Attack of the killer cell phones, Part 2

Whether or not they cause cancer, cell phones certainly cause a lot of discussion

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.

About the Author

Greg Crowe is a former GCN staff writer who covered mobile technology.

Reader Comments

Fri, Feb 25, 2011

I am a health physicist. Among other things, I evaluate the hazards of non-ionizing and ionizing radiation. I just wanted to address a single item you mention. You said, with respect to the Alzheimer study, "(which makes me wonder how researchers can tell if a mouse has Alzheimer’s — they keep forgetting where they hid their cheese?)" Just so you know, you're more right than you know. That's just about exactly what they evaluate. Mice are given tasks, both novel and repetitive, which reliably result in getting rewards, such as cheese. Mice who have Alzheimers exhibit long-term and short-term memory symptoms like not being able to repeat tasks the control mice can reasonably perform, and "remember" tasks that used to work but no longer, much like an old person who distinctly remembers a friend from their own childhood, but doesn't recognize their own adult child, or sees their grandchild and assumes it's the child, that it is now perhaps 30 or 40 years ago, and for example Kennedy or Johnson is President.

Thu, Mar 11, 2010 T VA

To the gentleman in the first post that needed a pacemaker, that was a coincidence. A digital cell phone puts out ~1/4 watt of power, which is why the battery is so much smaller and last longer than the huge analog phones which put out ~3 watts of power. In those terms, think about people that work around radio broadcast towers that are measured in the megawatt range, and work with no problems for years on end. By comparison, the 1/4 watt ouput of your phone was just a coincidence that you needed a pacemaker. I can understand your train of thought, but I can't see how that would cause a problem in that short amount of time when measured against the rest of the information above. I have no doubt that there is a health risk of some sort from using a cell phone, but compared to the other threats like people driving and talking/texting are a your biggest health threat. I was on the rescue squad for 12 years, before cell phones were a big deal, and so many accidents were caused by someone taking their eyes off the road for "just a moment". Distracted driving from cell phone use will kill more people than tumors in my opinion. I wish they would ban driver cell phone use while a car is in motion. I read somewhere that driving and talking on a cell phone/distracted driving is as big a threat as someone driving drunk. Would you want your family on the road around a drunk driver? No. Would you want to threaten other peoples and families lives by driving drunk? No. They why do people drive and use cell phones?

Wed, Mar 3, 2010 JZ NYC

It's old news about the Amish's 'secret affair' with the mobile phone. See this 1999 piece in Wired by Howard Rheingold:

Mon, Mar 1, 2010

Is there any information on cell phone use and the affect on the heart? I bought a new cell phone 3 years ago and carried it in my shirt pocket. A few months later, I needed a pacemaker. The battery was larger than most.

Sat, Feb 27, 2010

Although the tumor risk will turn out to be a huge public health problem (be sure to read Lloyd Morgan's assessment), the way microwaves cause breaches in the blood brain barrier will effect even more people. Salford 2003 demonstrated this effect (first described by Frey) very clearly. When the blood-brain barrier is opened, glutamate, which triggers neurons, can get into the brain every time you eat MSG or peas or corn or tomatoes or soy sauce or cheese or grapes or...

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