Secondhand Exposure to Cell Phone Radiation: An Emerging Public Health Problem?

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Many people are unaware that they are exposed to cell phone radiation when their cell phones are in standby mode. This occurs because their cell phone contacts the nearest cell tower periodically to update its location.

In a moving vehicle, cell phones in standby mode contact cell towers more frequently. Thus, exposure to cell phone radiation from one’s cell phone is greater in transit.

Two Swiss researchers, Damiano Urbinello and Martin Roosli, set out to measure personal cell phone radiation exposure during car, bus and train trips when one’s own phone was in standby mode.

Their study just published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology identified a source of cell phone radiation that may constitute a public health problem. Namely, secondhand exposure to cell phone radiation from other people’s cell phones can be considerable while traveling on buses and trains (1).

During bus or train trips, individuals may be exposed to considerable amounts of cell phone radiation from other people’s cell phones. Buses and railroad cars act like “”Faraday cages”” that reflect much of the electromagnetic radiation emitted by cell phones throughout the vehicles’ interiors. Thus, all passengers, including infants and pregnant women as well as those without cell phones, may be exposed to considerable levels of cell phone radiation emitted by others’ phones.

As for car trips, the results of the study suggest that exposure to cell phone radiation from one’s own phone in standby mode is relatively low compared to overall exposures during public transit. Nonetheless, those who are concerned about their exposure to cell phone radiation should turn off their phones during car trips, or at the very least, avoid using their phones for calls.

● “”The study indicates that own uplink exposure during car driving can be considerably reduced (about a fraction of 100) when turning off ones own mobile phone in order to prevent it from location updates.”” (1)

The researchers found that GSM, the 2G carrier system in Europe which is used in the U.S. for voice communication by AT&T and T-Mobile, is particularly problematic compared to UMTS, a 3G carrier system used for data transmission. The researchers did not test CDMA which in the U.S. is used by Verizon and Sprint for voice calls. Other research has found that GSM emits 13 to 28 times more radiation on average than CDMA during phone calls. No published studies have examined exposures from LTE, the 4G carrier system now in widespread use in this country.

● “”GSM levels in the reference scenario during bus and train rides were about 100 times higher than those during car rides. As a consequence of this high background exposure in trains, due to the use of other people’s mobile phone in a closed area intensified by the Faraday cage effect, the relative contribution of the location update from ones own mobile phone is small”” (1)

The study also reported that smart phones, including the iPhone 4 and the Blackberry Bold 8800, which can operate on four radiofrequency bands emit more radiation during standby mode than classic phones, like the Nokia 2600, which operate on two bands.

Earlier this year, a study was published that examined cell phones in standby mode while stationary. Kjell Mild and his colleagues from Sweden found that under these conditions cell phones contacted the cell towers only once every two to five hours. They concluded that exposure to cell phone radiation in this situation “”can be considered negligible.”” (2)

These studies should be replicated in the U.S. as well as in other countries since every cell phone carrier system operates differently.

In the meantime it is advisable to keep cell phone use in moving vehicles to a minimum as low level exposures to cell phone radiation have been associated with deleterious effects in humans.

To protect us from the health risks associated with cell phones and related devices (e.g., cordless phones, Wi-Fi, wireless Smart Meters and security systems, and cell towers), we need research independent of industry to develop biologically-based standards and safer technologies. A nickel a month from each cell phone subscription would suffice to fund a comprehensive program of research. Since the average cell phone subscription costs more than $47.00 per month, this tiny fee constitutes a prudent investment in our health and our children’s health.

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