A look back at the infamous cow-head article. I wrote this because, at the time, I was getting tired of being asked about whether or not cell phones caused cancer. Interestingly, no one asks that anymore. I think people finally realized that the handset-induced car accidents were far more dangerous.
by Gregory D. Durgin, 14 May 2001
The word radiation can strike fear into the hearts of the most valiant people. After all, we live in the post-atomic age and have witnessed the ill effects of atomic bombs and reactor mishaps.
Nuclear radiation. Ultra-Violet radiation. X-ray radiation. Each of these creates an image of shattered DNA strands in our minds and the dreaded C-word. Cancer, as a disease, is still the bane of 21st century medicine.
So when an engineer mentions cellular handset radiation, it’s no wonder people get a little edgy. After all, cell phones give off radiation when they communicate, right? The key question: can a handset cause cancer?
To be fair, we need to acknowledge that there are many types of radiation that are not considered carcinogenic. Light bulbs, oven range tops, and televisions all give off radiation and no one seems to mind. In fact, long ago we learned that everything around us is constantly giving off some form of black body radiation. Unless the temperature is absolute zero, matter just can’t help itself but radiate. So what distinguishes carcinogenic radiation from plain old run-of-the-mill radiation?
The Amount of Radiation
The first part of the problem is the amount of energy absorbed. This is a two-part question. First we need to calculate the power level of the radiation and then we need to calculate the duration of use. The total energy absorbed is equal to the power level multiplied by the duration of use.
The typical handset radiates less than 1 Watt of power. If that does not mean anything to you, compare this to a 100 Watt light bulb. According to the standard units of measurement, this light bulb radiates more than 100 times the power of the strongest handset. And only a fraction of this wireless power is absorbed by the human body. So the amount of power is relatively small.
Duration is a bit tricky to estimate because it depends solely on the phone habits of the end user. Sure, a wireless handset may radiate a lot less than a tanning bed – but teenage girls don’t talk on the tanning bed for 3 hours a day, either. Still, even perpetual use of a cell phone does not match the amount of solar radiation absorbed during a 10-minute stroll through the park on a sunny day.
The Type of Radiation
Far more important than the amount of radiated energy is the type of radiation. To understand why this is so important, it helps to understand the chemistry of brain tumor creation.
A malignant tumor is a cluster of abnormal cells that are growing out-of-control, disrupting the normal operation of nearby healthy tissue. Regardless of how big a tumor has become, all tumors begin as one bad cell. This bad cell used to be a perfectly normal cell until a piece of its genetic material – a DNA molecule – underwent an unplanned chemical reaction that altered its chemical sequence. A single strand of DNA consists of millions and millions of chemical sequences, so there’s plenty of opportunity to screw something up.
If a type of radiation causes cancer, then the radiation must be capable of causing chemical reactions in DNA molecules. This is why the type of radiation is so important. Only certain types of radiation are capable of causing chemical reactions, and hence, a cancer cell.
The Photons of Radiation
Wireless handset radiation is a type of electromagnetic (EM) radiation. Only high-frequency EM radiation can cause chemical reactions. The reason for this is a famous result from quantum mechanics called Planck’s law.
Max Planck, an early 20th century physicist, stated that all EM energy is absorbed by matter in discrete, uniform packets called photons. These energy chunks do not depend at all on the power level of radiation. Rather, it is the frequency of the radiation that determines the size of the chunks.
To put it another way, every time EM radiation imparts energy to a molecule, it gives the molecule a “kick”. The size of the “kick” increases as the frequency of EM radiation increases. Only a powerful “kick” can cause a chemical reaction. Thus, only a extremely high-frequency EM radiation is capable of causing a chemical reaction in DNA.
Ultra-violet (UV) light is a good example of high-frequency, carcinogenicEM radiation. Renown for causing skin cancer in large, sustained dosages, UV light is higher in frequency than visible light, having a minimum frequency of 1015 Hz. That’s 1 million billion Hz.
Compare that to wireless handset radiation, which has a frequency of about 109 Hz. This frequency is 1 million times smaller than the carcinogenic UV light. Wireless handset radiation consists of photons with very weak “kicks”.
Wireless photons are not nearly strong enough to break a chemical bond. Instead, the “kick” of a wireless photon can only cause a weak vibration or rotation in a molecule. In the macroscopic world, this translates into a gentle heating of a material.
In fact, it’s no coincidence that these same wireless EM frequencies are used by microwave ovens to cook food. Although the power level is much, much higher than a wireless handset, the microwave packs a very weak kick at the photonic level. After all, the object of cooking is to warm food – not to incinerate it.
The Brain Factor
Cancer is out of the question. But that’s not to say there is no concern about other medical risks. Some people are still hesitant about cell phone use because that handset goes right next to the head. If the radiation were being absorbed by the chest or leg or stomach we probably wouldn’t think twice. But the brain – now that’s an important organ.
Any discovery of handset danger will likely come from a very indirect link between the effects of brain warming. For example, the power absorbed from extended handset use cannot cause cancer, but may slightly warm the brain. If the average brain temperature increases by a fraction of a degree for an extended period of time, could there be a subtle and long-term change in brain function? There’s no conclusive medical evidence for malignant effects of brain warming, but that’s not to say it doesn’t exist.
The average person probably doesn’t need to do anything for protection. Commence cell phone use.
If there is an “at-risk” group of cell phone users, it is the group of professionals that require near-constant use of the cell phone throughout the day. To minimize any potential risk, manufacturers sell a simple earpiece/microphone set that plugs into a cellular handset. The handset can be used in the breast pocket of a shirt instead of right by the head. This has the added benefit of freeing up a pair of hands.
And always keep in mind this fact: a cell phone is most dangerous when it is being used by the driver of a car. The medical problems resulting from this action are much, much, much more dangerous and common that any long-term radiation risk.