Background: “Are Cell Phones Safe?”
The radiation levels in cell phones, known as radio frequency (RF) radiation, are regulated by the Federal
Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC, other US government agencies, and peer
consider the radiation from cell phones to have no
adverse health effects. However, an accumulating amount
of scientific research suggests that cell phone use may cause cancer, disrupt pacemakers, decrease fertility,
damage DNA, and increase the risk of traffic accidents.
On Apr. 3, 1973, the world's fi
rst portable cell phone, the DynaTAC (also known as "the brick"), was
introduced in the US by Dr. Martin Cooper at Motorola. The phone was a foot long, weighed two pounds, and
cost $4,000. It was not until 1983 that the first commercial cell phone system w
as launched in Chicago by
Ameritech Mobile Communications.
On Feb. 26, 1985, the first safety guidelines for radio frequency (RF) radiation
the type of radiation used by
cell phones, cordless phones, radio, television, microwaves and wi
fi to transmit
by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to ensure that people were not exposed to dangerous
levels of RF that could heat human flesh to harmful levels.
RF wavelengths, unlike sound waves and the
waves in the ocean, are part of the electromagnetic spectrum
meaning they move via interaction between their electric and magnetic fields. RF waves move at the speed of
light (186,282 miles/second) and can penetrate solid objects such as buildings.
RF radiation from cell phones is contained in the low end (non
ionizing portion) of the broader
electromagnetic spectrum just above radio and television RF and just below microwave RF. At high exposure
ionizing radiation can produce a thermal or
heating effect (this is how microwaves heat food).
Exposure to the high end (ionizing) radiation of X
rays and Gamma rays is known to cause cancer. Whether or
not exposure to the low end (non
ionizing) spectrum causes cancer remains debated.
In 1993 conc
ern over a possible link between brain tumors and cell phone use became a major public issue
when CNN's Larry King Live show reported on a husband who had sued a cell phone manufacturer in a Florida
US District Court for causing his wife's brain tumor (the
case was dismissed in 1995).
On Aug. 7, 1996, the FCC exanded its guidelines on RF exposure with input from the Food and Drug
Administration (FDA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Institute for Occupational
Safety and Health (NIOS
H), and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The guidelines
created a measure of the rate that body tissue absorbs RF energy during cell phone use called the specific
absorption rate (SAR). The SAR for cell phone radiation was set at a
maximum of 1.6 watts of energy absorbed
per kilogram of body weight per cell phone call that averages 30 minutes and the cell phone is held at the ear.
SAR levels for cell phones sold in the US range from a low of .109 watts to the maximum of 1.6 watts. H
a cell phone away from the body while using a wired earpiece or speaker phone lowers the amount of
radiation absorbed, and text messaging, rather than talking, further lowers that amount.
The FDA and the International Association for the Wireless T
elecommunications Industry (CTIA) signed a
research agreement in 2000 to further investigate the health effects of cell phones. They concluded that "no
association was found between exposure to radiofrequency (RF) radiation from cell phones and adverse
The safety concerns over cell phone radiation continued into 2001 when the US Government Accountability
Office (GAO) was commissioned by Senators Joseph Lieberman (D
CT) and Rep. Edward Markey (D
compile a report on the safety of cell
phones. The final GAO report, "Research and Regulatory Efforts on
Mobile Phone Health Issues,"  issued in May of 2001 concluded that there is no scientific evidence proving
that cell phone radiation has any "adverse health effects" but that more resear
ch on the topic was needed.
Six states have taken legislative action to lessen the possible safety hazards of talking on a cell phone while
driving. New York was first in 2001. Five other states (Connecticut , California , New Jersey ,
ashington  and Oregon ) have since passed laws prohibiting drivers from talking on handheld
In July of 2008 Dr. Ronald Herberman, Director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, issued a
warning to hospital faculty and
staff to decrease direct cell phone exposure to the head and body due to a
possible connection between cell phone radiation and brain tumors. Due to this warning, the House
Subcommittee on Domestic Policy held a hearing on the possible link between cell ph
one use and tumors in
Sep. 2008 to learn more about the possible risks.
In 2008, the $148.1 billion wireless industry had over 270 million subscribers in the US (87% of the population)
who used over 2.2 trillion minutes of call time.
In 2009, the debate
surrounding the safety of cell phone use while driving was re
ignited when a Freedom of
Information Act request, filed by the Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen, revealed a 2002 report by the
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (8 MB) [
24] that concluded that using a hands free device does
not lessen "cognitive distraction" or make cell phone use safer while driving. The report had not been
On May 17, 2010, the results of the 13 country, 10 year, $
25 million INTERPHONE study (the largest ever to
date) found that using a cell phone may or may not increase a persons risk of developing brain tumors.
On June 22, 2010, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 9
1 to make the city the nation’s first
require that retailers post cellphone radiation levels prominently in their stores. 
On May 31, 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization
(WHO) issued a press release announcing it had added cell
phone radiation to its list of physical agents (98 KB)
 that are "possibly carcinogenic to humans" (group 2B agents). Other group 2B agents include coffe, DDT,
pickled vegetables, and lead. The classification was made after a working group of 31 sc
ientists finished a
review of previously published studies and found "limited evidence of carcinogenicity" from the
radiofrequency electromagnetic fields emitted by wireless phones, radio, television, and radar