An epidemic of personal communication devices is upon us, bringing very private conversations into very public places. Children are checking in with parents, teenagers are hanging out with invisible friends, couples are breaking up, and mega-multitasking is going on in the grocery store, theater lobby, during the commute, or anywhere it’s humanly possible to hold a phone or wear a headset.
The rapid spread of wireless (cellular) communication is understandable. A contraption that converts spoken word into invisible energy traveling the speed of light, which can have its own conversations with computers, has almost limitless potential, not only for average citizens but for emergency and rescue services, medical facilities, governing agencies, corporations, information-gathering institutions, “intelligence” agencies, and a host of other entities that now rely on wireless communication.
It all seems to work like magic. Cell phones and other personal communication devices do, in fact, rely on something rather like magic. The trick is radiofrequency (rf) radiation, which nowadays blankets every city and suburb with an invisible but increasingly dense haze. rf radiation is a type of electromagnetic radiation (emr), which belongs to a family of energy forms known collectively as the electromagnetic spectrum. emr is all around us: traveling in waves, or oscillations, of different frequencies. It has both electrical and magnetic properties that are interdependent. Naturally occurring forms of emr include visible light, ultraviolet light, infrared radiation (heat), and ionizing radiation from radon and plutonium. The earth itself, thanks to its magnetic core and electric field it generates, bathes us in very low frequency emr that guides migrating animals, and happens to match the frequency of the most peaceful of human brainwaves, at a frequency of about 10 Hertz.
Humankind has found a way to create artificial sources of emr as well, and put them to work in an amazing variety of inventions. Communications devices use a specific range of frequencies in the so-called radio and microwave regions of the emr spectrum. Analog cellular phones use frequencies of 800 to 900 mhz; digital and pcs (Personal Communications Services) phones use 1850 to 1990 mhz. Other emr-dependent devices include tvs, cd/dvd players, radios, computers, microwave ovens, video cameras, vcrs, automatic door openers, radar generation and detection devices, check-out scanners at stores, medical diagnostic and treatment equipment, and everyday household appliances—as well as the wires that carry electricity to them.
But as the benefits and convenience of our emr-laced world make life without these inventions seem impossible, it can be hard to silence a whispering voice that asks, Isn’t there something wrong with putting a field of electromagnetic radiation into every nook and cranny of the world, including my skull? Depending on who you ask, the answer will be yes, no, who knows, or who cares.
Safety Concerns on Hold
There are two different rf sources to consider with cell phone technology: cell towers (also called base stations), which pass calls (as rf radiation) between phone users, and the personal telephones themselves, which send out rf, typically through a built-in antenna, when someone is speaking. While there is no single governmental agency that regulates activities of the telecommunications industry, the Federal Communications Commission (fcc) has issued guidelines for allowable levels of rf emitted by towers and base stations (not for phones), and for the amount that a person may absorb (called specific absorption rate, or sar). These standards are among the least protective in the world and do not take duration of exposure into consideration, nor account for the fact that different tissues of the body absorb rf to differing degrees and likely have different tolerances to rf absorption. They also don’t consider the additive effects of the several signals a tower may be broadcasting at once.
The fact that we have exposure guidelines at all suggests that rf radiation is harmful, but the Food and Drug Administration (fda) won’t commit to that. The fda considers the energy emitted by cellular phone base stations too weak to pose a danger and says it “does not review the safety of radiation-emitting consumer products such as wireless phones before they can be sold” because “existing scientific data do not justify fda regulatory actions.”1
The fda points to recent epidemiology studies that have shown a lack of association between cell phone usage and brain cancer, leukemia, and other cancers—though it concedes that “none of the studies can answer questions about long-term exposures, since the average period of phone use in these studies was around three years.” Further, “research done thus far has produced conflicting results, and many studies have suffered from flaws in their research methods.”