Oh man! It’s hard to be a science-based skeptic when even the scientists are hitting the panic button. This week, the alarm bells are ringing for cell phone risks to human health; specifically, the dangers of electromagnetic radiofrequencies (RF) on the brains of children.
The director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, issued a precautionary warning to faculty and staff about the potential harm caused by cell phones. Though he described the evidence as “controversial”, he believes that there is sufficient data to indicate that people take appropriate precautions with cell phone use, especially children. He is basing his opinion on preliminary unpublished data from the 13-country “Interphone Study“, which has had a publishing delay of two years. Other bloggers have suggested, and I agree, that Dr. Herberman’s alarmist memo was highly irresponsible given the number of studies showing no harm from cell phones, but it gives me a good chance to dive head-first into the topic…
As I’ve said before, cell phones emit radiation at frequencies that are much lower than is known to heat tissue or cause cancer. The differences in radiation frequencies can be seen in the electromagnetic spectrum itself, from powerful gamma rays on one side to visible light waves in the middle, and radio waves on the other end. Each frequency has different uses, different effects, and completely different levels of potential harm. For instance, cell phones are required to be on a non-ionizing radiofrequency, which are specifically chosen because they are too low to cause cancer or do the type of damage typical of higher frequencies such as those in microwave ovens and nuclear material.
The big question is whether the lower radiofrequencies can cause biological problems like wandering neurons in the brain. Some studies have shown a biological effect, but efforts to replicate the effect have been inconsistent. The brain is a complex electrical computer and holding up any radiation to the delicate network of neurons can potentially do some damage in the long run, but the science is still out. We’re in a holding pattern until the infancy of cell phone use ages a few more decades. Of course, by then, it may be too late…
As you can see on the graph model ^ above from the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute’s warning, the amount of cell phone radiation entering a child’s brain may be significant. This is speculative because it is generally thought that a child’s skull may not be a thick enough EM shield; also, the small developing brain has softer tissue, which make it hard to absorb the radiation. I think parents would be well served to eliminate cell phone use for their young children. Ultimately, a child’s safety and brain development must take precedence over the slow process of scientific research.
The actual studies on cell phone risk are mixed according to skeptic neurologist Dr. Novella, the FCC and the FDA; the dividing line between a correlation of harm and no harm seems to be duration of use. Studies on cell phone users of a duration less than 10 years have shown a trend toward a negative correlation of harm. On the other hand, studies of cell phone users for a duration longer than 10 years has shown a positive trend. This would indicate that cell phone dangers take a while to manifest, as described by Dr. Vini Khurana. Either way, the data is preliminary and very little can be interpreted from it. One thing can be said for sure, we are not seeing the flurry of brain tumors that one would expect from something as ubiquitous as cell phone use. However, the incidences of brain cancer might change in 35 years when the radiation from mobile phones has had time to accumulate. The good news is that the early data doesn’t suggest a strong connection.
I think it might be nice to reprint the advice given by UPCI director Ronald Herberman in the controversial memo. It certainly can’t do any harm to change a few cell phone habits, such as one’s I’m guilty of like letting the kids have casual conversations with the grandparents. Anyway, here you go…
- Do not allow children to use a cell phone, except for emergencies. The developing organs of a fetus or child are the most likely to be sensitive to any possible effects of exposure to electromagnetic fields.
- While communicating using your cell phone, try to keep the cell phone away from the body as much as possible. The amplitude of the electromagnetic field is one fourth the strength at a distance of two inches and fifty times lower at three feet. Whenever possible, use the speaker-phone mode or a wireless Bluetooth headset, which has less than 1/100th of the electromagnetic emission of a normal cell phone. Use of a hands-free ear piece attachment may also reduce exposures.
- Avoid using your cell phone in places, like a bus, where you can passively expose others to your phone’s electromagnetic fields.
- Avoid carrying your cell phone on your body at all times. Do not keep it near your body at night such as under the pillow or on a bedside table, particularly if pregnant. You can also put it on “flight” or “off-line” mode, which stops electromagnetic emissions.
- If you must carry your cell phone on you, make sure that the keypad is positioned toward your body and the back is positioned toward the outside so that the transmitted electromagnetic fields move away from your rather than through you.
- Only use your cell phone to establish contact or for conversations lasting a few minutes, as the biological effects are directly related to the duration of exposure.
For longer conversations, use a land line with a corded phone, not a cordless phone, which uses electromagnetic emitting technology similar to that of cell phones.
- Switch sides regularly while communicating on your cell phone to spread out your exposure. Before putting your cell phone to the ear, wait until your correspondent has picked up. This limits the power of the electromagnetic field emitted near your ear and the duration of your exposure.
- Avoid using your cell phone when the signal is weak or when moving at high speed, such as in a car or train, as this automatically increases power to a maximum as the phone repeatedly attempts to connect to a new relay antenna.
- When possible, communicate via text messaging rather than making a call, limiting the duration of exposure and the proximity to the body.
- Choose a device with the lowest SAR possible (SAR = Specific Absorption Rate, which is a measure of the strength of the magnetic field absorbed by the body). SAR ratings of contemporary phones by different manufacturers are available by searching for “sar ratings cell phones” on the internet.