Today we’re going to pick up virtually any consumer magazine or open any Internet news web site and read about a frightening new threat: That radiation from cell phones is dangerous, perhaps causing brain tumors or other cancers, maybe even cooking your brain like an egg or like popcorn. Most people have no knowledge of science other than what they hear on the news, so we have a whole population growing up with this understanding. Is the fear justified? Do cell phones have the potential to cause physical harm, or are they completely safe? Or, like so many other questions, is the truth somewhere in the middle?
Let’s take a closer look at exactly what kind of threat is being reported. A recent article on CNN.com quotes Dr. Debra Davis, Director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Environmental Oncology, saying that “You’re just roasting your bone marrow” and asking “Do you really want to play Russian roulette with your head?” The article goes on to give five recommendations for limiting your exposure to cell phone radiation: Using a headset, using the speakerphone, getting a different phone, and so on. CNN followed up with another article with more quotes from Dr. Davis, this time saying that children are especially at risk because their brains are still developing, so they should be allowed to use cell phones in emergencies only.
As the director of an oncology center, she must have all kinds of experience treating cancer patients, and since she’s going on CNN to talk about cell phone risks she must have a lot of experience dealing with cancer caused by cell phones. Right? Well, you’d think, but apparently CNN is not quite that particular about their guests. Dr. Davis’ Ph.D. is in “science studies”, whatever that is, and she is neither a medical doctor nor does she have any specialization in physical sciences like radiation. Now, I’m not trying to disrespect Dr. Davis — she has a fine background loaded with experience and all sorts of publications and accolades in her field — but I do want to draw attention to the fact that when CNN brings a doctor onto television to talk about a health problem, you shouldn’t take anything for granted. You’re the one who assumed that she treats cancer patients and has seen harmful effects from cell phone radiation. The fact is that the only danger Dr. Davis actually cited was that “since cell phones have only been in widespread use for 10 years or so, the long-term effects of their radiation waves on the brain has yet to be determined.” Neither she, nor CNN, cited a single case of harm being caused by a cell phone, nor did they present any theoretical arguments indicating any plausible danger.
Dr. Davis is also dramatically wrong on one very significant point: That there has not yet been time for long-term studies to have been conducted, or that the question of cell phones and cancer is otherwise inadequately studied. In fact, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute published the results of a massive study in Denmark that followed the cancer histories of 420,000 cell phone users over 13 years. You’d think that someone in Dr. Davis’ position would know about that, or at least take the slightest trouble to search for studies before going on CNN to proclaim that no such studies exist. The study’s main interest was to search for increased incidences of brain or nervous system cancers, salivary gland cancer, and leukemia. The study concluded:
Risk for these cancers … did not vary by duration of cellular telephone use, time since first subscription, age at first subscription, or type of cellular telephone (analogue or digital). Analysis of brain and nervous system tumors showed no statistically significant [standardized incidence ratios] for any subtype or anatomic location. The results of this investigation … do not support the hypothesis of an association between use of these telephones and tumors of the brain or salivary gland, leukemia, or other cancers.
The lack of any connection is not surprising, given that no plausible hypothesis exists for how a cell phone could cause tissue damage. RF below the visible spectrum, which includes the frequencies used by cell phones and all radio devices, is not ionizing radiation and so has no potential to damage living cells or break any chemical bonds. Microwave ovens, which operate just above cell phones on the frequency scale, work by oscillating such an extremely powerful field back and forth, causing the water molecules to rub against each other and create heat by friction. Cell phone signals are three orders of magnitude weaker, too weak to move the water molecules, and do not oscillate to cause friction. Scratch the heat hypothesis, scratch the ionizing radiation hypothesis, and there are no plausible alternatives. Of course it’s not possible to prove that there is no potential for harm, but all sources of harm known or theorized to date are clearly excluded.
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