If you buy a cell phone with the lowest Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) you’re getting two things: a cell phone with low range and an illusion of safety. SAR is not an indicator of safety, it’s an indicator of range.
Cell phones can be dangerous for several reasons, but they cannot cause cancer.
The search for a cure of cancer goes on, but the search for a cause ended long ago. Cancer is caused by mutations of genes called Proto-oncogenes that perform DNA repair. Genetic mutation is caused by ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation is the nasty stuff that knocks electrons off of atoms and changes the chemical structure of cell components. Ultraviolet rays can cause skin cancer; X-rays cause cancer; gamma rays are like super hard x-rays, you get a lot of them in nuclear explosions – best to avoid that. Cell phones, on the other hand, do not emit ionizing radiation.
In 1905 Albert Einstein discovered something fascinating about electromagnetic radiation. It’s called the photo-electric effect. What he saw was that, no matter how high the power, it is impossible for radiation whose wavelength can’t resolve a thing to kick it around. He discovered that electromagnetic radiation comes in packets called photons. If the wavelength is small enough that the packet is localized relative to the target, then the photon can kick it. This is why x-rays, with wavelengths of nanometers – much smaller than cells – can wreak havoc. It’s the wavelength or, equivalently, the frequency of the radiation that determines how much punch a given photon can exert. SAR is a measure of power, not frequency or wavelength.
A more empirical take: In the last two decades over 4 billion people have used cell phones. Prior to that, the number was a factor of thousands lower. If cell phones caused cancer there would be an observable upsurge in cancer rates. There isn’t. Of course science doesn’t attempt to prove negatives; when a phenomenon is not observed, the scientific result is a statement of the maximum probability that the phenomenon could be happening and still not be observed given the size of the data set. For example, if I flip a coin a thousand times and it comes up heads every time, I don’t report that the coin has no tail side, I report that there is less than a 1 in trillion-trillion chance that it’s a normal coin. You’d probably conclude that it’s a two headed coin, but if it were more complicated, the fact that the science doesn’t exclude the possibility might seem “inconclusive” and you might think there’s a chance.
Cell phones connect with base stations by absorbing and emitting electromagnetic radiation that has wavelengths of inches. These wavelengths cannot resolve cells, much less stuff like genes that are housed inside them. Here’s how it works. Pretend you’re a skin cell in my ear lobe (don’t worry, I swabbed). Cell phone radiation exerts an electric field that switches direction every nanosecond or so. Since the time scale of biological systems is milliseconds, the field averages to zero.
But hold on a second. There are possibilities that are worth examining. Some wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation resonate with different chemical structures. This is how microwave ovens work – they transmit radiation at a frequency tuned to the frequency that rotates water molecules and, consequently heats them.. The frequencies where resonances occur are very narrow and it’s possible that certain frequencies could cause undesirable consequences.
Dissemination of information is a key component to the success of market based economies. SAR is interesting information for consumers but should be accompanied by the emitted frequency spectrum, the relationship between distance to the base station and power emitted, and whether you can shut it off without it beeping.
The problem with technical ignorance is not consumer overreaction, it’s that the field is set for, at worst, charlatans and, at best, ill-informed, well meaning people who look in the wrong direction for dangers.
The bogus science industry is pushing Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) as hard as possible to make some cash. William Thomas says, “Most kids brought up using cell phones will be functionally senile by the time they are 30.” Nothing like a little FUD to crank up sales.
The real dangers of cell phones are that people who use them while driving cause accidents. They have batteries which carry quite a charge. If a battery shorts out, the shock of discharge could burn you or start a fire. They also have nasty chemicals.
(You are welcome to republish the text of this article, but not the images, without needing further permission, provided that you attribute the work to its author, Ransom Stephens, Ph.D. Other than a three day course on jitter that he taught to Nokia engineers in 2006, Ransom has never been paid a cent by the cell phone industry. The salmon soup in Finland is wonderful.
Ransom’s biggest problem with cell phones is that people yell rather than speak into them. Cell phones have amazing noise cancellation technology, we don’t need to scream at them.
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