Fact or Fiction, Science & Technology

Exploring the myth of device radiation

Phones have become an integral part of living in modern society. Used for practically every purpose, technology has consumed the lives of almost everyone with access to it. As human interactions with electronic devices increase, controversial debates over whether cell phones cause cancer have also emerged. The idea behind this theory is that since cell phones and laptops emit radiation, and radiation is harmful, these devices must therefore be bad for human health. Many even claim that keeping one’s phone on their person can cause cancer. 

While such statements induce fear in the minds of personal technology consumers, many have called into question the validity of the claims. The short answer is that no, keeping your phone in your back pocket will not give you radiation poisoning. And apart from minor discomfort, the warmth of your laptop will not damage any organs if it is positioned on your torso during a two-hour movie. 

One of the early studies that began the idea that electronic devices have negative health effects came from Dr. Bill P. Curry, a consultant and physicist who sent his findings to the Broward County Public Schools in Florida in 2000. He asserted that introducing laptops to the classroom would have serious health impacts for the county’s quarter million students. 

Sebastian Wachsmann-Hogiu, a professor in the Department of Bioengineering at McGill University, explained the importance of not mistaking correlation for causation.

“Even if there is a correlation between higher rates of cancer and prolonged use of cell [phones], it does not mean that the radiation emitted from cell phones cause cancer,” Wachsmann-Hogiu said.

Wachsmann-Hogiu warned about the presence of too many variables, further explaining that all factors of life, including stress, age, and general health, must be accounted for to accurately conduct a study about the effects of cell phone radiation on users. 

Radiation is released from almost everything in different amounts. Though radiation is released from phones and laptops, the intensity is too low to cause any significant damage. Furthermore, these devices release non-ionizing radiation. This kind of radiation is generally non-harmful in small amounts because it is unable to remove electrons from atoms and therefore cannot cause any damage to biological compounds or alter the composition of chemical structures. 

At worst, concentrated non-ionizing radiation could cause burns due to its ability to heat up any surface it comes into contact with. However, the radiation emitted from portable devices is not concentrated and cannot cause any harmful effects.   

Gamma rays are emitted in very low levels from devices due to the natural decay of their materials. According to Wachsmann-Hogiu, gamma rays in general could be biologically hazardous, as they are a form of ionizing radiation. 

“There are natural gamma ray sources on Earth, and we are also exposed to low levels of gamma rays from cosmic origin,” Wachsmann-Hogiu wrote. “It is unlikely that the level of gamma rays emitted by cell phones is significant when compared with these natural sources.”

Additionally, there are official safety standards set for mobile devices.

“There are regulations in place that limit the amount of radiation emitted by cell phones, and they need to meet [Federal Communications Commission] standards before being sold,” Wachsmann-Hogiu said. 

Though the long-term effects of device radiation have not been extensively studied, he explained that as long as phones and laptops are not kept on one’s person at all times, any emitted radiation will have no effect on the body.

In the early part of the millenium, Curry’s false study published for schools sparked the popular fear of cell phone radiation that has been continuously perpetuated by more inaccurate studies, most of them performed on rats. David Gorski, a doctor and editor of Science-Based Medicine, highlighted this in a 2016 article.

“No, a rat study with marginal results does not prove that cell phones cause cancer, no matter what Mother Jones and Consumer Reports say,” Gorski wrote.

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