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Mobile phone safety Content Supplied by NHS Choices
Introduction

Around 93% of adults in the UK own or use a mobile phone, and they're an essential part of many people's lives. There have been concerns that the radio waves they produce and receive might be unsafe.

These radio waves are a type of low-energy, non-ionising electromagnetic radiation - a class of radiation that also includes visible light, ultraviolet (UV), and infrared radiation.

Concerns have been expressed that prolonged or frequent exposure to radio waves might increase a person's risk of health problems such as cancer.

However, most current research suggests it's unlikely that radio waves from mobile phones or base stations increase the risk of any health problems.

The researchers acknowledge this evidence is based on use of mobile phones over the last 20 years, and there's still some uncertainty about possible health effects from using a phone for longer than this.

Read more about the risks of mobile phone use.

What research has been done into their safety

Since the 1990s, there's been a huge amount of scientific research into the potential health effects of mobile phone use.

Large reviews of published research have concluded that overall the evidence doesn't suggest that radio waves from mobile phones cause health problems.

This includes research by:

However, further research is still needed to check that there are no health impacts from long-term exposures (using a mobile phone for more than 20 years).

Read more about this research in frequently asked questions about mobile phone safety.

Mobile phones and driving

Using a mobile phone while driving is considered the biggest health risk posed by mobile phones. It can increase your changes of having an accident, and it's illegal to use a handheld mobile phone while driving or riding a motorbike.

The Department for Transport recommends the following guidelines for the safe use of mobile phones in cars:

  • keep your mobile phone switched off when you're driving - you can use voicemail, a message service or call diversion to pick up your messages at the end of your journey
  • if you need to use your mobile phone, stop in a safe place - don't stop on the hard shoulder of a motorway unless it's an emergency
  • avoid using a hands-free device - these can be just as distracting as handheld phones

Read more about using mobile phones when driving and the law on the GOV.UK website.

Reducing exposure to mobile phones

If you have concerns, there are various measures you can take to lower your exposure to radio waves produced by mobile phones. For example:

  • Only make short calls on your mobile phone, and avoid using it more than necessary.
  • Children should only use mobile phones for essential purposes and keep all calls short.
  • Use a hands-free kit to keep your phone as far away from your head as possible, and keep your mobile phone away from your body when it's in standby mode.
  • Only use your phone when the reception is strong - this is often indicated by bars of energy on your phone screen. Weak reception causes the phone to use more energy to communicate with the base station.
  • Consider the specific absorption rate (SAR) of a mobile phone before you buy it - this is how much radio wave energy is absorbed into the body. Mobile phone retailers have a responsibility to make this information available to you before you buy.

Risks of mobile phone use

Research suggests it's unlikely that mobile phones or base stations increase the risk of health problems.

There's still some uncertainty about the potential for risks from long-term use over decades, and research on this is ongoing.

Some of the main safety concerns associated with radio waves and mobile phone use are discussed below.

Using a mobile phone while driving or riding a motorbike can increase your chances of having an accident by up to four times. This is considered to be the biggest risk posed by mobile phones, and using a handheld phone while driving is illegal.

Read more about using mobile phones when driving and the law on the GOV.UK website.

You can also read about recent research and other frequently asked questions about mobile phone safety.

Radio wave exposure

Radio waves produced by mobile phones transmit in all directions to find the nearest base station. This means that some of the radio waves are directed at your body when you use a mobile phone.

Radio waves are absorbed into your body tissue as energy, which adds to the energy being produced by your body's metabolism.

Concerns have been raised that exposure to radio wave radiation might cause various health problems, ranging from cancer and infertility to non-specific but unpleasant symptoms.

However, the only known effect of radio waves on the human body is a very small rise in temperature of up to 0.2C. This is comparable to natural increases in temperature, such as during exercise, and doesn't pose a known risk to health.

Unlike more powerful ionising radiation, which is associated with problems such as cancer, radio waves are not thought to damage or alter the DNA in human cells.

Specific absorption rates

Levels of exposure to radio waves from mobile phones are quantified as specific absorption rates (SAR). SAR is a measure of the amount of energy absorbed.

The units of measurement are watts per kilogram (W/kg) or milliwatts per gram (mW/g). The higher the SAR, the more energy your body is absorbing and the greater the rise in temperature.

Some mobile phones have lower specific absorption rates than others. You can obtain this information from your mobile phone manufacturer or retailer.

Risks to children

If there are any health risks from the use of mobile phones, children might be more vulnerable because their bodies and nervous systems are still developing.

Research carried out to date hasn't supported a link between mobile phone use and childhood cancers such as leukaemia.

However, if you have any concerns, you can lower your child's exposure to radio waves by only allowing them to use mobile phones for essential purposes and keeping calls short.

Mobile phone base stations

The balance of evidence currently available doesn't suggest there's a risk to people living or working near base stations. Base stations don't need planning permission before masts are erected.

Schools should regularly monitor the emissions of base stations situated inside or close to school grounds.

If you think a base station near you needs to be audited, you can apply for it to be considered by the Office of Communications (Ofcom). More information about auditing mobile phone base stations can be found on the Ofcom website.

Interference with electrical equipment

There's a possibility that radio waves produced by mobile phones could interfere with important electrical equipment, such as:

  • pacemakers
  • monitors and machines in hospitals
  • electrical systems on aeroplanes

Different hospitals have different rules regarding mobile phone use. You should always check with hospital staff before using your phone.

If a hospital doesn't allow the use of mobile phones on their site, they'll display posters around the building saying so. All patients, visitors and staff should follow the hospital's rules.

It's generally considered safe to use a mobile phone if you have a pacemaker, but as a precaution you should keep it away from your pacemaker and hold your phone to your right ear.


Frequently asked questions about mobile phone safety

What research has been carried out into the health risks of mobile phones

What research has been carried out in the UK

Do mobiles affect brain function

Do mobile phones and mobile phone masts cause unpleasant symptoms

Are there biological reasons to believe mobile phones might be harmful

Are mobile phone masts dangerous

What's currently considered the biggest risk associated with using mobile phones

Do scientists know everything about mobile phones and health

Can I trust the recommendations of the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme

What research has been carried out into the health risks of mobile phones

Many studies have been carried out in Europe and elsewhere to investigate the possibility of links between mobile phones and various health problems. Further research is currently in progress. Examples include the COSMOS and INTERPHONE studies.

The COSMOS study

In the COSMOS study, scientists from the UK, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands are monitoring almost 300,000 mobile phone users in Europe to identify possible health problems linked to the use of mobile phones over a long period of time.

The UK part of the study, run by Imperial College London, will follow the health of more than 100,000 adult mobile phone users for 20 to 30 years.

Scientists will look at any changes in the frequency of specific symptoms over time, such as headaches and sleep disorders, as well as the risks of cancers, benign tumours, and neurological and cerebrovascular disease.

The study in the UK is jointly funded by industry and government under the Research Initiative on Health and Mobile Telecommunications (RIHMT), and is managed through the Department of Health's Policy Research Programme.

The INTERPHONE study

The INTERPHONE study (PDF, 176kb) was set up in 2000 and collected data in 13 countries. The aim was to see whether mobile phone use is associated with an increased risk of head and neck tumours.

In May 2010 the results were released and indicated there was no increased risk of such tumours with mobile phone use. However, it was noted that the potential effect of long-term heavy use of mobile phones needed further investigation.

What research has been carried out in the UK

The Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme (MTHR) released two reports, one in September 2007 and one in February 2014 (completed in 2012), which pulled together the evidence gathered in a large programme of research.

The reports published by the MTHR found no evidence of risks to health from the radio waves produced by mobile phones. However, it was acknowledged that possible effects from long-term use could not yet be ruled out and further research was recommended.

The Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation (AGNIR) has also carried out reviews of the potential health effects of radio waves, the most recent of which was published in 2012. You can read the 2012 report on the Public Health England (PHE) website.

The Million Women Study, a national study of women's health involving more than one million UK women aged 50 or over, has currently found no association between the use of mobile phones for many years and the risk of brain tumours or any type of cancer. Read the latest research from the Million Women Study.

Do mobiles affect brain function

The MTHR's set of volunteer studies of brain function is one of the largest carried out anywhere. The studies found exposure to radio frequency fields generated by mobile phones had no detectable effect on brain function. They looked at factors such as memory and response times, and found no changes.

Do mobile phones and mobile phone masts cause unpleasant symptoms

The MTHR's research found no evidence that radiofrequency radiation from mobile phones or masts causes unpleasant symptoms. Its research programme included some of the largest and most robust studies of this question.

The MTHR recognised specific concerns about TETRA radios and base stations used by emergency services, but the report released in 2014 said there's currently no evidence of specific adverse effects related to exposure to TETRA signals.

Are there biological reasons to believe mobile phones might be harmful

The Stewart Report noted that a small number of experiments suggested radio waves from mobile phones could cause biological effects in cells and animals. The MTHR commissioned careful studies of two possible cellular effects identified in the Stewart Report: stress protein production and calcium signalling.

Stress proteins are produced when cells experience an increase in temperature. Previous research suggested these proteins were produced in nematode worms when exposed to mobile phone emissions thought to be too weak to result in significant temperature rises.

However, the studies supported by the MTHR showed the stress proteins were in fact produced as a result of a slight temperature rise (around 0.2C) caused by radio wave exposure. Since this was already a well documented effect and considered harmless, the MTHR didn't propose further research in this area.

Calcium signals - produced by mammalian cells - are important in controlling various functions of the cells. Research published in 2010 found no evidence that exposure to radio waves had any effect on these signals.

Are mobile phone masts dangerous

Levels of exposure to radio wave radiation from mobile phone masts (base stations) are generally much lower than from mobile phones and are well below international guidelines.

Audits of the amount of radiation produced by base stations in the UK found the radiation produced is generally less than 0.005% of the guideline values.

What's currently considered the biggest risk associated with using mobile phones

The MTHR reports stated that the biggest known threat mobile phones pose to health is from their use when driving, as using them at the wheel impairs driving performance and increases the risk of accidents.

There's no statistical evidence that mobiles are more of a distraction than a conversation with a passenger, but passengers are normally aware of traffic conditions and are therefore likely to stop talking in potentially dangerous situations.

Do scientists know everything about mobile phones and health

No, and research is continuing. Mobile phones have only been widely used for about 20 to 30 years, so it's not possible to be so certain about the safety of long-term use.

More research on the effects of mobile phones on children is also needed, as they're known to be more sensitive than adults to many environmental agents, such as lead pollution and sunlight. Government advice is to be on the safe side and limit mobile phone use by children.

Can I trust the recommendations of the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme

Although the programme was jointly funded by the UK government and the mobile phone industry, its management was overseen by an independent committee of scientists, including a representative of the World Health Organization, and the funders had no influence over the selection, interpretation or reporting of studies.


 
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