EMF Radiation: Safe or Toxic? Why the Research is so Confusing

Last Updated on October 4, 2023

5G Wireless Cell Phone

We are an increasingly technology-driven society.

Everywhere, electronic devices surround us. If the Terminator were real, we might think that Judgment Day is upon us. Skynet could really take over the world, the way we are wired.

Computers, laptops, tablets, and WiFi routers can be seen in most homes, workplaces, and schools. Our libraries, hospitals, and academic centers operate because of wireless machinery, such as wireless Internet, modems, and WiFi. While the chances of robots taking over the world in the near future are slim, a real danger from these electronic devices exist.

All these electronic devices emit a low form of energy, called Electromagnetic Field (EMF) Radiation. While it is non-ionizing radiation, which isn’t traditionally seen as harmful to our bodies, chronic exposure to this energy from our mobile devices, coupled with the fact that they are pressed right against our skin for most of the day, has been shown by recent research to lead to harmful health effects.

Despite the universal health implications these effects would create, we know surprisingly little about the long-term effects of EMFs, and the study of these effects is a source of great controversy.

Many scientists claim we have nothing to worry about. Some studies show that there is no adverse health effects of exposure from the level of radiation our cell phones and mobile devices emit. Many news reports often cite that non-ionizing radiation cannot scientifically have a biological impact, besides its thermal emissions (which are at too low of a level to have any real impact).

On the other end, review articles say biological effects exist regardless of thermal emissions, and link EMF to everything from risk of cancer and infertility to neurobehavioral abnormalities. So much of existing literature and conversations surrounding EMF radiation is contradictory.


Reasons for Contradictory Research

  1. Causal relationships in this area of research are hard to pinpoint.

    • Part of that is due to the difficulty in controlling affecting parameters in a study. Without putting humans in a laboratory, it is impossible to exclude all possible exposures that could give the patients any particular outcome.
    • In this modern era, you would be hard-pressed to find an area with no exposure to EMF radiation, and a causal study needs a control group where EMF emissions are not a factor. On top of that, if you were to find a place with no artificial EMF waves, it would be even harder to find a large group of subjects that could live without any technology for an extended period of time.
    • A study concluded that women, who carried cellphones in their bras over the course of several years and developed breast cancer in the shape of their cellphones, must logically have gotten cancer from the EMF given off from their cellphones. However, the study may not be able to prove that in all cases EMF exposure will cause cancer. So a causal relationship cannot be verified. Not enough patients currently exist to study. Not enough research has been done on women with cellphones. Not all women carry cellphones in their bras, etc. This lack of guidance leaves the public confused.
    • The landmark NTP study completed in 2018 was able to find a causal relationship, but in rats. In this instance, they were able to control exactly how much RFR the animals received — something that is not possible when studying human cell phone use. Of course, the cell phone industry and the FCC claim the effects on rats cannot be extrapolated to humans, even though rats are the standard subjects for thousands of legitimate studies that are applicable to humans. Our anatomy is very similar.
  2. Long term effects need long term studies

    • It was only in 2012 that more than 50% of Millennials owned a cell phone, and the first Apple iPhone came out in 2007, just over 10 years ago. Before this point, cell phones were not universal and wireless technology was not used to the same extent that it is used today. In 2018, 55% of Gen Z spent five or more hours on their smartphones a day. 12% of Gen Z used their smartphones for over half the day—up to fifteen hours PER DAY.
    • Since this chronic exposure is relatively new, not many studies on long term effects have come out, and many long term effects will not even be able to be seen for other 10 to 20 years, as was the case with cigarette use.
    • The landmark NTP study on rats was a 10 year study, but since it was done using older generation networks as a variable, many say that the effects for current networks cannot be extrapolated. However, with the fast rate of technology adoption, 7G or 8G might already be out by the time 5G health effects become known. We might never know the effects of the most current technology.
    • Many studies give subjects more concentrated doses of radiation in a consolidated time frame, to mimic a long-term exposure. However, their results many say don’t apply to humans in the way we use phones and technology today, as the radiation duration or strength is too high. 
  3. Many studies are funded by the cell phone industry or bodies with vested interests in the cell phone industry

    • In 1993, a lawsuit alleged that a cell phone was responsible for terminal brain cancer in a woman. Just one week later, Tom Wheeler, president of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), announced cellphones had no harmful health effects, and the industry would fund research to “re-validate the findings of the existing studies.” Of course, announcing the conclusion of research before it is conducted means that you will try by any means possible to reach that same conclusion, even if it means designing research to fail, or skewing results.
    • Biochemistry professor Henri Lai, who participated in the subsequential CTIA’s Wireless Research Technology project, looked at 326 cellphone health studies between 1990 and 2005 and found that 67% of independently-funded studies found biological damage, while only 28% of industry-funded studies did. He claimed that the CTIA study had numerous anomalies and manipulation by the cell phone industry.
    • Jeffry Fawcett, PhD also found that industry-funded research is often biased. In his review of RF radiation, he states, “…of industry funded studies, only 27% found an RFR (Radio Frequency Radiation) effect. Independently funded studies found an RFR effect 68% of the time. This discrepancy is consistent among the effects listed. Of studies that found an effect on cancer, 11% were industry funded, 47% were independently funded. Cellular and molecular effects: 19% industry, 69% independent. Electrophysiology effects: 33% industry, 77% independent. Physiological and behavioral effects: 57% industry, 83% independent.”
    • SCENIHR is the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks. In 2015, it published an extensive 221 page review of research on EMF radiation. Its reference section was 48 pages long, including just about all the research conducted on EMF radiation. They claimed that little to no health risk comes from the EMF radiation emitting from technology. However, Dr. Martin Pall found multiple flaws in their review, and claims they had the cellphone industry’s interests in mind. He argued in his review that SCENIHR neither cited nor discussed 20 studies documenting biological effects of EMFs, and ignored important findings in other studies they did cite. “Therefore SCENIHR has systematically avoided discussing the most important implications of reviews that fell into the time frame they purport to have studied and disagreed with SCENIHR on the existence of important effects. One can argue that the industry, knowing about the roles of each of these factors, could fund any number of studies designed to give apparent negative results just by manipulating these factors to minimize responses and by only studying tiny numbers of individuals to produce low statistical power.” 
  4.  Research serving one side of the issue can be easily picked apart for flaws, and deemed ineffective.

    • As a result, many effects of EMF radiation are downplayed, and many holes are poked into this research to serve the cell industry’s interests.
    • One scientific paper found flaws when it analyzed case studies with contrasting views about the cellphone-cancer link. The paper called out one study that claimed cell phone usage actually protected against brain tumors. Not surprisingly, the paper noted that certain studies were funded by the cell phone industry and perhaps subject to conflicting interests.
    • The FCC, and many others who are opposed to the fact that EMF radiation might have health effects, claimed that the NTP study findings are not true for today because it was done on rats, not humans, using older networks, with higher radiation doses than what an average person receives. While these reasons might seem convincing to a typical consumer, those reasons alone would not be able to deem the study as insignificant by any means.
    • This can also happen the other way around, where studies showing insignificant effects are shown to be flawed to support the view that EMF radiation is harmful. In reality, it is easy to find fault in studies. Statistical sampling may be too small to be significant, testing procedures are too small to be sufficiently precise, and there are not enough study parameters. Unfortunately, no study is perfect. But one area where everyone seems to agree is that there is a growing abundance of studies which need corroboration.

A Big Debate

Cellphone Use Tied to Changes in Brain Activity (Source: NY Times).

As a result, the biological effects of exposure to Radio Frequency (RF), or wireless EMFs, is still a subject of intense debate. On top of the scientific debate, there is a public debate fueled in part by news reporters and people who cannot grasp the entire problem, as EMF radiation is a very scientific issue with many different variables. This has caused a lot of misinformation to spread, along with omission of important factors. 

Sadly, health endpoints reported to be associated with RF EMFs are numerous. They include childhood leukemia, brain tumors, genotoxic effects, neurological effects and neurodegenerative diseases, immune system deregulation, allergic and inflammatory responses, infertility and some cardiovascular ailments. Many reports conclude with a reasonable suspicion that some kind of risk exists when one is exposed to RF EMFs. However, the studies cannot definitively conclude that RF-EMF is the sole root cause of any particular disease. Only time and further studies can lead to overwhelming evidence to prove RF EMFs is the culprit.

Several review articles have been written to summarize the findings of research conducted across the globe to-date.

One review article concludes that regular and long term use of microwave frequency devices, such as mobile phones and microwave ovens, even at the domestic level can have a negative effect on biological systems, especially the brain.

Another article advocates for new public EMF safety limits for habitable spaces. Current guidelines for the US and European microwave exposure from mobile phones for the brain are 1.6 W/kg and 2 W/kg respectively. Yet, at these levels of exposure, mobile phones, used over the course of 10 years, are still implicated as a risk for brain tumors, suggesting new guidelines are needed.

Surveys were conducted that concluded unpleasant neurological symptoms and sensations were experienced by long-term users of mobile phones. Adverse conditions included: headache, extreme irritation, an increase in carelessness, forgetfulness, a decrease in reflexes and hearing non-present clicking sounds in the ears.

Case reports document peripheral neurological effects, including noxious sensations, in patients exposed to RF-EMF. In some cases, the damage was temporary but in others the effects were considered permanent. It was concluded that in some people RF-EMF can cause peripheral neurophysiological changes.

Precautionary Principle

We smoked for many, many years before we realized the dangers of cigarettes and the risks of lung cancer. Only in relatively recent times have cigarette packs been required to be labeled as dangerous. Lead was used in paint until we found it made people sick and caused cancer. How long did it take for us to realize x-rays can kill? Pioneer radioactivity researcher Madam Curie herself died of long-term exposure to radiation because the dangers were not yet known.

Over the past few years, Electromagnetic Radiation (EMR), particularly higher frequency Radio Frequency (RF) radiation, has become a hot button issue. Although high levels of RF radiation have been around us for over a century, only in the last 20 years have we begun to understand their potential health dangers.

Whatever the end verdict becomes, at this point all experts and scientists agree that this area of research warrants more study. And with 5G, there is no research of what long term effects on the body are, which is why many scientists and health experts are pleading people and governments to use the precautionary principle: If the research does not fully establish that EMF radiation from mobile devices cannot cause ANY adverse health effects, than it is advisable to limit your exposure to this energy whenever possible.

However, the real controversy seems to lie in what level of EMF exposure is considered safe. Experts have drawn many partial conclusions, which is suggestive that at current levels of exposure, RF EMF can be deleterious.

While you wait for research to catch up, isn’t it better to avoid what you can? Avoid holding your cellphone up to your head. Don’t enable WiFi and Bluetooth when you don’t need it. Don’t put your laptop on your lap for long periods of time, and keep technology out of your bedroom when you are sleeping.

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Daniel T. DeBaun

Daniel T. DeBaun is an internationally recognized and influential expert in Electromagnetic Radiation (EMF) and shielding electronic emissions, with a particular focus on the effect of exposure from mobile devices such as laptops, tablets and cell phones. Daniel’s concern regarding the health impact of electronic radiation emissions grew from over 30 years of engineering experience in the telecommunications industry, where he held a variety of leadership and executive positions at Bell Labs, AT&T, SAIC and Telcordia. Daniel is co-author of recent bestseller, Radiation Nation: The Fallout of Modern Technology, a complete guide to EMF radiation safety and protection. Daniel is also a highly regarded industry consultant, speaker as well as frequent guest national radio and television programs discussing EMF health issues.