Cell Phone Radiation vs. Nuclear Radiation

Andrew Summerville
February 7, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: An iPhone 2 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Radiation is the process by which energy is emitted from particles in the form of a wave. The waves of energy that are emitted then have to ability to ionize molecules, which means that they can cause a molecule to gain or lose an electron. This can result in a molecular imbalance most often associated with rapid cell division and cancer. In recent years, there has been an increased concern over radiation from cell phones. However, much of this concern has been broadcasted by media outlets without prudent scientific research. [1] On the other hand, nuclear radiation has been scientifically established as the harmful health effects have been thoroughly researched. The subsequent paragraphs aim to compare these two different forms of radiation and understand the threats they pose to human health.

Radiofrequency Radiation

Media outcry over cancer-causing cell phones, primarily iPhones, as can be seen in Fig. 1, pinned radiofrequency radiation as the primary cause. [1] Radiofrequency radiation is a complex way of describing how the radio waves entering and exiting cell phones could potentially ionize cells in one's body. However, not all radio frequencies have the ability to ionize cells. [2] Only frequencies that lie outside of the 3 kHz to 300 GHz range have the ability to add or remove electrons. [2] As one journal article points out, cell phones do not often transmit frequencies outside of this range, which makes the connection between cell phone radiation and cancer "physically implausible." [1] While it might make logical sense to think that the waves entering and exiting cell phones could be ionizing our cells and damaging them, a scientific inspection of the facts demonstrates that this is not the case. However, it should be acknowledged that although most frequencies transmitted by cell phones will not cause bodily harm, there is potential that extended exposure to extreme frequencies could cause harm.

Nuclear Radiation

Fig. 2: A depiction of α, β, and γ rays. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Nuclear radiation typically results from a few primary sources including neutrons, gamma rays, beta particles, and alpha particles. Just as with cell phone radiation, these particles emit energy in the form of a wave that then passes through the human body. Unlike the waves emitted from the aforementioned sources, nuclear radiation is much more likely to cause bodily harm. [3] A graphical depiction of rays passing through different mediums is shown in Fig. 2, to the left. It has been established that exposure to nuclear radiation immediately puts one at an increased risk for cancer, among other deleterious health effects. [3] This occurs because the gamma rays, for example, can easily ionize cells in one's body, thereby inducing rapid cell division (i.e., cancer). Unlike radiofrequencies, nuclear radiation is much more likely to ionize molecules. Due to nuclear radiation's increased ability to ionize cells, it makes it a much more harmful form of radiation than the radiofrequency radiation from cell phones.


While it is not a regular occurrence for cell phones to produce waves harmful to one's cells, there is concern that our extended close proximity to cell phones could eventually lead to some form of bodily harm. The more time we spend with our phones, the more likely it is that damaging frequencies will pass through our bodies. Cell phone companies now must post each phone's specific absorption rate (SAR) inside the user manual. [4] The common SAR values found amongst popular phones are not alarming, but as was pointed out earlier, prolonged exposure increases the potential for harmful frequencies. On the other hand, the absorption rates of nuclear radiation are much more alarming. For instance, as gamma rays pass through one's body, they energy from those waves is much more easily absorbed than when the energy originates from radiofrequencies. Since nuclear radiation is more easily absorbed, it poses a greater threat to human health as a result of its increased ability to ionize cells.


The probability of withstanding harmful radiation from cell phones is not high. However, it must be acknowledged that there is valid concern that cell phones could be causing bodily harm. In stark contrast to the minimal risk of cell phones, nuclear radiation poses a more immanent and serious threat. Whereas only certain radiofrequencies have the ability to ionize cells, nuclear radiation has a much greater ability to ionize. While nuclear radiation is currently a much greater threat to human health, it will be interesting to see if any negative health effects are observed in the long term when using cell phones.

© Andrew Summerville. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] J. E. Moulder et al., "Cell Phones and Cancer: What Is the Evidence for a Connection?" Radiat. Res. 151, 513 (1999).

[2] M. M. Dawoud, "High Frequency Radiation and Human Exposure," King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, 20 Oct 03.

[3] D. J. Brenner et al., "Cancer Risks Attributable to Low Doses of Ionizing Radiation: Assessing What We Really Know," Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. (USA) 100, 13761 (2003).

[4] J. C. Lin, "Specific Absorption Rates Induced in Head Tissues by Microwave Radiation from Cell Phones," IEEE 918259, IEEE Microwave Magazine 2, No. 1, 22 (2001).