Answer to Question #12067 Submitted to "Ask the Experts"

Category: Cell Phones

The following question was answered by an expert in the appropriate field:

Q

My brother lives in a small flat, and I am very concerned about the nonionizing radiation his four-year-old son gets. The Wi-Fi is on day and night, he has a giant TV screen which the boy sits close to, the boy is allowed to use the iPad whenever he wants and to sit close to it, the boy is allowed to use cell phone and cordless phones, and his food is microwaved. I have read that both the pulsing of Wi-Fi and low-frequency nonionizing radiation can be harmful. My brother doesn't believe a word I say. Please send me some research I can offer him.

A

The kinds of exposures you mentioned (use of tablet computers, cell phones, Wi-Fi, etc.) are entirely ordinary in modern society. While they may involve some exposure to electromagnetic fields including radiofrequency (RF) energy, the levels of exposure are invariably far below U.S. and major international exposure limits. Additionally, some of the things you mentioned (eating microwaved food, being near a TV set) do not entail any noticeable exposure to electromagnetic fields. The known hazards of RF energy are associated with excessive heating of tissue and do not occur with ordinary use of consumer devices.

For many years there has been some level of public concern about health risks from low-level RF exposure. In response, thousands of studies of various description have been conducted during the past half century on biological effects and possible health hazards of RF energy. These have been reviewed by many health agencies, who have consistently failed to find clear evidence of any health hazard from RF exposure below internationally accepted safety limits. However these reviews commonly point to gaps in knowledge and inconsistencies in the data, and they usually call for more research.

Some health agencies recommend precautionary measures, for example limiting use of cell phones by small children—not because of any actual proof of harm but because of uncertainties in the data. Other health agencies make no such recommendations, and conclude that present exposure limits provide a high level of protection against all identified health hazards. These are differences in philosophy and attitudes about managing uncertainty rather than fundamental differences in interpretation of the science.

Health agency reviews of the research are typically very long and technical, making them difficult for ordinary consumers to digest. A number of health agencies have prepared statements about the issue for the general public. For example, the World Health Organization has issued a series of fact sheets. To illustrate the range of official recommendations to the public, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission has recently issued a statement stating that "no scientific evidence currently establishes a definite link between wireless device use and cancer or other illnesses." It offers some suggestions for ways that a person can reduce his/her exposure but "does not endorse the need for such practices."

A different perspective, but with the same conclusions about lack of clear evidence of harm, is in the recent statement by the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority. It states that "no health risks have been scientifically confirmed in connection with exposure to low levels of electromagnetic fields below the Authority's reference values" (which are similar to limits in effect in the United States and other countries). It also states that health risks "cannot be entirely ruled out" and recommends "that unnecessary exposure should be avoided." An example is to use hands-free equipment when using a mobile phone.

Speaking for myself, I am reassured that, after a half century of research on the topic, no clear evidence has emerged for health risks from low-level exposure to RF fields. As a parent of (now-grown) children, I was more concerned about shielding them from major and obvious risks of daily life, than in avoiding speculative risks of this sort. Speaking for myself, I would be concerned about possible cognitive effects of overuse of electronic games and computers by very young children—not because of RF exposure but because of my opinion that kids should be outside playing and not spend too much time indoors playing computer games or surfing the Internet.

But I respectfully suggest that parents can reasonably make their own decisions on such matters on behalf of their own children.

Kenneth R. Foster
University of Pennsylvania

Answer posted on 3 September 2017. The information posted on this web page is intended as general reference information only. Specific facts and circumstances may affect the applicability of concepts, materials, and information described herein. The information provided is not a substitute for professional advice and should not be relied upon in the absence of such professional advice. To the best of our knowledge, answers are correct at the time they are posted. Be advised that over time, requirements could change, new data could be made available, and Internet links could change, affecting the correctness of the answers. Answers are the professional opinions of the expert responding to each question; they do not necessarily represent the position of the Health Physics Society.