Current and Future Impacts of Cell Phones and Their Networks on the Environment, Human Health, and Society
Four technology assessment reports prepared by graduate student teams

In the Spring of 2011, students an online, graduate course from Ball State University, "ITEDU 510, Technology Use & Assessment," worked in teams to prepare technology assessment reports on the topic of the Reducing the Negative Impacts of Plastics on Human and Environmental Health. The fictitious award letter (shown below) indicated that they were to prepare these reports for the US Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources and the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Each report was to provide background information, then outline at a number of viable policy alternatives.

The purpose of this Webpage is to provide access to these reports in the context of this assignment, not to synthesize them. The accuracy of information, originality of ideas, and availability of these online reports are the responsibility and authority of the student authors.


Topic: Current and Future Impacts of Cell Phones and Their Networks on the Environment

Team EcoA: Catherine Mentzer, Matthew Starke, Sharon Spurgeon, Kyle Corley

Team EcoB: Leah Abendroth, Tom Peake, David Wright-Hammer, Jacob Ortwein

Topic: Current and Future Impacts of Cell Phones and Their Networks on Human Health & Society

Team HumanA: David Brantley, Brian Hunt, Brian Kirsch, Nathan Aker, Benjamin Kappler

Team HumanB: Gina Anderson, Louis-Tyrone Burris, Craig Harvey, Gregory Hendricks, Kyle Hyziak

Technology Assessment Report Contract Award

(Note: This is a fictitious letter written for instructional purposes.)

Dear Madam or Sir:

This letter formalizes the award of a [fictitious] contract between your company and the United States Senate for the production of a technology assessment report to be made available online no later than 11 pm EDT on Friday, April 22nd, 2011. We have requested your four groups each provide us with an objective and well-researched technology assessment. The title of the report by each of these groups is to be as follows:

For the groups called EcoA and EcoB, each group is to submit an original report titled:

"Current and Future Impacts of Cell Phones and Their Networks on the Environment"

For the groups called HumanA and HumanB, each group is to submit an original report titled:

"Current and Future Impacts of Cell Phones on Human Health and Society"

In recent years, the use of cell phones and the spread of cell phone towers seems to have skyrocketed. This technology offers many advantages. However, it carries negative impacts both for the physical environment and for human health.

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been gathered information and comments concerning the problems posed by communications towers to migrating songbirds since 2003 (See the filings associated with Proceeding 03-187, FCC, 2011.) But what are the facts? Have there been studies showing that the halo of light around a tower causes bird deaths? And what are the other environmental impacts associated with the construction, use, and maintenance of cell phone towers?

Furthermore, the manufacture and disposal of cell phones raises questions concerning hazardous emissions. If cell phones and other e-waste is exported to countries with lower environmental standards than the US, then we may be promoting the poisoning of air, water, for those living and working near an e-waste disposal/reclamation enterprise. What are the environmental hazards posed by cell phones and other e-waste?

In addition to these issues, your team should provide information on other areas where there has been and will be a noted impact of cell phones and cell phone network technology on the physical environment. We need the facts. But we also need to see your analysis of the trends. If no additional action is taken, what are the precise extents of environmental impacts you would calculate for the foreseeable future?

Annette Rose and Jim Flowers  (2009) summarized several issues concerning cell phones as follows:

"According to Nielson Mobile (2008), a “cord-cutting consumer trend” is rampant in the United States with over 20.2 million U.S. households (17.1 %) replacing traditional land lines with wireless phones. In 2007 there were 181.9 million cell phones sold in the US, a number that has annually increased by 18.6% since 2000 (EPA, 2008).

"The age at which children are given cell phones continues to slide downward, decreasing from 10.1 years in 2008 to 9.7 years old in 2009 (Blackshaw, 2009). Adolescents are among the most active consumers: “the average 13-17 year old sends more than 2,000 text messages per month” (Blackshaw, 2009) and college students spend 2.4 hours a day using cellular devices (Loechner, 2009). This raises questions as to the effect of radiofrequency radiation on human health; the National Toxicology Program (2009) is currently studying the effects of cell phone radiation as a possible cause of brain tumors and cancer, and due to report findings in 2014.

"The disposal and end-of-life management of cell phones and other electronic devices raise a host of health and environmental concerns. It was estimated that in 2007, 140.3 million cell phones were ready for end-of-life management (a figure that has increased 29.4% per year since 2000), but of these only 14 million cell phones (10%) were collected for recycling (EPA, 2008). While many unused cell phones are stored in a user’s home, many cell phones and other electronic waste (E-waste) are discarded in the household waste stream and eventually buried in municipal landfills. E-waste contains a host of hazardous substances that can leach into groundwater from landfills (Spalvins, Dubey, & Townsend, 2008). The results of standardized leaching procedures with cell phones found the elements Pb, Sb, Ni, Cu, and Cr in excess of Total Threshold Limit Concentrations (California Department of Toxic Substances Control, 2004). Similar concerns exist for plastic components which have been treated with flame retardants.

"But even if cell phones reach a recycler, there is a chance they may be illegally exported to another country where sometimes poor practices used to extract precious metals have lead to contamination of the air and water, and to workers breathing toxic materials. One study found 43 US electronics companies, some of which promoting their “exemplary environmental practices,” were willing to export broken cathode-ray tubes in apparent violation of the law (Stephenson, 2008, p. 2).

"Several of the toxins from E-waste may bioaccumulate in animal tissues (Zhang, et al., 2009). Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), one type of flame retardant, were found in the muscles and other tissues of hens foraging near an electronic waste stack in Taizhou, China, and “PBDE congeners were persistent enough to accumulate through the human food chain” (Shu-Xuan, et al., 2008). Air pollution also contains deadly toxins from E-waste, with levels of PBDEs in the air “58 – 691 times higher” at a Guiya, China, electronic waste recycling site where heating or burning E-waste released PBDEs from plastics that contained brominated flame retardants than at other urban sites (Deng, et al., 2007, Abstract). Ironically, many of those responsible for placing E-waste into this waste stream are unaware of these consequences."

References Cited

Blackshaw, P. (2009, November 2). A pocket guide to social media and kids. nielsenwire. Retrieved

California Department of Toxic Substances Control. (2004). E-waste Report: Determination of regulated elements in seven types of discarded consumer electronic products. Retrieved from

Deng, W., Zheng, J., Bi, X., Fu, J., & Wong, M. (2007). Distribution of PBDEs in air particles from an electronic waste recycling site compared with Guangzhou and Hong Kong, South China. Environment International, 33(8), 1063-1069. doi:10.1016/j.envint.2007.06.007.

Loechner, J. (2009, November). Like, totally wired. Research Brief from the Center for Media Research. MediaPostBLOGS. Retrieved from

National Toxicology Program. (2009). Cell phone radiofrequency radiation studies. Retrieved from

Nielsen Mobile. (2008, September). Call my cell: Wireless substitution in the United States. Retrieved from

Shu-Xuan, L., Qian, Z., Zhan-Fen, Q., Xing-Ru, Z., Zhong-Zhi, Y., & Xiao-Bai, X. (2008). Levels and distribution of polybrominated diphenylethers in various tissues of foraging hens from electronic waste recycling area in South China.  Environmental Toxicology & Chemistry, 27(6), 1279-1283 

Spalvins, E., Dubey, B., & Townsend, T. (2008). Impact of electronic waste disposal on lead concentrations in landfill leachate. Environmental Science & Technology, 42(19), 7452-7458.

Stephenson, J. (2008). Electronic waste: Harmful U.S. exports flow virtually unrestricted because of minimal EPA enforcement and narrow regulation. Washington, DC: US Government Accountability Office (GAO-08-1166T).  Retrieved from

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  (2008, July). Electronics waste management in the United States: Approach one. (EPA530-R-08-009). Retrieved from

Zhang, X., Yang, F., Luo, C., Wen, S., Zhang, X., & Xu, Y. (2009). Bioaccumulative characteristics of hexabromocyclododecanes in freshwater species from an electronic waste recycling area in China. Chemosphere, 76(11),1572-1578. DOI: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2009.05.031

But we need more information about the facts related to the impacts of cell phones, their towers, etc., on the environment and on both human health and our society. We are relying on your report to identify those facts.

The US Congress can take a variety of actions regarding this issue. We can enact legislation regulating  manufacturers' practices, transportation regulations, export laws, consumer education, laws concerning pollution and waste disposal, product labeling, educational initiatives, research grants programs, and much more. We regularly work with the US Federal Communications Commission, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Health and Human Services in the executive branch. However, before we act, we request the very best federal, legislative options from which we may choose spelled out in detail. These are difficult economic times, and the Congress must make difficult choices to maximize the impact of every dollar of federal spending. So for each of several alternative actions we might take, we would want to know the projected economic and non-economic costs and benefits several decades into the future.

A Senate Divided

Please be aware that not all members of our US Senate Committees are in agreement about this issue. In this case, we are not clearly split along party lines. Even among those who believe there to be a major problem here, the precise nature of that problem is open to debate. Is it the impact of cell towers on migrating species of wildlife, the radiation effects from cell phones on human brains, the toxic waste we export that contaminates the air, water, and land of those in other countries, the traffic mortalities and accidents caused by distracted driving facilitated by cell phones, the change in socialization habits for today's children, or the vulnerability of data?

Others on our committees have suggested that there is no problem requiring federal action, and where problems have been suggested, those at the state or local level, including manufacturers themselves, may be better positioned to take action. Some have suggested that it is an issue of parenting.


Please keep in mind the following requirements of our contract:

1. We expect your group's report to be a single, original HTML page, professionally prepared, with hyperlinks, illustrations, references in APA style, and many source citations when ideas and information from reputable authors are discussed. It must be free of copyright infringement and plagiarism, and it should make good use of previously collected data from reputable sources. Where the data is suspected of being biased, please deal with it appropriately.

2. In general, please following the overall approach of a technology assessment document as prepared by the US Office of Technology Assessment, except for the deviations noted in this award letter.

3. After a thorough executive summary of the document, please include a co-authored introductory chapter. Here, please provide a detailed explanation the data on the impacts of cell phone technology on either the environment or on human health and society, depending on your group. Provide trend information that might be available. Extrapolate this information to predict the impacts of Congress taking a "do nothing" option.

4. Next, please include several additional chapters (with each member of your team taking the lead authorship for a different chapter here, with the author's name beneath the chapter title). Each of these chapters should outline a different (alternative) policy option for action the US Congress can take to address this issue, and the implications of that option. Compare the option you outline to the "do nothing" option. Each chapter's author should use several technology assessment techniques, as appropriate. We are particularly concerned how the new policy option and its initiatives would:

  • change the risks posed to human health; and
  • change the rate of environmental degradation

along with how much it would cost over the implementation period.

The choice of technology assessment techniques is yours, and could include techniques such as economic cost-benefit analysis, risk assessment, trend line extrapolation, and scenarios, but it is essential that each of these chapters employ the most appropriate technology assessment methods, and make good use of the best literature in the field, with proper citation. Please provide a very clear description of the methodology used, referring to the literature.

When your final report is posted on the Internet, please send an Email to my representative, J. Flowers, indicating the location and authorship of this report. (Dr. Flowers also noted that each author would be sending him a reflection paper, whatever that means.)

(Note: This is a fictitious letter written for instructional purposes.)


Jeff Bingaman, Chair,
US Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources


Jeff Bingaman, photo from
Hon. Jeff Bingaman, Chair
US Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources
Image from


Tom Harkin, Chair,
Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions of the US Congress

Senator Tom Harkin,
Senator Tom Harkin
Image from:

References Cited

Federal Communications Commission. (2011). Proceeding 03-187. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

Rose, M. A., & Flowers, J. C. (2009). EnviroTech II: Enhancing environmental and technological literacy - An unpublished proposal to the Environmental Education Grants Program of the US Environmental Protection Agency, EPA-EE-10-02.

All information is subject to change without notification.
© Jim Flowers
Department of Technology, Ball State University