Could your phone harm your health?

Do mobile phones cause cancer? So far there has been no conclusive evidence to suggest that phones can harm your health. Here’s what physics has to say on the matter.

Different types of radiation are represented below in the electromagnetic spectrum,  which classifies them according to the amount of energy they carry.

 

 

 

 

 

The electromagnetic spectrum. Image courtesy of ARPANSA

 

 

Mobile phones emit and receive radio and microwave radiation in the range of 800 to 2600 MHz depending on your country and network.

The radiation emitted by mobile phones falls into the category of non-ionising radiation – lower energy radiation that doesn’t have enough energy to damage our cells. Visible light, infrared, microwaves and radio waves are all forms of non-ionising radiation.

This is in contrast with ionising radiation, which carry enough energy to knock an electron off molecules and atoms – in other words, to ionise  them. Excessive exposure to ionising radiation can damage our cells and DNA, potentially causing burns, sickness or cancer.

Non ionising radiation can cause heating - this is how microwave ovens work. A microwave oven heats up your dinner using very high power radiation – typically delivering 600 to 1000 watts of power. Your phone on the other hand has less than two watts of power, causing only a tiny amount of warming.

The verdict

Scientists therefore do not currently know of any mechanism by which using a mobile phone could cause cancer or harm you in any other way.  Mobile phones have only been in widespread use for the past 15 years so it is possible that there may be other mechanisms that we are not yet aware of.  In particular, the effects of mobile phone radiation on children are largely unknown as so far studies have focused on adults.

We have also heard stories of people sending text messages whilst lying on their back and dropping their phone on their face – ouch.

What about the banana phone?

Every one of us receives small amounts of ionising radiation daily, from the Sun (cosmic rays), rocks and soil. People, animals and plants also emit very small amounts of ionising radiation (see this infographic).

In most cases there’s no need to worry about this as our bodies can cope with these miniscule amounts of radiation.

Certain minerals, such as potassium, are more radioactive than others. Bananas have high levels of potassium, making them the most radioactive fruit.

The amount of radiation they emit is nonetheless virtually insignificant – in a typical day you receive 100 times more  ionising radiation from your environment than you would be exposed to by eating a banana. Phew.

 
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