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Saturday, January 2, 2010

Can you hear me now?

Here's a kick that I've been on for nearly a decade now: It's time to have a discussion about what is known, and what isn't known, about the safety of cell phone radiation. No study has ever proven a link between cell phone use (and proximity to cell antennas) and health problems, but no study has ever disproven it, either. Indeed, we are the study. You're holding right next to your head a device that is powerful enough to send and receive signals from a tower miles away. Does that do anything to your brain? Our grandchildren will know; we don't.

Comments (28)

We had a student from Korea live with us last spring for a month. As one of the appreciation gifts that students bring for their host families, she slapped little metallic stickers on the backs of our cell phones, claiming that they would help to reduce the emissions coming from our phones. Sounds a bit phony to me, but somebody over in Korea is aware of the potential concerns and is either adressing it or capitalizing on it.

Don't mean to stir this pot too much but my wife's brain tumor (successfully removed) was directly above her right ear. That's where she holds her cell phone. At diagnosis, I asked her doctor if this might be caused by cell phone usage. His answer was "we just don't know".

How do you prove a negative?

What are your concerns about cell phones? I think they are hazardous for a number of reasons:

First, they significantly increase the chances of death and injury due to inattention while driving and slowed reaction times. Study after study has showed that they are not, as apologists like to pretend, "no different than kids in the car or eating or the radio" -- they are significantly different, and dangerously so. Hands free or not.

Second, they even increase hazards to pedestrian users, who are more likely not to observe hazards and obstacles in their path while talking on cell phones.

As far as hazard from the device, there's simply no evidence for any problem --- the radiation a phone emits is too weak to break DNA bonds (the mechanism by which radiation prompts mutations and cancers); you get far more ionizing radiation exposure from being out in the sun than you do from your cellphone.

The huge global surge in cellphone use has not been accompanied by any detectable increases in brain cancers.

On a lighter note, here's a traffic sign from Maine that we could use here!


Shortly before Christmas, upon entering Bridgeport Village, I was confronted by a young woman in an SUV, with a cigarette going in her left hand while she laughed and chatted away into the cell phone she was holding in her right hand. And yes, she was "driving"!

I'm glad we finally have a restriction on cell phone use in cars.

One thing I do wonder about: if you get snapped by a photoradar unit and the image shows you holding a cell phone, do you get two tickets?

The huge global surge in cellphone use has not been accompanied by any detectable increases in brain cancers.

Really? Can you cite any study that has found this?

the radiation a phone emits is too weak to break DNA bonds (the mechanism by which radiation prompts mutations and cancers)

That sounds really authoritative, but alas, the causes of cancer are not completely understood.

Bob Park, former president of the American Physical Union (the physicists' society) has a long series of pieces on cell phones and power line EMF scares at his site bobpark.org. It seems to be down right now, as he is switching servers -- I tried to go there and find a good link before when I posted that, but it was not connecting. Dig around a little there when it's up and you'll find the references.

As for "causes of cancer" not being understood, it's true that cancer is not a single disease and that what we laypeople collectively group as "cancer" are really many things with their own etiologies.

However, in this case, we don't need to worry about all the possible ways that different kinds of cells can become pathological -- we can narrow our concerns down to cell phones. And there's nothing in the cell phones to cause alarm from a cancer perspective, presuming that you don't ingest the electronics.

Bob's site is up -- an archive search on "cell phones" returns 25 results, including this one from 06:


A study in the current issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found no increased cancer risk from cell phone use over a 20 year period. This is an update of a Danish study in JNCI five years ago. The Danes keep good records. By just going to the computer they could compare cell phone use with the National Cancer Registry. I was invited to write an editorial in the same issue, JNCI, Vol 93, p.166 (Feb 7, 2001). I noted that cancer agents act by breaking chemical bonds, creating mutant strands of DNA. Microwave photons, however, aren't energetic enough to break a bond. Predictably, fear mongers said there must be an induction period. Still waiting. In 1993, a man whose wife died of brain cancer was a guest on Larry King Live. Her cancer, he said, was caused by a cell phone. The evidence? "She held it against her head and talked on it all the time."

the radiation a phone emits is too weak to break DNA bonds

Cell phones don't even emit ionizing radiation. They emit very low-powered and diffuse microwaves (1-2 watts, compare to microwave oven @ 300+ watts and much more concentrated) on the complete opposite end of the EM spectrum (IOW, if microwaves posed IR hazard, visible light would kill you where you stand). There is no way they can directly create cancerous cells. Microwaves with enough power can induce dielectric heating (basically oscillations of water molecules) as in a microwave oven, but cell phones don't produce anywhere near the power to do this.

It sounds like it will be the breast implant story of the '10s.

We just need a couple of Oprah shows and court cases with easy juries, then we can totally disregard any scientific evidence or lack of links.

It's all the lawyers' fault. Corporate America cares about you, the consumer.

I hope the cell phone scare continues. I have a girlfriend who loves nothing better than yakking on the phone. I tell her I can't talk to her for very long because of the potential risk of brain tumors from cell phone microwaves.

They make you snarky, too.

So I was thinking in the shower that, by the time other kinds of radiation (specifically, x-rays) had been around as long as we've had cell phones, levels of harmful exposure were well characterized. Then I remembered: in the little hole-in-the-wall Nordstrom's shoe store on SW Morrison next to Greve's, there was a fluoroscope for checking shoe fit. I used it more than once when I was a kid.

Takes me back to the days of audiometer testing in grade school!

Subjects like this just show how many people are just don't understand science, studies or much for that matter.

Here's one recent citation and there are about a billion others:
Journal of the National Cancer Institute (2009, December 4). No change in brain tumor incidence during a time when cell phone usage increased.

No connection people. That's not even to mention that they are not even powerful enough to cause the type of damage people are claiming.

Thanks for enlightening us from your all-knowing position. I think the point is that most reputable scientists will tell you that more study needs to be done before the safety of these devices is conclusively proven. And there could be other health effects besides brain tumors.

"Corporate America cares about you, the consumer."

I have no problem with lawyers going after businesses for fraud, negligence and provable items. Right now, no one has proven a link to cell phones, even though my gut tells me there probably is some link.

My issue is when I see an ex-Playmate telling everyone to not get vaccinations because they cause autism. Then if we hit the right talk shows, junk scinece becomes gospel.


While I don't disagree with you that there might be a problem, I think you're overlooking the fact that those cell phone emissions are all around you all the time, not just when you're holding it up to your ear. As are radio, TV and a host of other frequencies.

Hope you got a bluetooth device for Xmas, so you can stop worrying!

Proximity to the radiation source is crucial in determining risk. Just ask the people who work on cell towers -- when those babies are going full blast, you don't get right up next to them for long. I think the safety limit is no more than a minute or two.

It's not proximity per se, it's intensity of exposure, which is a function of emitter strength and distance both.

Exposure drops off as the square of the distance from the emitter (double the distance and the intensity drops to 1/4 the prior dose). So, being a quarter-inch from a nothing (a cell phone) is not a problem, whereas a short exposure at close range from a cell tower might well change some things in your life expectancy and your family tree.

a nothing (a cell phone)

Cell phones emit radiation. If they didn't, they wouldn't work.

"Hope you got a bluetooth device"

Hate to say this, but BLuetooth emits RF also. Just use the speakerphone function.

Unless you are afraid of the word "radiation," there's nothing to be concerned about from the low-energy (low frequency) radiation emitted from a cell phone. You get a far more significant biological effect from the bananas your wife eats from the decay of the potassium-40 in her system as you sleep in the same bed.

It's certainly good to be skeptical of things pushed by corporations, but there comes a point where concern about non-hazards only serves to distract from real matters of concern.

And this is not from someone invested in or interested in apologizing for cell phones -- I have never had one and, with luck, I'll go out without ever having one. As I tried to note, there are definitely huge real-world dangers from cell phones, up to and including deaths. But they don't arise from invisible rays that the phones emit.

Thank you for the repetition of your views. But more study needs to be done, and in the meantime, people should be cautious with the use of their cell phones.

"there's nothing to be concerned about from the low-energy (low frequency) radiation emitted from a cell phone."

Except for one thing, as you mentioned above point source distance changes the power geometrically (i.e. move it 2x away and power is 1/4.)

I'm really hard-pressed to believe a 2.7GHz transmitter within a inch of your head doesn't have some effect.

The City of Portland, led by Commissioner Amanda Fritz, recently called upon the FCC to update its data and guidelines on cell phone radiation safety.

Full Signal is a documentary about health and wireless technology.
Respect PDX and Oregon Center for Environmental Health are sponsoring a showing of the film FULL SIGNAL, Feb 21 4pm at the Hollywood Theater. I urge all concerned or even skeptical about the connection between cellular technology and health to attend.

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