What are the health risks associated with mobile phones and their base stations?

Online Q&A
20 September 2013

Q: What are the health risks associated with mobile phones and their base stations?

A: This is a question which WHO takes very seriously. Given the immense number of people who use mobile phones, even a small increase in the incidence of adverse effects on health could have major public health implications.

Because exposure to the radiofrequency (RF) fields emitted by mobile phones is generally more than a 1000 times higher than from base stations, and the greater likelihood of any adverse effect being due to handsets, research has almost exclusively been conducted on possible effects of mobile phone exposure.

Research has concentrated on the following areas:

  • cancer
  • other health effects
  • electromagnetic interference
  • traffic accidents.
Cancer

Based on mixed epidemiological evidence on humans regarding an association between exposure to RF radiation from wireless phones and head cancers (glioma and acoustic neuroma), RF fields have been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B). Studies to date provide no indication that environmental exposure to RF fields, such as from base stations, increases the risk of cancer or any other disease.

Other health effects

Scientists have reported other health effects of using mobile phones including changes in brain activity, reaction times, and sleep patterns. These effects are minor and have no apparent health significance. More studies are underway to try to confirm these findings.

Electromagnetic interference

When mobile phones are used very close to some medical devices (including pacemakers, implantable defibrillators, and certain hearing aids) there is the possibility of causing interference with their operation. The risk is much reduced for 3G phones and newer equipment. There is also the potential of interference between mobile phones signals and aircraft electronics. Some countries have licensed mobile phone use on aircraft during flight using systems that control the phone output power.

Traffic accidents

Research has shown an increased risk of traffic accidents, some 3-4 times greater chance of an accident, when mobile phones (either handheld or with a "hands-free" kit) are used while driving due to distraction.

Conclusions

While an increased risk of brain tumours from the use of mobile phones is not established, the increasing use of mobile phones and the lack of data for mobile phone use over time periods longer than 15 years warrant further research of mobile phone use and brain cancer risk. In particular, with the recent popularity of mobile phone use among younger people, and therefore a potentially longer lifetime of exposure, WHO has promoted further research on this group and is currently assessing the health impact of RF fields on all studied endpoints.

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