I hate writing posts like this almost as much as people hate reading them. But write them I must. It’s the cell phone issue again.
Health risks from cell phones aren’t supposed to happen because the radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation involved is not energetic enough to ionize molecules. The damage done by ionizing radiation is related to the chemical changes that ensue from the ionizations. Those chemical changes don’t occur with exposure to non-ionizing radiation. The most non-ionizing radiation is supposed to do is heat of up the tissue (as in a microwave oven), and the thermal effects from most kinds of non-ionizing radiation are so small they are lost in the noise of normal thermal fluctuations. Moreover we are bathed in non-ionizing radiation. Visible light, for example, is of this type (note that light does interact with our tissues; that’s how we are able to see). There is also lots of radiation we don’t see and doesn’t appear interact with our tissues, from the kind given off by powerlines to radio and TV stations to infrared and LED remote controls. The list is endless. And includes cell phones.
Unfortunately inconvenient results keep appearing, ranging from basic studies on cells to a rather extensive epidemiological literature. There is nothing conclusive and there are counter explanations for all the results. But they keep coming up. This week the journal BMC Genomics (a very respectable peer reviewed journal) had another one. Here’s the abstract:
Earlier we have shown that the mobile phone radiation (radiofrequency modulated electromagnetic fields; RF-EMF) alters protein expression in human endothelial cell line. This does not mean that similar response will take place in human body exposed to this radiation. Therefore, in this pilot human volunteer study, using proteomics approach, we have examined whether a local exposure of human skin to RF-EMF will cause changes in protein expression in living people.
Small area of forearm’s skin in 10 female volunteers was exposed to RF-EMF (specific absorption rate SAR=1.3W/kg) and punch biopsies were collected from exposed and non exposed areas of skin. Proteins extracted from biopsies were separated using 2-DE and protein expression changes were analyzed using PDQuest software. Analysis has identified 8 proteins that were statistically significantly affected (Anova and Wilcoxon tests). Two of the proteins were present in all 10 volunteers. This suggests that protein expression in human skin might be affected by the exposure to RF-EMF. The number of affected proteins was similar to the number of affected proteins observed in our earlier in vitro studies.
This is the first study showing that molecular level changes might take place in human volunteers in response to exposure to RF-EMF. Our study confirms that proteomics screening approach can identify protein targets of RF-EMF in human volunteers. (Karinen et al., BMC Genomics)
You can read the whole paper here. So what does this say? It doesn’t say there is a health risk from cell phones. It does suggest that the non-ionizing radiation from these phones produced a biological effect, an alteration in protein expression in people’s skin cells. This adds to a grwoing body of literature indicating that the biological consequences of non-ionizing radiation can go beyond heating of tissue.
We have become quite dependent upon cell phones, just as we have become dependent on the electric grid, which also produces electromagnetic radiation of a different frequency. It is certainly within the realm of possibility that either or both might have health consequences. This doesn’t make them much different than many other amenities of daily life, including the computer I am sitting in front of at this instant.
Or automobiles. They are dangerous enough to kill 40,000 Americans a year. This is less than they used to kill because we have been making them safer. Not totally safe, but safer. If it turns out that some sources of non-ionizing radiation have hazards to them (which wouldn’t surprise me in the least), then I suggest we take the same attitude: we try to make them safer. With power lines there are a variety of ways to do this and certainly this is true with cell phones, too.
But before we can do this we need to look at the possibility seriously and not continually dismiss scientists who assert health or biological effects are cranks. Some of them might be, but it can no longer be assumed that even entertaining the possibility is prima facie evidence of crankhood. This in turn means more work to delineate the biological effects and to use that information, if indicated, to make the ubiquitous sources of this type of radiation safer. This will take time and if there are effects I suspect they are not big. But given the extraordinary prevalence of exposure the aggregate burden could be substantial.
I know no one wants to hear this, nor do I want to write it. That’s life.