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Not enough evidence to prove that sleeping with mobile phone under the pillow is dangerous

A meme widely shared on Facebook cautions people against sleeping with their cellphones under the pillow. 

According to the meme, titled “Don’t ever sleep with mobile under the pillow”, most mobile phones emit harmful radiation due to transmission of signal of around 900 megahertz (MHz), and this radiation may damage your brain and cause headaches and muscle pain.

Are these claims correct?

Over 5 billion people using mobile phones

Mobile technology has spread rapidly around the globe. According to a 2018 Global System for Mobile Communications Association  report, over 5 billion people in the world were connected to mobile services in 2017. 

The report suggests that the number of unique mobile subscribers will reach 5.9 billion by 2025, equivalent to 71% of the world’s population. And as the use of mobile phones grows, so do the reports of its alleged risk on human health.

Understanding radio frequency radiation

The US National Cancer Institute defines radio frequency radiation (RFR) as a type of non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation. 

The most common sources of radiofrequency radiation are wireless telecommunication devices and equipment, including cell phones, smart meters, and portable wireless devices, such as tablets and laptop computers. 

The use of mobile phones and its potential to cause health problems has long been debated. This is because cell phones emit radiofrequency radiation from their antennas. 

Study on cell phone radio frequency radiation

Several studies have been conducted because of concerns about the health effects from long-term exposure.

The National Toxicology Program in the US Department of Health and Human Services did toxicology studies in rats and mice to find potential health hazards, including cancer risk from RFR exposure.

The findings focused on exposure to RFR from 2G and 3G cell phones which operate within a range of frequencies from about 700 to 2700 MHz. 

There was clear evidence of tumors in the hearts of male rats and some evidence of tumors in the brain and adrenal glands of male rats. 

So does RFR in cell phones cause harm?

Africa Check contacted the US Department of Health and Human Services to seek a clear understanding of the findings.

Christine Bruske Flowers, director in the office of communications and public liaison, told Africa Check that RFR exposures used in the studies cannot be compared directly to the exposure that humans experience when using a cell phone. 

“In our studies, rats and mice received RFR across their whole bodies. By contrast, people are mostly exposed in specific local tissues close to where they hold the phone,” she said, quoting John Bucher, a senior scientist involved in the study.

“Our studies would support the statement that radiation may damage the brain, although we did not examine headaches or muscle pain,” Bucher told Africa Check.

‘No adverse health effects have been established’

According to World Health Organization, radiofrequency waves are electromagnetic fields, and unlike ionizing radiation such as X-rays or gamma rays, can neither break chemical bonds nor cause ionization in the human body.

But WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic (cancer causing) to humans, a category used when there is limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and less than sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals. 

According to the IARC document, this category may also be used when the evidence of carcinogenicity in humans does not permit a conclusion to be drawn (referred to as “inadequate” evidence) but there is sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals. 

In an article published in 2014, the WHO said that a large number of studies have been performed over the last two decades to assess whether mobile phones pose a potential health risk. 

“To date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use,” says the report.

Does radiation cause brain damage, headaches, muscle pain?

The meme circulating on Facebook claims that sleeping with a mobile phone under the pillow may cause headaches and muscle pain. But the WHO article gives no evidence to support this.

“A number of studies have investigated the effects of radiofrequency fields on brain electrical activity, cognitive function, sleep, heart rate and blood pressure in volunteers. To date, research does not suggest any consistent evidence of adverse health effects from exposure to radiofrequency fields at levels below those that cause tissue heating. 

“Further, research has not been able to provide support for a causal relationship between exposure to electromagnetic fields and self-reported symptoms, or “electromagnetic hypersensitivity,” the WHO says.

The WHO says that with the recent popularity of mobile phone use among younger people, and therefore a potentially longer lifetime of exposure, it is doing more research on this age group. 

“Several studies investigating potential health effects in children and adolescents are underway,” it says.

Conservative recommendations by US Food and Drug Administration

Despite insufficient evidence linking cellphone use to adverse health effects, the US Food and Drug Administration has issued recommendations for those concerned about radiofrequency energy.

“If there is a risk from being exposed to radiofrequency energy from cellphones and at this point we do not know that there is, it is probably very small,” part of the recommendation reads.

“But if you are concerned about avoiding even potential risks, you can take a few simple steps to minimize your radiofrequency exposure. Reduce the amount of time spent using your cell phone and use speaker mode or a headset to place more distance between your head and the cellphone,” it says. – Dancan Bwire


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