Public Health Researcher: Smartphones Emit Harmful Radiation — Here’s How to Reduce Your Risk

Joel Moskowitz, a researcher in the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley and director of Berkeley’s Center for Family and Community Health, explains why cellphones are harmful to health, and what people can do to reduce their risk.

For more than a decade, Joel Moskowitz, a researcher in the School of Public Health at UC Berkeley and director of Berkeley’s Center for Family and Community Health, has been on a quest to prove that radiation from cellphones is unsafe. But, he said, most people don’t want to hear it.

“People are addicted to their smartphones,” said Moskowitz. “We use them for everything now, and, in many ways, we need them to function in our daily lives. I think the idea that they’re potentially harming our health is too much for some people.”

Since cellphones first came onto the market in 1983, they have gone from clunky devices with bad reception to today’s sleek, multifunction smartphones. And although cellphones are now used by nearly all American adults, considerable research suggests that long-term use poses health risks from the radiation they emit, said Moskowitz.

“Cellphones, cell towers and other wireless devices are regulated by most governments,” said Moskowitz. “Our government, however, stopped funding research on the health effects of radiofrequency radiation in the 1990s.”

Since then, he said, research has shown significant adverse biologic and health effects — including brain cancer — associated with the use of cellphones and other wireless devices.

And now, he said, with the fifth generation of cellular technology, known as 5G, there is an even bigger reason for concern.

Berkeley News spoke with Moskowitz about the health risks of cellphone radiation, why the topic is so controversial and what we can expect with the rollout of 5G.

Berkeley News: I first heard you speak about the health risks of cellphone radiation at Berkeley in 2019, but you’ve been doing this research since 2009. What led you to pursue this research?

Joel Moskowitz: I got into this field by accident, actually. During the past 40 years, the bulk of my research has been focused on tobacco-related disease prevention. I first became interested in cellphone radiation in 2008, when Dr. Seung-Kwon Myung, a physician scientist with the National Cancer Center of South Korea, came to spend a year at the Center for Family and Community Health. He was involved in our smoking cessation projects, and we worked with him and his colleagues on two reviews of the literature, one of which addressed the tumor risk from cellphone use.

At that time, I was skeptical that cellphone radiation could be harmful. However, since I was dubious that cellphone radiation could cause cancer, I immersed myself in the literature regarding the biological effects of low-intensity microwave radiation, emitted by cellphones and other wireless devices.

After reading many animal toxicology studies that found that this radiation could increase oxidative stress — free radicals, stress proteins and DNA damage — I became increasingly convinced that what we were observing in our review of human studies was indeed a real risk.

Berkeley News: While Myung and his colleagues were visiting the Center for Family and Community Health, you reviewed case-control studies examining the association between mobile phone use and tumor risk. What did you find?

Joel Moskowitz: Our 2009 review, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, found that heavy cellphone use was associated with increased brain cancer incidence, especially in studies that used higher quality methods and studies that had no telecommunications industry funding.

Last year, we updated our review, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, based on a meta-analysis of 46 case-control studies — twice as many studies as we used for our 2009 review — and obtained similar findings. Our main takeaway from the current review is that approximately 1,000 hours of lifetime cellphone use, or about 17 minutes per day over a 10-year period, is associated with a statistically significant 60% increase in brain cancer.

Berkeley News: One thing I think we should address upfront is how controversial this research is. Some scientists have said that these findings are without basis and that there isn’t enough evidence that cellphone radiation is harmful to our health. How do you respond to that?

Joel Moskowitz: Well, first of all, few scientists in this country can speak knowledgeably about the health effects of wireless technology. So, I’m not surprised that people are skeptical, but that doesn’t mean the findings aren’t valid.

A big reason there isn’t more research about the health risks of radiofrequency radiation exposure is because the U.S. government stopped funding this research in the 1990s, with the exception of a $30 million rodent study published in 2018 by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ National Toxicology Program, which found “clear evidence” of carcinogenicity from cellphone radiation.

In 1996, the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, adopted exposure guidelines that limited the intensity of exposure to radiofrequency radiation. These guidelines were designed to prevent significant heating of tissue from short-term exposure to radiofrequency radiation, not to protect us from the effects of long-term exposure to low levels of modulated, or pulsed, radiofrequency radiation, which is produced by cellphones, cordless phones and other wireless devices, including Wi-Fi. Yet, the preponderance of research published since 1990 finds adverse biologic and health effects from long-term exposure to radiofrequency radiation, including DNA damage.

More than 250 scientists, who have published over 2,000 papers and letters in professional journals on the biologic and health effects of non-ionizing electromagnetic fields produced by wireless devices, including cellphones, have signed the International EMF Scientist Appeal, which calls for health warnings and stronger exposure limits. So, there are many scientists who agree that this radiation is harmful to our health.