Attack of the killer cell phones, Part 2

GCN Lab’s Greg Crowe responds to reader comments about cell phone health risks.

Apparently my Impressions piece about the health risks of cell phones has sparked quite a few responses. I’d like to take this opportunity to respond to some of the comments and perhaps shed some more light on the debate.

First, to those few who did not appreciate my reference to “Amish Luddites,” I merely meant that the Amish, fine people that they are, probably didn’t use cell phones, not that they are completely ignorant of technology as some of you inferred. Second, note that I used the term “Amish Luddite,” which was entirely fabricated by me. Given that the Luddites were part of a political movement in England in the early 19th century (who smashed automated looms in protest of lost jobs), and the Amish and Mennonites had already emigrated to what became the Mid-Atlantic area of the U.S. from Switzerland and Germany a century before, I figured the odds of there being any people belonging to both groups to be approaching zero. Besides, the Luddites advocated certain forms of violence and the Amish tend to frown on that sort of thing. So, in my mind I was making light of people who didn’t really exist. Sometimes I am far too clever for my own good.

Original story: Is your cell phone trying to kill you?

Now, on to the actual cell phone-related comments. Some of you were kind enough to point out links to additional studies. I will address a few of them now.

Some of you made reference to a new study that indicates that increased exposure to electromagnetic fields, such as cell phone use, may actually provide certain cognitive benefits and could even help sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease. On Page 191 of the January 2010 issue of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease  are the results of the study. From the abstract I can see that they used mice that had Alzheimer’s (which makes me wonder how researchers can tell if a mouse has Alzheimer’s — they keep forgetting where they hid their cheese?) and found the reduction of restrictive brain activity, so EMF exposure might help the mice’s memory. They suggest extreme caution in extrapolating this mouse study to humans, though. Any definite conclusion on this front is a few years down the pipe.

The BioInitiative Report was published in 2007. In it researchers delineate between two types of EMF: the low-frequency ones that come from pretty much anything using electricity, and radio-frequency radiation, which comes from wireless devices such as cell phones. They cite studies by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organization) and conclude that a raised low-frequency exposure increases the risk of leukemia in children, while increased exposure to RF radiation increases the risk of brain tumors. They cover other things such as risks of breast cancer and nervous disorders; it’s quite a bone-chilling read.

Other organizations have cited the IARC, but the IARC’s own Web site says that studies on this subject are ongoing, and so far are not conclusive.

So it looks like we might be back were we started. We may never truly know the risks posed by RF radiation from cell phones over background EMF radiation, simply because the background radiation is impossible to control. For an effective study, we might need to isolate subjects in an environment that is totally electromagnetically shielded. Then we would give them a cell phone to use at certain intervals — but, of course they can’t call anyone, because they are in a shielded room. They wouldn’t be allowed any other electrical devices, because that would interfere with the study. And they’d have to be in there for at least five to 10 years or more, in order to get a good, long-term study out of it. So, any volunteers? Of course, they should be able to get a decently effective control without having to go to those extremes, but I think I might have just come up with a premise for a decent science fiction short story.

On a more serious note, many of you have shared anecdotal experiences involving yourselves or loved ones and cancer. I can only say I am sorry for your losses.

Some have asked if Bluetooth earpieces might reduce whatever risk we might face. Since these devices emit a longer frequency and use significantly less power, common sense would lead us to the conclusion that their use poses less risk. A headphone attachment plugged into the cell phone would be less risky. Of course, as more than one commenter pointed out, using the speaker or a speakerphone attachment would put you at even less risk.

And a few of you have said how liberating it is to be finally free of your cell phone, once you work through the shakes. It may not seem possible to most of us, but there are people out there who have proved it can be done. “Better safe than sorry” may be the way to go here.

And I think we can all agree that the greatest risk to life from cell phone usage is when they are used by people while they are driving. It really is just a bad idea, so stop it.