Many people are afraid of cell phones and base stations because they emit radiation. These people tend to know very little about physics, and are generally unaware that daylight through a window on an overcast day is also radiation. Much careful research has turned up no significant health risks with cell phone use or proximity to base stations.

So your mobile handset is unlikely to cause you any harm. But a recent case in the district court of Falun, Sweden, demonstrates that cell phone alarmism is in fact dangerous.

An elderly gentleman who feared cell phone radiation greatly saw his grand-daughter answer her phone while holding her newborn baby. This made him so angry that he called the young mother a number of ugly names and hit her repeatedly across the back of her neck — while she was still holding the baby, and with his own daughter as distraught witness. He was recently sentenced to 50 hours’ community service, payment of a $1300 reparation and two years’ probation. This soft sentence was given in consideration of the man’s “settled lifestyle”, which makes repeat offences unlikely.

None of this would have happened if the guy had just called his grand-daughter instead.

Via Dalarnas Tidningar. Thanks to Anders B.

[More blog entries about , , ; , , , .]


In other news, check out two voices for the future: Erik and Dabe, kidbloggers!

Comments

  1. #1 Will TS
    May 27, 2008

    Tonight in the US on the Larry King Live show on CNN, there will be a debate by a panel of ‘experts’ on the medical dangers of cell hone use. The special guest will be the widow of Johnnie Cochrane (O.J. Simpson’s lawyer, who died of a brain tumor) who will provide her ‘testimonial’ evidence that her husband’s cancer was caused by cell phones. It should be a veritable festival of pseudoscientific alarmism.

  2. #2 Martin R
    May 27, 2008

    Barf. And what are the chances that someone gets to explain on Larry King that anecdotal evidence isn’t accepted in science?

  3. #3 revere
    May 27, 2008

    “Much careful research has turned up no significant health risks with cell phone use or proximity to base stations.”

    More than a bit of an exaggeration. There is in fact very little data either way (although some data on each side). These studies are extremely difficult to do, so the claim that there is sufficient evidence one way or another is not well founded. Moreover the argument that visible light is radiation means that cell phone radiation is harmless is not any better than the idea that cell phone radiation is harmful because nuclear fallout is harmful.

    This gentleman’s problems go beyond a cell phone phobia.

  4. #4 Lassi Hippeläinen
    May 28, 2008

    Revere: “Moreover the argument that visible light is radiation means that cell phone radiation is harmless is not any better than the idea that cell phone radiation is harmful because nuclear fallout is harmful.”

    There is a big difference. About as much as being hit by a mosquito or a bullet.

    Visible light is unable to ionize anything. At best it can change some molecules that evolution has put in the skin for that purpose (think about sun tan and vitamin D). The photons in phone radiation have much lower energy. They can warm up tissues (like a microwave oven), but since the output power is below one watt, the blood circulation can carry it away.

    Nuclear fallout is very different. It contains all three kinds of ionizing radiation, historically called alpha (Helium ions), beta (electrons), and gamma (high-energy photons). There will be chemical changes almost anywhere.

  5. #5 Martin R
    May 28, 2008

    With all due respect, revere, there is no known mechanism by which cell phone emissions might be dangerous, and there has been a lot of research published looking at specific ailments, all without any significant correlations being found.

    As for the “radiation” issue, I have heard several laypeople advance this as an argument in itself. Nothing about nuclear fallout: just the idea that cell phones emit radiation and radiation is dangerous. They don’t know what the word means.

  6. #7 Martin R
    May 28, 2008

    I don’t get it. We’ve been doing that for years. How can they present that as news!?

  7. #8 ArchAsa
    May 29, 2008

    Are you dissing Dissing? *giggle* :P
    (Authentic bad arch-joke)

    C’mon Martin, you know there is no way the journalists will care about what you’ve done unless they can present it as first/unique/oldest/youngest/biggest/smallest to the readers.

    As for cell phones, it is a good rule to be careful until proven otherwise, but as usual, all the crazies emerge from under the rocks on these issues. The Swedish blogger “The Witch”, who reports on the more sectarian aspects of Waldorf-schools, wrote about how her son (who is now in a regular school) was forbidden to keep his phone in his pocket – even if it was turned off! Apparently the electromagnetic waves would give all his fellow pupils massive cancer his teachers informed him, and did he really want to kill them all…?

  8. #9 revere
    May 29, 2008

    Martin, Lassi: I am well aware of the ionizing vs. non-ionizing radiation difference. I teach this material to graduate students in public health. But Martin raises the essential point from the epidemiological point of view (I am an environmental epidemiologist, so that is why I fasten on it).

    I will just address the ionizing vs. non-ionizing health effects question, not the more specific issue of cell phones, which involves non-ionizing EM of specific frequencies. On the one hand there is the proposition that except of thermal effects, non-ionizing radiation can have no consequential biological effects. On the other hand there are numerous in vitro studies and a reasonable body of epidemiological literature to connect non-ionizing EM (mostly in the power line frequency range) with biological effects (not necessarily adverse, but that isn’t the point if the question is can they have effects at all beyond thermal ones) and adverse health indicators in populations (the epidemiological evidence). The evidence here is not conclusive — one way or another. Indeed it is contested. But it isn’t fair to say that credible evidence doesn’t exist. Different scientists weigh it differently, but there is enough that reputable national and international scientific bodies hav urged caution.

    Concerning the epidemiological evidence, which I know best (I once authored a meta-analysis published in an IEEE journal), the evidence is fairly extensive, even more than the evidence we had in 1949 connecting asbestos with cancer. The associations are there. The question is whether they are causal associations or the result of some kind of bias (systematic error, in the technical sense). If one uses Hill’s viewpoints on the hallmarks of causal associations (used in some fashion by most epidemiologists), the main one that doesn’t fit for EM is the one Martin points to, biological plausibility, i.e., we can’t figure out what the mechanism would be if there is really an effect. Anyone familiar with causal judgments understands that this is only one of several important hallmarks (and not a necessary one) but psychologically a very powerful one.

    I put this question to you: what would you say if tomorrow a paper were published that demonstrated a convincing physical mechanism whereby EM could initiate or promote cancer, for example, by altering ion flow in cell membranes. This is hypothetical, a though experiment. In that case, how would you view the existing evidence then? In this thought experiment nothing changes in the other evidence except the publication of this paper. It is therefore only a small change in the existing evidence.

    The fact that some people use specious reasoning to raise an alarm (conflating all kinds of radiation) is no reason to dismiss, out of hand and with no sound basis in the evidence I can see, that this is quackery or junk science. I don’t do EM epi any longer but I follow it enough to know that the characterization of the field as one where the issue is settled, scientifically, is not correct.

  9. #10 Martin R
    May 29, 2008

    If a mechanism were discovered, then I’d want to know the size of the effect. I would then compare the risk of e.g. cancer with the risk for traffic injury. Then I would consider whether I should get rid of my cell phone.

    When the media report this kind of research, they only ever mention if factor A increases or decreases the risk of health problem B. Usually the size of any documented effect is negligible.

  10. #11 revere
    May 29, 2008

    You’ve got it backwards. We already know the size of the effect for powerlines (RR of about 1.2 – 1.3 for “high current” [read higher magnetic field] exposures. What is missing is a mechanism that could produce cancer, so many people are not yet ready to accept a causal association. But the mechanism is not relevant to the size of the effect. The only way we will know the size of the risk from cell phones is through a very large epi study that has good exposure assessment and sufficient latency. Those things are unlikely. Have you ever heard of the Precautionary Principle? You Europeans are quite fond of it and it has become of EU policy. This is a difficult problem and deserves to be treated with respect and subjected to some hard thinking. Believe it or not some very smart people in the EU and European Energy Agnedy are thinking very hard about this with respect to the Precautionary Principle. We need to be careful with dismissive reactions.

    Also the size of the risk is not as important as the attributable risk. Very small risks with very large exposed populations produce a lot of affected people.

  11. #12 Lassi Hippeläinen
    May 30, 2008

    “…what would you say if tomorrow a paper were published that demonstrated a convincing physical mechanism…”

    Then I would be convinced, of course. I’m an engineer (even a member of the IEEE), and I respect facts.

    I’ve worked quite a lot with statistics, and I’ve learned to be wary about hidden dependencies. When you are playing with weak signals, you’re exposing yourself to unexpected correlations. You always have some model in your mind that tries to create a closed system that is easy to analyse. But if that model leaks at the edges?

    For example, do power lines cause childhood leukemia? Or is the weak signal just due to social factors, like the parents moving to more urban areas where medical treatments are easier to get? Power lines also tend to concentrate in urban areas…

  12. #13 Markk
    May 31, 2008

    There was work by a guy who was at the University of Wisconsin measuring EM effects of power lines versus the same effects caused by nerve signal propagation across the heart – with the heart signal dominating at the 60Hz range inside the body. Epidemiological evidence is hard to get one way or another if the effect is minute, and some calculation like this does give rational people pause about what kind of effect there could be. I am sure Revere (in fact I might have read it on his blog…) knows this and knows any effect would be miniscule, but with a billion people exposed…

    Anyway the thing about the EM signal strength of internal human sources being the same or larger than power line effects is often a convincer.

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!