What's In Your Pocket? Cell Phone Safety Debate Front-and-Center

While talking on your cell phone, try to keep it away from your body as much as possible.

People have spent most of the past week talking about their cell phones rather than on them-and with good reason: Michael Scherer's compelling article in TIME Magazine on cell phone safety has rattled more than a few cages and has become the top rated shared story for the week ending October 29th. It's become fodder for water-cooler discussions as well as TV news broadcasts.

In his piece, Scherer points out the little-noticed bit of legalese in the safety manual for Apple's iPhone 4: "When using iPhone near your body for voice calls or for wireless data transmission over a cellular network, keep iPhone at least 15 mm (5/8 inch) away from the body, and only use carrying cases, belt clips, or holders that do not have metal parts and that maintain at least 15 mm (5/8 inch) separation between iPhone and the body."

"Nobody is watching," says Devra Davis, Ph.D., founder of the Environmental Health Trust and the author of the new book Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done to Hide It, and How to Protect Your Family. Most people don't realize, says Davis, that "when [the Federal Communications Commission] determined safe emissions of radio-frequency levels in 2001, it tested phones kept in holsters. It didn't, however, test phones kept in a far more common place-in a pocket, right next to a person's skin."

Other parts of the body are far from immune from cell phone radiation as well. Breast cancer is hitting young, healthy women who keep their cell phones in their bras (a disproportionate number of them African-American and Latino). Young men who are on their phones for hours a day have half the sperm count of others.

As spokespeople from Apple and CTIA, a trade group representing the wireless industry, downplay the risks, Dr. Davis and her group cannot stress enough the use of safety precautions surrounding the use of cell phones. Their guidelines include:

Children should only place cell phones next to their heads when making emergency calls. Children's skulls are thinner than adults' and their brains are still developing. Hence, radiation from cell phones penetrates more deeply into their brains and is likely to cause more damage. Texting while holding the phone away from the body is still fine for kids.

While talking on your cell phone, try to keep it away from your body as much as possible. The amplitude of the electromagnetic field (radiation) is one-fourth the strength at a distance of two inches and 50 times lower at three feet.

Whenever possible, use the speakerphone mode or a wired headset (not a Bluetooth).

Avoid using your cell phone when the signal is weak or when moving at high speed, such as in a car or train; this automatically increases power to a maximum as the phone repeatedly attempts to connect to a new relay antenna.

Avoid carrying your cell phone on your body at all times. Do not keep it near your body at night, such as under the pillow or on a bedside table, particularly if pregnant. A safer option is to put it on "flight" or "off-line" mode, which stops electromagnetic emissions.

If you must carry your cell phone, make sure that the keypad is positioned toward your body and the back is positioned away from your body, so that the transmitted electromagnetic fields move away rather than through you.

Only use your cell phone to establish contact or for conversations lasting a few minutes, as the biological effects are directly related to the duration of exposure. For longer conversations, use a landline with a corded phone, not a cordless phone, which also uses electromagnetic emitting technology similar to that of cell phones.

Switch ears regularly while using your cell phone to dilute your exposure. Before putting your cell phone against your ear, wait until your correspondent has picked up. This limits the power of the electromagnetic field emitted near your ear and the duration of your exposure.

When possible, communicate via text messaging rather than via a call, to limit the duration of exposure and the proximity of the phone to your body.

Avoid using your cell phone while riding on public transportation where you can passively expose others to your phone's electromagnetic fields.

Choose a device with the lowest SAR possible (SAR = Specific Absorption Rate, which is a measure of the strength of the magnetic field absorbed by the body). SAR ratings of contemporary phones from different manufacturers are available by searching for "SAR ratings cell phones" on the Internet.

For more information, log on to http://www.environmentalhealthtrust.org.