The California Department of Public Health released a new set of guidelines on cell phone use and radiation risk — revisiting a years-long debate about whether the pocket-sized gadgets we can’t live without are slowly giving us cancer.
The guidelines are cautious. They state that some scientific studies have linked long-term, frequent cell phone use with brain cancer, low sperm count, and learning, hearing and sleep issues. They note that the risks may be higher for children.
But there’s an ongoing discussion in the scientific community about whether those health risks are severe enough to warrant any alarm. The department itself admits the link is not conclusive.
CDPH director Dr. Karen Smith said staff decided to release guidelines because of a continued public interest in cell phone-related health risks.
"It’s clear that there are people who are concerned," she said. "So our job, is even in situations where the science isn’t entirely definitive, when there are simple things that people can do to reduce exposure, it’s our job to tell them how to do that."
She said small changes such as keeping your phone out of your pocket and storing it away from your bed at night can help reduce exposure.
The state department drafted guidelines on cell phone radiation risks back in 2014, but it never released them. The agency finally revealed the draft document this March, after losing a court battle with UC Berkeley researcher Joel Moskowitz.
The state argued in court that the unofficial document would cause unnecessary panic. But the court ruled that there is “significant public interest in CDPH’s investigation into the risks associated with cell phone use.”
The department's new guidelines are more detailed than the draft document. Smith said the court battle didn't have much to do with the department's decision to issue official guidelines. Moskowitz said the move is long overdue.
"I think it means they’re very concerned, and they’re just being conservative in their language," he said. "The health professionals who study this within the agency have likely been able to convince the higher ups finally that it’s in the interest of public health to warn the public."
Many scientists and health advocates believe the risk is real, and they’ve been pushing the state to acknowledge the issue. San Francisco and Berkeley have established their own laws requiring cell phone health warnings in stores, despite pushback from industry.
CTIA, a trade group representing the wireless industry, said in a statement that cell phones do not pose a health risks to users.
"The Federal Communications Commission monitors scientific research on a regular basis, and its standard for RF exposure is based on recommended guidelines adopted by U.S. and international standard-setting bodies. That’s why the FCC has determined that all wireless phones legally sold in the United States are ‘safe.’”
The guidelines recommend that cell phone users keep the phone away from the body and away from the bed at night. They suggest reducing cell phone use when the signal is weak, removing headsets when not on a call and minimizing audio and video streaming on cell phones.
Sammy Caiola is Healthcare Reporter at Capital Public Radio in Sacramento.