Are Smart Phones Smart For Our Health?

We Australians love our smartphones: 88 per cent of us own at least one, and a whole generation has never known life without them. But with such frequent use, are there any reported adverse health effects?

Plenty of time and money have been spent looking into how electromagnetic radiation might affect our health. Even how it can affect our sleep patterns and the potential to cause cancer.

We are surrounded by all sorts of different types of electromagnetic radiation every day: your eyes pick up visible light, your bag is scanned by X-rays at airport security, microwaves heat your lunch and too much ultraviolet light gives you sunburn.

So what are the effects of mobile radio frequency on tissues?

Are we microwaving our head whenever we answer the phone? Slightly, but not enough to be worried about.

Professor Rodney Croft from The University Of Wollongong and his team found mobile phone radiation exposure increases the temperature of the outer grey, wrinkled layer of the brain called the cortex, but it's only "maybe about 0.1 degree, which is very small compared to the temperature variation the body normally has to contend with", he said.

"We do find that we get a slight change to thermoregulation, so the body, even with that small change, is sending a bit more blood out to the periphery to cool it, so your body doesn't end up warming up."

What about activity in the brain?

In work published in 2008, he and his colleagues held a Nokia phone to the head of healthy participants and monitored their brain waves.

What they found were changes to a type of brain activity called alpha waves, which are associated with relaxation, but the effects were incredibly subtle: mobile phone exposure enhanced alpha wave activity by around 5 per cent.

"Normally, if you close your eyes, you might double your alpha activity," Professor Croft said.

"So the [mobile phone] effect is very, very small relative to quite mundane functions, and that's why we've been doing a bit of work to find out if there are any functional consequences.

"It could be that there is an effect, but it's not strong enough to actually do anything meaningful to a person. So far, we haven't been able to find anything."

So, does the radiation cause cancer in people?

In 2016, a study looked for any increase in brain cancer incidence in the decades after mobile phones were introduced to Australia in 1987.

They found no increase in the number of brain cancers reported from 1982 to 2013, even in the years after mobile phones grew in popularity.

The only age group which showed there was an increased incidence of brain cancer was in the very, very oldest age group. But that increase started before mobile phones were available in Australia

The reason behind this increase, he added, is probably because more sophisticated brain diagnostic techniques picked up tumours, which might have previously slipped by unnoticed.

Risks and benefits

Despite research showing no link between safe levels of radio frequency and cancer, telecommunications companies and other organisations do offer suggestions if you want to reduce exposure.

The obvious action, is to limit mobile phone use. The ARPANSA also recommends using hands-free or texting instead of calling, however none of those things are actually based on any health effects.

So: does radio frequency have any effect on human tissue, apart from heating it a fraction of a degree?

That question is still open, Professor Wood said.

Other researchers suggest that health risks associated with mobile phones may be indirect, such as the sharply increased incidence rate of traffic accidents caused by telephony during driving, and possibly also by stress reactions which bystanders may experience when cellular phones are used in public places".

But to put it frank, radio frequency is a lifesaver. It saves lives. All you need to do is think of search and rescue and emergency situations. The benefits far outweigh the risks.