Jun 022011
 

It is possible I may have struck a slightly too gloating tone in my article about cell phones being bad for your health a couple of days ago, but as long time readers know, this has been a consistent theme of mine, alternating between references to studies that confirm there is indeed some linkage between cell phone usage and various ailments including cancer, and frustration at short sighted testing, often sponsored by companies with a vested interest in the research outcome.

On the other hand, the findings of a weeklong meeting of 31 scientists from 14 countries, convened by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and based on reviewing hundreds of studies, is a major step forward towards acceptance of the dangers caused by cell phones.  Read below for the report’s findings and six small changes you can make in your life to reduce your exposure to cell phone radiation.

Soon we’ll have to start waiting for ‘the other shoe to drop’.  Guess what – the Wi-fi router you have at home?  And all the Wi-fi devices that connect to it?  And the one at the office?  And the ones everywhere else?  They use more or less the same frequency of radiation as your cell phones (and as your microwave ovens).  The level of radio wave pollution that exists everywhere in our lives continues to escalate enormously, and just because we can’t see, touch, taste, smell or in any other way sense the radio frequency energy being soaked up by our bodies 24/7 doesn’t mean it isn’t there or possibly harmful.

Is it time to start wearing tinfoil helmets?  Quite seriously – maybe so.  We are dosing ourselves with slow acting radiation that may take 20 or 30 or even 40 or 50 years to make its results felt on us.  What’s that, you say?  In much less than 50 years time, you’ll be dead (and, alas, almost certainly me to).  Well, that may be so, but what about your children and grandchildren?  One thing studies do seem to agree on is that if there are any harmful impacts from radio waves, they are stronger in children than in adults.  Who among us doesn’t wish for more than 50 healthy years for our children and their children?

It is very hard to know if cancer rates in the world are increasing or decreasing, because some cancers are becoming more ‘common’ now simply because other causes of death are diminishing, and because people are living longer, allowing cancers that otherwise would not have been relevant to now have impact.  Still more cancers are being detected that earlier would not have been categorized as cancers.  On the other hand, more cancers are being cured or, if not cured, the lifespans of cancer sufferers are being extended so much that they die of other causes.

But mixed in with all the morass of cancer statistics is a sense shared by many that cancer is more prevalent today than it was formerly.  This is true of animals, too – most of my dogs ended up dying of cancer, and many (former) dog owners have confirmed cancer as the cause of their dogs’ deaths too.

It would be an extremely inappropriate step to try and correlate any one factor with the possible increase in cancer rates (even assuming that cancer rates are increasing), because any such increase may well be a result of many different and unrelated factors.

But think back to the history of radio waves, and – perhaps even more relevantly, the history of very high frequency (I don’t mean VHF, I mean 1 GHz and above) radio transmissions.  They are a surprisingly recent phenomenon.

Marconi first transmitted radio signals a mile in 1895 (a 1907 radio transmitter is pictured above), and Nikola Tesla was creating radio signals at least a couple of years before that.  These were very low frequency and low energy.

Radar waves first started to be placed in limited use in World War 2.  The first household use of high energy radio waves came with the advent of microwave ovens (although these are generally well shielded) in the early 1960s.

Cordless phones were probably the first household radio transmitting device.  Cordless phones first started appearing around 1980, and back then they were low frequency (around 1.7 MHz).  They became increasingly more common and used increasingly higher frequencies in the years that followed.  In 1994 they were licensed to use 900 MHz and in 1998 they were allowed to use 2.4 GHz.  In 2003 they were then given space in the 5.8GHz spectrum.

Wi-Fi started to be released from about 1999, with frequencies above 2GHz.

Cell phones themselves were initially in car devices, or in satchel bags you’d carry.  The first portable phones had short battery life and were not things we always had with us.  The Motorola MicroTac phone was the first ever flip phone that had pretensions to being able to fit in a pocket, and it was released, at a cost of some thousands of dollars, in 1989.  It operated at sub- 1GHz frequencies.

It is really only in the last 15 years that cell phones have become ubiquitous devices that every has with them, all the time, and turned on all the time, and only in the last ten or so years that they have started transmitting up in the 1.7GHz and higher frequency ranges.

More recently too – say the last 5 years or so – they have added extra transmitters and higher frequencies to support 3G, 3.5G and 4G data services as well as voice service.

My point is that until less than 50 years ago, high energy radio waves were very uncommon.  It is only in the last 20 years that cell phones have started to become increasingly common, and it is only in the last ten years that we’ve been adding many other sources of high energy radio energy into our lives as well.  It may still be too soon for the effects of all this new radiation we have introduced into our lives to take effect.

In the article I wrote, below, I regularly referred to our evolving appreciation of the dangers of cigarette smoking as an analogous situation.  There’s one more analogy that applies – the dangers of cigarette smoking were also masked by the resulting development of lung cancer being a long and slow process.  Some people can smoke for 30, 40, even 50 years and not get lung cancer.  Most people can surely smoke for 10 or more years without risking their lives.

 So now we are in the same process of just starting to get the amount of usage history needed to comprehend the possible dangers of high frequency radiation.

I hope I’m wrong and that there is no danger.  But it strikes me as hypocritical in the extreme that the various government agencies that are out there to protect us from all sorts of real and possibly imagined dangers set ridiculously low levels of exposure/tolerance to all sorts of other chemicals and require drug companies to go through sometimes a decade or more of testing before being allowed to introduce a new drug; but the now universal prevalence of cell phones and the radiation they emit has been allowed with nothing more than an FCC ‘maximum power’ restriction.

It is also totally counter-intuitive to think that this maximum power restriction means that while it is dangerous, even for relatively short periods, to use a device with more power than the federally limited maximum, it remains totally safe to use a device with 99% of the maximum power for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Maybe the very least the FCC could do is to publish not just a single maximum power rating, but a table showing a combination of maximum power and maximum hours per day of exposure.

But this is extremely unlikely to happen.  The most plausible reason why?  No-one would like the answers given!

  4 Responses to “More Thoughts on Radiation from Phones and Other Things”

  1. David – You keep using scary-sounding phrases like “slow acting radiation” as if there were evidence that radiofrequency electromagnetic fields in fact “act”. As far as I can tell there is none. Some, not all, studies have observed a possible correlation, nothing more. No causality, no explanation for the possible correlation whatsoever. So whether these fields are “slow” or “fast” acting may be immaterial.
    If, at a cellular level, something is being triggered, we do not know what it would be. And if that were the case, as others have pointed out, one would expect cancer cells to appear predominantly in one part of the brain, where the victim most often holds a phone. But that has not been observed in any of the studies.

  2. I do agree that there is a possibility that cell phone radiation could be a factor in causing certain types of cancer. The fact is we simply don’t know at this point in time.
    It is very easy to see an obvious coincidental occurrence and make an invalid conclusion from it. One such example was from the 70’s where a cancer cluster was identified in a housing development built under power lines. What else could be the cause? Look how big the towers are, it must be that causing the cancers, it is so obvious.
    With further study, similar developments built near power lines nearby and across the country did not have cancer rates outside of the average occurrence rates. It was later discovered that an unknown toxic waste dump was leaching highly carcinogenic compounds into the water table under the development and this was causing the cancers.
    No evidence has been discovered that links radiation from power lines to cancer. However the urban myth continues to this day.
    It is true that some cell phone users have developed brain cancers. The most obvious culprit to be easily blamed is the cell phone despite no factual evidence that this is in fact the case. I suspect that these cancers were caused by other environmental factors that have not yet been identified.
    The obvious suspect is not always the guilty party.

  3. Fred – actually, there have been studies showing cancerous growths predominantly occurring on the side of the head where the person holds their phone.
    Sorry, can’t cite any, but trust me on this, please. I remember reading about it a year or more ago; maybe I even mentioned it in a newsletter back whenever, too.
    But with many hundreds of studies out there, which of us is sufficiently motivated to read through them all to confirm this! 🙂

  4. David – You’re right that there have been some findings which supposedly point to tumors on the side of the head favored for phone use. But these studies have been queried, if not discounted, on grounds of reporting bias. See: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19581357.
    The problem, as Geoff suggests, is that studies that rely on victim self-reporting can be highly misleading. People come to their own conclusions and then filter out any conflicting evidence.
    But the real issue here is that at least two of the types of brain tumor of interest can take decades to develop. It is simply not possible to know what the risks are. Maybe it will emerge that there aren’t any.
    Or maybe there are, but at levels society is willing to accept — as with alcohol, which is in WHO’s Group 1 list of substances known to cause cancer.
    A very good summary of the whole issue can be found at Cancer Research UK’s website here: http://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2011/05/31/who-verdict-on-mobile-phones-and-cancer/.

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