Do smartphones cause brain cancer? Do they really mess with a plane’s navigation gear? And petrol pumps? Really?
When it comes to the risks of mobile phone use, one thing is certain: the warnings about cancer, plane crashes and petrol pumps have been with us from the start.
But what about the evidence?
It turns out those risks have as much basis in myth and misunderstanding as they do in actual fact. Even so, there is a reason you should switch to flight mode when you fly.
And you might want to limit your kids’ use of the phone.
Do mobile phones cause brain cancer?
Not according to the best available evidence to date, say safety experts, although more research is underway.
“There’s no established evidence that the radiation from mobile phones causes brain cancer or any other health effects”, Ken Karipidis from the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) says.
“People hear radiation and they think nuclear or dangerous, but mobile phones give out low energy radio frequency radiation − the same radiation used in TV and radio signals all around us.”
There are studies that have linked heavy mobile phone use and certain brain tumours but “their evidence is far from conclusive”, Dr Karipidis says, because they rely on people remembering their phone use “and people with tumours tend to over-report [their phone use]”.
Instead of relying on memory, a massive study called COSMOS is tracking the phone use and health records of hundreds of thousands of people in the UK and Europe for the next 20-30 years to look for any evidence of health effects.
Meanwhile, experts say if you’re worried, you can limit the use of mobile phones, or make sure the antenna − which is the primary source of energy − is further away from your head.
This may be especially relevant in children.
Children’s skulls are thinner and their brains are still developing, Dr Karipidis says, although he adds there’s no established evidence that kids are more sensitive to phone radiation.
Flight mode vs Black Hawk down
We dutifully switch our phones to flight mode before a plane we are on takes off, and leave them that way until after landing, but how real is the risk that a phone call, Facebook ‘like’ or humble text message could interfere with the plane’s instruments?
According to the mobile phone industry body − the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) − not very.
Chief executive Chris Althaus points to AMTA’s fact sheet which states:
“There is no substantiated proof mobile phones can interfere with aircraft systems from within the passenger cabin.
“Although incidents are regularly reported by air crew, these anecdotal reports have not been confirmed as phone related.”
Studies by Boeing (2000) and the US Federal Aviation Authority (2012) have failed to confirm a link between mobile phone use and any of the many aircraft incidents reported.
So why can’t we use our phones in flight?
Partly because the aviation industry is understandably risk averse − ‘not very likely’ doesn’t equate to ‘zero risk’ no matter how you read it.
And partly because letting all those airborne phones contact multiple base stations below could interfere with the mobile network down on the ground.
Some airlines, including Emirates and Swiss, get around this problem by having their own base station on board some planes, which means they can allow in-flight phone calls.
If you’re not on one of those flights, or not prepared to pay for the calls, it’s flight mode until told otherwise.
Can our phones cause fire near petrol pumps?
“This myth has been around for more than 15 years,” Dr Karipidis says.
It has been traced back to a hoax email, and been debunked not once but twice by the rigorous investigative team at Mythbusters. And by Dr Karl.
So why do we still have the “mobile phone prohibited while refuelling” signs?
Well, mobile phones are not ‘intrinsically safe’ − they’re not built to operate safely in a petrol fume environment, Mark McKenzie, CEO of the Australasian Convenience & Petroleum Marketers Association, says.
“[So] our industry would prefer to follow a precautionary approach given the suggestion of a public risk, as opposed to delay action until/if an incident occurs.”