California’s Department of Public Health has officially recognized the dangers of smartphone radiation. Earlier this year, the Department released guidelines about the radiation and how to avoid it. These guidelines were first drawn up in 2009, and updated in 2014. However, it was only released after a judge threatened to expose the document in the Moskovitz case.

Joel Moskowitz, Ph.D., is the Director of the Center for Family and Community Health at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. In 2016, he sued the state to get the document released. The judge’s decision vindicated his effort. Why he felt he had to do so will be explained below.

Today, over 95 percent of Americans use smartphones, but there is little public information about their safety.

Current exposure guidelines are based on acute injury from thermal effects, not long-term, low-level exposure. Thermal damage, especially the breaking of chemical bonds, was the foundation of scientific skepticism through the cellular phone industry.

In 2010, Scientific American Magazine claimed that physics proved that smartphone radiation could not cause cancer. Quoting physicist Bernard Leikind, they reported that known cancer-causing rays have energies greater than 480 kilojoules per mole. This is enough to break chemical bonds. Green-light photons are half as powerful, which can bend but not break molecules in our eyes’ retinas.

Apparently, smartphones generate radiation 480,000 times weaker than UV rays and 240,000 times weaker than green light. If the bonds holding the molecules of life together will break at the energy levels of smartphones, reasons Scientific American, there would be no life at all because natural radiation would keep these bonds from forming in the first place.

But six years later, opinions on the physics were starting to change.

In 2016, scientists from the National Toxicology Program (NTP) exposed 90 rats to smartphone radiation to simulate human exposure. Their report showed that the historical control rate of tumors in male rats is 1.30%. The 6.6% rate in the study group exceeds historical incidence, and even the highest rate observed in a single study (6%). 

Smartphones emit non-ionizing radiation at low energy. Because of this, scientists argued that there was insufficient energy for heat production. Without heat, there could be no side-effects on users. But NTP researchers exposed animals to smartphone radiation. The experiment did not raise the animals’ internal temperatures and yet did cause tumors.

How can smartphone radiation cause cancer? It may be due to agitation. The constant movement of chemical bonds irritates the DNA until cancer develops in response. But how can users protect themselves?

The intensity of radio waves over distance follows the inverse-square law. That is, the intensity is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from a source. This means a smartphone’s radiation one inch away from your body is twice as powerful as two inches away. It is four times as powerful as three inches away and so on.

The industry itself seems to have known about the potential dangers of radio wave exposure. Apple’s iPhone 6 safety manual warns that radiation exposure could exceed government standards, while closer than 15 millimeters to the body. Apple suggests carrying its product in a belt clip or holster, not a pocket. That’s good advice from 2008, and today’s users should follow it like their lives depend on it.


Sidney Petron is a historian and political analyst currently situated in New Haven, Connecticut.


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