and radiofrequency emissions.  The European Commission under the Fifth Framework Programme is also sponsoring a number of studies that will focus on the adverse health effects of mobile phones.  The National Toxicology Program is also planning long-term studies using animals to test the effects of radiofrequency emissions.  Here in theUK, in 2000 the Department of Health committed nearly £6 million to fund studies to look at the possible health effects of mobile phone use (U.S. GAO, 2001).

Whilst most scientific research to date indicates no adverse health effects associated with mobile phones, the concern amongst the general public remains.  Most researchers suggest that evidence to dispel these concerns is limited, at best, and agree that more studies need to be conducted.  Widespread mobile phone use has only occurred within the last 20-25 years, therefore it is suggested that more long-term studies need to be conducted to remove any health concerns associated with mobile phones and radiofrequency emissions.



(2001)U.S.General Accounting Office, Telecommunications: Research and Regulatory Efforts on Mobile Phone Health Issues.

(2005) Encyclopedia of Family Health. 3rd edition. Marshall Cavendish:TarrytownNY.

(2010) World Health Organisation, International Agency for Research on Cancer [online] Available at: Accessed 09 November 2010.

Barker, A.T., Jackson, P.R., Parry, H., Coulton, L.A., Cook, G.G., and Wood, S.M. (2007) ‘The effect of GSM and TETRA mobile handset signals on blood pressure, catechol levels and heart rate variability.’  Bioelectromagnetics 28,6 433-438.

Bergqvist, U., and Vogel, E. (1997) Possible Health Implications of Subjective Symptoms and Electromagnetic Field.  Swedish National Institute for Working Life:Stockholm,Sweden.

Borbely, A., Achermann, P., Geering, B., and Tobler, I.(1998) ‘Psychopharmacology – 4th Generation of Progress.’ Electromagnetic Hazard & Therapy 1.11.98 11.

Carlo, G., and Thibodeau, P. (2001) Wireless Phones and Health II State of the Science.  Kluwer Academic Publishing:Norwell,Massachusetts.

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Heathcote, P.M. (2003) ‘A’ Level ICT.  3rd edition.  CPI:Bath.

ICNIRP (1998) ‘Guidelines for limiting exposure to time-varying electric, magnetic and electromagnetic fields (up to 300 GHz).’ Physics 74 494-522.

Inskip, P. (2001) ‘Cellular Telephone Use and Brain Tumours.’New EnglandJournal of Medicine 344, 2 79-86.

Muscat, J. (2000) ‘Handheld Cellular Telephone Use and Risk of Brain Cancer.’ Journal of the American Medical Association 284, 23 3001-3007.

Repacholi, M. (2001) ‘Health Risks from the Use of Mobile Phones.’ Toxicology Letters 120, 1-3 323-331.

Strayer, D., Drews, F., and Crouch, D. (2003) ‘Fatal Distraction? A Comparison of the Cell-Phone Driver and The Drunk Driver.’ University of Utah Department of Psychology.

Westerman, R., and Hocking, B. (2004) ‘Diseases of modern living; neurological changes associated with mobile phones and radiofrequency radiation in humans.’ Neuroscience Letters 361 13-16.

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