Ask the expert: How harmful is radiation risk from mobile phones?

October 16, 2023

In September, France ordered Apple to stop selling iPhone 12 models saying the phones exceeded European Union exposure limits for radiation. Apple is contesting the findings because its tests show that the iPhone 12 is compliant with global radiation standards.

So, what does this mean for users of mobile phones, wireless earbuds and other wearable technology? Should we be concerned?

Mark DeLano, a neuroradiologist, Michigan State University professor and chair of the Department of Radiology in the College of Human Medicine and the College of Osteopathic Medicine, shared his perspective on this issue.

What do we need to know about radiation in general?

There are different types of radiation. Safety is determined by how much radiation energy gets absorbed into the body and whether that energy could damage our cells or their genetic material. Ionizing radiation is used in medical x-rays and has higher energy, which means it presents more potential for cell damage. It is used carefully to avoid unnecessary risk. Nonionizing radiation, like radio waves used in cell phones, has vastly lower energy — roughly a billion times less energy. The lower energy does not damage our cells.

Should we worry about radiation from our phones, Bluetooth devices or fitness trackers?

Mark Delano headshot.The short answer is no. The Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, has found no compelling evidence of danger from the use of personal electronics, and I am grateful that these are safe. The overall benefits of personal electronic devices can be enormous.

The French are concerned about the iPhone 12 radiation test results being above their national limits, but the FDA includes a significant safety buffer when they set safety levels. Minor variations like this one are not significant. In fact, the risks at the levels recorded in the French studies are primarily heating. This may result in the phone being a little warmer. Nothing more. There’s no harm in a warm ear.

With any radiation, you should also consider the time of exposure. Do you use your phone for a few minutes a day or 14 hours? Do you talk with it near your face, or do you prefer to use your phone’s speaker feature? Using your phone in your hand or Bluetooth reduces energy deposition to the head. Your ability to absorb that energy is limited by the distance from your skin.

What other considerations are important?

There are two things important to note. First, it’s always important to consider the difference between coincidence and causation. For example, some people who use mobile phones may also have brain cancer. But to suggest that mobile phones cause the disease is another story altogether. Just because two things happen at the same time does not mean that one causes the other.

And second, I like to think about this as a risk versus reward situation. From my perspective, any theoretical risk is very small. It’s far more important for somebody with an iPhone 12 to be able to access their loved ones through their phone or use the apps that help them manage their day-to-day needs. These days, it’s important for people to stay connected.