Mobile Phones & Health

Mobile phone handsets are the most significant source of public exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF) as their exposure is typically much higher than that from other RF-EMF sources, such as mobile phone base stations or masts. This occurs particularly when mobile phones are used in contact with the body such as when making a call with the phone held to your ear.

Radiofrequency fields

What exposure limits apply to mobile phones?

The rate at which energy emitted from a mobile phone is absorbed in the body is called the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR). The unit of SAR is watts per kilogram (W/kg) and each phone has a specific SAR value. The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) recommends a SAR limit of 2 W/kg for localised exposure of the head and trunk, such as that from mobile phones in contact with the body.

How does the exposure from mobile phones compare to that from phone masts?

The exposure levels from a mobile phone in contact with the body can reach 100 to 400 times the levels of the typical exposure one receives from mobile phone masts or base stations. The exact level will depend on:

  • the strength of the mobile coverage in the area – the better the mobile coverage, the lower the exposure from using the phone;
  • the phone characteristics and
  • the ability to use newer technologies such as 3G and 4G (where they are available).

Newer handsets tend to operate more efficiently, allow using newer technologies and use less power when compared to older phones. Therefore, newer phones using more modern technologies with good coverage tend to give rise to the lowest level of exposure.

The level of exposure from a typical mobile phone (e.g. SAR=1 W/kg) making a call at the ear with low coverage can be around 100 V/m. This is 100 times higher that the typical exposure level of the public from mobile phone base stations or masts, which is usually around 1 V/m. This value includes the contribution of all available technologies used by several antennas on a mast (i.e. 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G).

What influences the exposure from a mobile phone mast?

The level of RF-EMF from a mast depends on the distance from the mast as well as the number of antennas on the mast and the technologies being used. Each mast typically comprises several antennas using one or more technologies. Each antenna/technology contributes a small proportion to the overall exposure of the public to the mast, typically around 1 V/m. The average level from a 5G antenna is similar to the level from an antenna using 3G or 4G (i.e. around 0.2 V/m) while the level from a 2G antenna is slightly higher (i.e. around 0.4 V/m). 

 RF levels comparison

What is known about the health effects from use of mobile phones?

There has been extensive research performed on the potential health effects from exposure to mobile phone handsets. Available evidence up to 2011 was reviewed by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a WHO agency. Based on this review, IARC classified RF-EMF as possibly carcinogenic or group 2B. This classification was mainly based on evidence from studies involving long-term, heavy use of mobile phone handsets using 1G, 2G & 3G technologies (see IARC full report).

What does the IARC 2B classification mean?

The IARC 2B classification means that the evidence for the substance or physical agent causing cancer is limited, and further research is needed. Other products such as pickled food, aloe Vera and dry-cleaning agents are also classified as 2B. See Irish Cancer Society for a further description of the 2B classification in the context of mobile phones.

IARC table

How can I reduce my exposure from mobile phones?

Given these uncertainties, certain recommendations to reduce exposure from mobile phones have been issued by WHO, the Chief Medical Officer and several public health agencies worldwide, such as Public Health England. These recommendations include the following:

  • Making fewer calls and keeping calls short.
  • Sending text messages or using video conferencing instead of calling.
  • Refraining from making phone calls in low-coverage situations, such as inside trains or lifts.
  • Using a wired hands-free device so that the phone need not be held against the head.
  • Refraining from keeping an active phone clipped to the belt or in the pocket.
  • Discouraging excessive use of mobile phones by children.
  • Choosing a mobile phone with a low SAR value quoted by the manufacturer.

More information about mobile phones and health

European Parliament

UK National Radiological Protection Board