Indian Journal of Public Health

: 2015  |  Volume : 59  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 37--41

Mobile phones: Time to rethink and limit usage

Bobby Paul1, Indranil Saha2, Sanjay Kumar3, SK Samim Ferdows4, Gautam Ghose5,  
1 Assistant Professor, Department of Community Medicine, Institute of Post Graduate Medical Education and Research, Kolkata, India
2 Associate Professor, Department of Community Medicine, IQ City Medical College and Narayana Hrudayalaya Hospital, Durgapur, West Bengal, India
3 Assistant Professor and Chief Operating Officer (COO), Department of Community Medicine, IQ City Medical College and Narayana Hrudayalaya Hospital, Durgapur, West Bengal, India
4 Assistant Professor (Statistics), Department of Community Medicine, IQ City Medical College and Narayana Hrudayalaya Hospital, Durgapur, West Bengal, India
5 Professor and Head of the Department, Department of Community Medicine, IQ City Medical College and Narayana Hrudayalaya Hospital, Durgapur, West Bengal, India

Correspondence Address:
Bobby Paul
P-19 Jadavpur University Employees«SQ» Housing Co-Operative Society Ltd., Panchasayar, Kolkata - 700 094, West Bengal


Radiofrequency waves generated from mobile phones cause potential public health problems. Short-term effects like changes in sleep, heart rate, and blood pressure, and long-term effects like carcinoma are well documented. The Government of India«SQ»s efforts in laying down regulations regarding the safety limits, manufacture, marketing, and mobile use are still in nascent stage. The need for stringent enforcement of laws for prevention of phone usage while driving and guidelines of medical regulatory bodies regarding rules and regulations of phone usage while at class or attending patients is of utmost importance. This should be supplemented by mass media to raise awareness among people regarding the possible health effects of radiofrequency emissions from mobile phones and the guidelines to minimize its exposure. It is the need of the hour to teach young people to be structured, to know when to have the cell phone on, and to avoid becoming the slave of technology instead of its mastery.

How to cite this article:
Paul B, Saha I, Kumar S, Samim Ferdows S K, Ghose G. Mobile phones: Time to rethink and limit usage.Indian J Public Health 2015;59:37-41

How to cite this URL:
Paul B, Saha I, Kumar S, Samim Ferdows S K, Ghose G. Mobile phones: Time to rethink and limit usage. Indian J Public Health [serial online] 2015 [cited 2020 Aug 3 ];59:37-41
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Full Text

One of the most common sights we see these days is that of people with their mobile phones next to their ears. A boon for better communication, there has always been counter arguments and research over the increasing use of mobile phones and its short-term and long-term health effects. Mobile phones are low-powered radiofrequency (RF) transmitters, with frequencies between 450 and 2700 MHz, operating through a network of base stations, with power in the range of 0.1-2 W transmitted through an antenna used close to the user's head. [1] It uses RF fields in the form of electromagnetic waves which are transmitted from the handset to the closest base station to connect calls, text messages, emails, pictures, and web downloads to the main telephone network. [2] Human exposure to RF radiation can occur from a variety of sources, including the use of personal devices (mobile phones, cordless phones, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, amateur radios, etc.), occupational sources (high-frequency dielectric and induction heaters, broadcast antennas, high-power pulsed radars, and medical appliances), and environmental sources (mobile phone base stations, broadcast antennae). [3] The RF part of the electromagnetic field (EMF) is that part of the spectrum with frequencies in the range of 3 kHz to 300 GHz and is a type of non-ionizing radiation which is essentially insufficient to cause molecular level ionization. It only results in tissue heating and a negligible rise in body temperature, often referred to as "thermal" effects. [4] However, the carcinogenic potential of EMF, changes in the permeability of the blood-brain barrier, electroencephalographic activity, and changes in blood pressure have also been reported. [1],[5] Self-reported symptoms like headache, earache, and warmth sensation, concentration difficulties, and fatigue have been highlighted by numerous studies. [6],[7] Hence, given the immense number of mobile phone users, even a small increase in the incidence of adverse effects on health can have major public health implications.

 Biological Effects from RF Exposure

Certain biological effects, but not necessarily sufficient to cause health hazard can result from exposure to RF energy. Tissue heating is the principal mechanism of interaction between RF energy and the human body. At the frequencies used by mobile phones, most of the energy is absorbed by the skin and other superficial tissues, resulting in negligible temperature rise in the brain or any other organ of the body and, thus, they do not pose any proven health hazard. However, much of public health concern revolves around the possibility of hazards from long-term exposure to levels which do not produce measurable heating. [8] Effects on brain electrical activity, cognitive function, sleep, heart rate, and blood pressure in volunteers have also been investigated, as well as for self-reported symptoms, but consistent evidence of adverse effects from exposure to RF field at levels below which those causing tissue heating is lacking. [1],[9],[10] But Indian experts are of the opinion that hot tropical Indian climate, low body mass index, low fat content of an average Indian, in combination with a high environmental concentration of RF radiation may place Indians at higher risk of RF radiation adverse effects than the Europeans. [11]

In the meantime, the World Health Organization (WHO) and government agencies like Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of the United States have laid down specific limits for human exposure to RF emissions from hand-held mobile phones in terms of specific absorption rate (SAR), a measure of the rate of absorption of RF energy by the body. [2],[4] The FCC's exposure guidelines demarcate an SAR of 1.6 W/kg, averaged over 1 g of tissue, as the safe limit for a mobile phone user and every handset should comply with this limit before FCC approval is granted for marketing of a phone in the United States. However, less restrictive limits, e.g., 2 W/kg averaged over 10 g of tissue, are specified by the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) guidelines, endorsed by WHO, and used in Europe and most other countries. [4] WHO recommends that these standards are protective of all persons; nevertheless, if individuals are concerned about avoiding even potential risks, they can take a few simple steps to minimize their exposure to RF energy. [8]

Exposure of a user to RF falls off rapidly with increasing distance from the handset. A person using a mobile phone 30-40 cm away from the body, i.e., using speaker mode while talking or using a "hands free" device, e.g., bluetooth headsets, will, therefore, have a much lower exposure than someone holding the handset against the head. [1] A mobile phone usually operates on the lowest power necessary to maintain call quality. [8] Although various devices which claim to increase the safety of mobile phone use, e.g., shielded cases, earpiece pads/shields, antenna clips/caps, special batteries, and absorbing buttons, reduce exposures by a factor of 10, they have the danger of adversely affecting the phone's antenna, due to which the phone will attempt to transmit more power up to its specified maximum. [3],[8] Till date, scientific evidence does not indicate any need for shields on mobile phones, and therefore, such add-on devices should be judiciously used. [8] Using the phone in areas of good reception also decreases exposure as it allows the phone to transmit at reduced power. [1],[8] Since time is a key factor in how much exposure a person receives, reducing the time spent on usage by limiting the number and length of calls may reduce RF exposure. [4],[8] Revolutionary changes in mobile phone technology have lowered the RF power emissions from the newer devices like the third-generation (3G) phones where it is two times lowered and Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications (DECT) where the risk is almost five times lowered than the older versions. [3]

 Electromagnetic Interference

When mobile phones are used very close to certain medical devices including pacemakers (within about 8 inches), implantable defibrillators, and certain hearing aids, they may malfunction due to their susceptibility to electromagnetic signals. [4] The risk is much reduced for 3G phones and newer devices. [11] Hence, to avoid this potential problem, pacemaker patients can avoid placing a phone in a pocket close to the location of their pacemaker. [4] Potential interference between signals of mobile phones and aircraft electronics have led to limitation of phone use in aircrafts. However, presently, some countries have licensed its use on aircraft during flight using systems that control the phone output power. [12]

 Cancer Link with Phone Usage

Epidemiological research examining potential long-term risks from RF exposure has mostly looked for an association between brain tumors and mobile phone use. Evidences from the INTERPHONE study, a multicenter case-control study and the largest investigation so far of mobile phone use and brain tumors including glioma, acoustic neuroma, and meningiomas, and other similar studies have proved to be inconclusive in this regard. [12],[13] The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified RF EMFs as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B). [1] Results of animal studies have failed to show any association between long-term exposure to RF fields and cancer. [3],[9] Lack of data of human exposure and mobile use over time periods longer than 15 years warrants further research to explore the linkage of cancer risk and its use beyond 15 years from the first exposure, especially among younger people, i.e., children and adolescents, who have a potentially longer lifetime of exposure. [1],[9],[12]

 Children and Mobile Phones

Due to the closer proximity of the mobile phone to the brain of children compared to adults, the average RF exposure from its use is higher by a factor of 2 in a child's brain and by a factor of 10 in the bone marrow of the skull. Brain and bone marrow have a higher conductivity in children than in adults and receive a higher energy deposition from RF sources. With age, the bone marrow progressively incorporates more fat, and the bone itself increases in thickness, hardens, and loses water over time, thus making the tissues less vulnerable. [3] Although WHO has concluded that current scientific evidence does not justify specific measures for children, nevertheless, steps to reduce RF exposure, i.e., reduce the amount of time spent on the mobile phone and use speaker mode or a headset to place it at a distance from the head, can be applied to children and teenagers as well. [8],[14]

 Other Effects

The use of mobile phones by students at places and situations where its use should be restricted is quite common, as studied by Subba et al., which ranged from 17.9% usage while driving to 95.5% while in classrooms. [15] Mahmoodabad et al. reported 84% usage among medical students in classrooms and 18.6% during driving. [16] "Ringxiety" (phantom ringing) resulting in hampering of studies was experienced by 34.5% of the students who mostly used their phones at classrooms (99%) and libraries (60.3%). [15] Mobile phone addiction is comparable to compulsive gambling and video gaming, having both physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms when they stop using it, like anxiety, restlessness, nervousness, and irritability, which disappear when they start using the phone again. The neurophysiological basis for this addiction cannot be ruled out as the role of electromagnetic radiation on the neurotransmitters and the postsynaptic receptors is yet to be explored. [17]

The only established health hazard as cited by an independent expert group on mobile phones was its use while driving, and the risk of accident increased with age which was comparable to driving with blood alcohol level of 0.05%. The risk was the same when the phone was used "hands free" (via a loudspeaker), implying the distraction caused by the conversation. [18]

 Current Research Trends

Although WHO has categorically stated that there is no known consequence on health below the limits recommended by ICNIRP, gaps in knowledge still exist that need to be filled. WHO EMF Research Agenda addresses the priority areas of research gaps. [19] The viewpoints of WHO are shared by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) and the independent Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) of the European Commission. [2],[20]

Significant ongoing studies in this regard are International Cohort Study on Mobile Phone Users (COSMOS), which aims to follow approximately 300,000 adult mobile phone users in Europe for 20-30 years for risk assessment; Risk of brain cancer from exposure to radiofrequency fields in childhood and adolescence (MOBI-KIDS), an international, multicentric study involving 14 European and non-European countries; and Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results (SEER) program of the National Cancer Institute, USA. [21] The Indian Council of Medical Research has also initiated a cohort study in Delhi to explore the association, if any, between cell phone use and neurological disorders (cognitive behavior, sleep-related disorders, depression, etc.), reproductive dysfunctions, cardiological and otological disorders, and carcinogenic potential in the Indian population. [22]


The fact remains that countries across the world are now beginning to get concerned about the impact of mobiles on human health and environment. Regulatory laws prohibiting cell phone use while driving have already been enforced in the USA. The Government of India's efforts in laying down regulations regarding the safety limits, manufacture, marketing, and mobile use are still in nascent stage; nevertheless, amendments in Information Technology Act 2008 [23] (dealing with cyber laws) and Motor Vehicles Act 1988 [24] (dealing with penalty of driving while using mobile phone) address certain legal issues. Formulation of guidelines by appropriate regulatory bodies regarding phone usage in workplace as well as for students, doctors, and other professionals is of utmost importance. This should be supplemented by mass media efforts (both electronic and print media) to raise awareness among people regarding the possible health effects of RF emissions from mobile phones and the guidelines to minimize its exposure. Hence, time has come to rethink and judiciously use mobile phone, check the SAR level before buying a handset, and to know when to switch it on and off so as to avoid becoming the slave of technology instead of its mastery.


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