Berkeley Talks: The health risks of cell phone radiation

Read a transcript.

When the first cell phone went on the market in the U.S. in 1984, it was big, clunky and very expensive. The Motorola DynaTAC sold for a whopping $3,995. That’s almost $10,000 today. And, to make it even less worth the investment, it got bad reception because there were very few cell towers in the country at the time.

But, as we all know, cell phones have come a long way.  In addition to making calls on our phones, we can do pretty much everything else on them, too, just like Apple promised we would in 2007, the year the iPhone made its debut.

Today, there are more than 273 million smartphones in use in the country. That’s almost 85% of the U.S. population, assuming everyone is using just one phone. And there are 5 billion subscriber connections worldwide.

"This is a big, big business," says Joel Moskowitz, the director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Family and Community Health at the School of Public Health. "This is an industry that’s probably been unparalleled by any other industry in the world, in terms of reach."

Joel Moskowitz is the director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Family and Community Health at the School of Public Health. (School of Public Health photo)

Moskowitz gave a talk last spring called "Cell Phones, Cell Towers and Wireless Safety" for Be Well at Work , a University Health Services program at UC Berkeley for staff and faculty to improve employee health and well-being. The event was co-sponsored by the School of Public Health.

Moskowitz, who has conducted research on disease prevention programs and policies for more than 30 years, says that with the influx of smartphones has come hundreds of thousands of cell towers. These towers receive and transmit radio frequencies called microwaves - the same waves used in microwave ovens.

In 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization classified radio frequency radiation as possibly carcinogenic to humans , based on studies of cell phone radiation and brain tumor risk in humans.

"Currently, we have considerably more evidence that would work a stronger classification," says Moskowitz, an adviser to the International EMF Scientist Appeal signed by more than 240 scientists who publish peer-reviewed research on electromagnetic radiation. "Many scientists today feel that it’s time for IARC to re-review the literature given all the research that’s been published since 2011 to upgrade this to at least ’probably carcinogenic to humans,’ if not actually carcinogenic."

To reduce the risk of harm, Moskowitz recommends that we:

  • Minimize use of cell phones or cordless phones. Use a landline whenever possible.
  • Keep cell phones away from our heads and bodies. Ten inches from your body, as compared to one-tenth of an inch, results in a 100-fold reduction in radiation exposure. Store your phone in a backpack or purse and text or use a wired headset or speakerphone for calls.
  • Use cell phones only when the signal is strong. A new study by the state of California Department of Public Health found up to a 10,000-fold increase in electromagnetic radiation exposure when reception was poor - when you have one or two bars on your phone.
  • Learn more about Moskowitz’s research, which led to California publishing cell phone radiation safety guidelines , on his website:

    See all Berkeley Talks.

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