Response: It is possible that talking on your cell phone is giving you a headache, but most likely not because of the cell phone technology. Wireless telephones are essentially two-way radios that work by transmitting low levels of radiofrequency energy or radio waves from their antennas to and from nearby base towers that are connected to telephone networks. Cell phones emit a specific type of radio wave called microwaves, which are the longest waves in the electromagnetic spectrum. As a result, they are non-ionizing, which is considered to be harmless at the low levels emitted by the cell phones.
Despite this, cell phones and their base towers (that also emit these radio waves) have been a source of worry, especially for people who are frequent cell phone users or who live near cell phone base towers. Included in these worries are concerns similar to yours – that cell phone usage causes headaches, nausea, and a warmer than normal head.
Several scientific studies have recently examined whether radio waves emitted by cell phones and/or their base towers could be responsible for these symptoms. These studies have consistently found that the answer is no. In a recent large study in England, for example, scientists found that typical radio wave emissions from cell phone towers were not responsible for anxiety, tension, and tiredness in their study participants. The results from this study are particularly believable given its study design, which tested people who said that they were sensitive to the effects of radio waves and was double-blinded, meaning that neither the investigators nor participants knew if the radio waves were on or off when their health symptoms were assessed.
Findings from this and other studies provide evidence that your headaches are not due to radio wave exposures from your cell phone. This is not to say that your headaches are imagined. It is possible that using your cell phone is indeed causing your headaches, maybe for ergonomic reasons (such as your position when you talk on the phone) or even the heat from the battery. Or, it is possible that you remember the times that you get a headache after you talk on the phone more than times when you don’t – a common type of recall bias.
Regardless, it may be wise to limit your cell phone usage and see if your headaches go away. Reducing your cell phone usage will have the added benefit of reducing your exposure to radio waves, which is a relatively easy and prudent way to reduce any remaining anxiety and to protect yourself should there be any undiscovered harmful effects of cell phone radio waves (which scientists believe are unlikely). You can also reduce your radio wave exposures by using a headset with your cell phone, which will reduce your exposures by putting more distance between your body and your cell phone and its radio waves.
For more detailed information about cell phones and their health effects, you should check out this US Food and Drug Administration website, which I think is pretty informative. For updates on the latest cell phone gadgets, you can check out this post on cell phone battery chargers powered by your bike.
Previous Ask Treehugger columns can be found here.
Helen Suh MacIntosh is a professor in environmental health at Harvard University and studies how pollution behaves in the environment and how it affects people's health. Please keep in mind that her answers are just her interpretation of available information and should not be taken as the only viewpoint or solution to a problem. Use this column at your own risk. Having said this, please feel free to post any of your environmental health questions to Helen@TreeHugger.com. (Please use a descriptive email subject line and mention if you want to remain anonymous or not).