Pharyngula

Salon sometimes, and with increasing frequency lately, publishes some genuinely pernicious crap. I notice they’ve been experimenting with click-baity titles and more lists (I am growing to hate lists on the internet), there is more and more gullible religious pandering, and some days I think they’re experience huffpo envy — ‘if only we were a little more schlocky and gossipy and threw in some more T&A, we’d get more traffic!’ And now they’ve published some hysterical nonsense about cell phones causing cancer. Apparently there are no editors on the staff with even the slightest bit of scientific training who’d recognize that this claim is oft-debunked nonsense.

They even gave it the title “Your cell phone is killing you”, although they did exercise some restraint in leaving off the expected six exclamation points afterwards. The content consists of selective mention (not citation — the author doesn’t bother to give us enough information to track down the work) of only papers that show any purported effect of electromagnetic radiation at all, and hysterically concludes that we’re all in the middle of a great experiment that will end with the bees all dead and all of us having gigantic tumors on one side of our heads, Alzheimer’s disease, and with our sperm all limp and zombiefied, which is a good thing, because otherwise those sperm would spawn hideous mutant offspring.

Ho hum. In the 19th century, people were concerned about electricity leaking out of outlets if they weren’t turned off (in houses that had open gas flames!). We’ve had the terrors of high tension wires zapping everyone passing under them with madness and death inducing magnetic fluxes. Now it’s cell phones. They’re next to your head! They’re transmitting!

And you know what they’re transmitting? Radiation.

Most notably, the entire power grid is an EMF-generation network that reaches almost every individual in America and 75% of the global population. Today, early in the 21st century, we find ourselves fully immersed in a soup of electromagnetic radiation on a nearly continuous basis.

Yes, we are. It’s true. Of course, it’s not just the 21st century: when early humans stepped out of their caves to throw sticks at antelope 100,000 years ago, they were fully immersed in a soup of electromagnetic radiation on a nearly continuous basis. The earth has a magnetic field of several hundred milliGauss, and visible light has a frequency of about 500 trillion Hz; yet you don’t sense any effect of that magnetic field, and sunlight at that frequency merely warms your skin (higher frequency light, around 1000 trillion Hz, does damage cells severely — it’s the UV that gives you sunburn).

Yet even if you live directly under a high tension line, that source is only providing about 1-2 milliGauss, and cell phones are radiating at at about one billion Hz, an insignificant fraction of the energy from the soup bath in electromagnetic reaction you get from just walking around outside, even when slathered in high SPF sunscreen.

However, while science has not yet answered all of our questions, it has determined one fact very clearly—all electromagnetic radiation impacts living beings.

This is certainly true! Here’s James May cooking a hot dog and melting a steel plate by using a mirror to focus sunlight.

The inescapable conclusion of this experiment: we must ban flashlights. Otherwise, they might fall into the hands of small children who would then use them to disintegrate their playmates.

This is representative of what the author of this silly piece, Martin Blank, does throughout his article. He looks selectively at the literature, reports only on the cases that support his conclusions, and then makes sweeping assertions of disaster awaiting us all.

As I will discuss, science demonstrates a wide range of bioeffects linked to EMF exposure. For instance, numerous studies have found that EMF damages and causes mutations in DNA—the genetic material that defines us as individuals and collectively as a species. Mutations in DNA are believed to be the initiating steps in the development of cancers, and it is the association of cancers with exposure to EMF that has led to calls for revising safety standards. This type of DNA damage is seen at levels of EMF exposure equivalent to those resulting from typical cell phone use.

This is not true. The National Cancer Institute summarizes the effects of cell phones:

Studies thus far have not shown a consistent link between cell phone use and cancers of the brain, nerves, or other tissues of the head or neck. More research is needed because cell phone technology and how people use cell phones have been changing rapidly.

That last sentence, the one that begins “More research is needed”? That’s what we call a CYA statement: a bureaucratic cover-your-ass bit of boilerplate to make sure that some remote happenstance doesn’t cause them regret — it’s also a standard appeal for “give us more money” from a funding agency. But read the rest: they describe many of the experiments and the evidence, and also summarizes the common flaws that lead some studies to contradict the sense and science of electromagnetic fields. The conclusion from all of the major organizations is that any effect of cell phones is so marginal that no significant consequence of cell phone use on your physiology is detectable. Compare that to Blank’s claim.

Or you can get Steve Novella’s opinion, or Orac’s. It’s not impossible that the teeny-tiny emissions of your cell phone might lightly tickle some cells in some subtle, unpredictable way, but the totality of the current evidence says no, it doesn’t seem to have any significant effect.

If you’re still worried, here are instructions on how to build a Faraday cage (short summary: lots of aluminum foil). Climb in, and turn the lights off. And no flashlights! You could incinerate someone with one of those!

Comments

  1. #3 bad Jim
    April 13, 2014

    Apparently there’s a homeopathic remedy for detox exposure: one ounce of 40 proof alcohol.

    Cell phones are definitely a health hazard. Here’s a graphic example of the danger of texting while walking.

  2. #4 bad Jim
    April 13, 2014

    Apparently there’s a homeopathic remedy for detox exposure: one ounce of 40 proof alcohol.

    Cell phones are definitely a health hazard. Here’s a graphic example of the danger of texting while walking.

  3. #5 weezmgk (@weezmgk)
    Straya
    April 13, 2014

    ‘More research is needed.’ PZ, I get the CYA, but after 25,000 peer reviewed papers in the last 30 years which found no harms from non-ionising radiation, HOW MUCH more is really needed? Aren’t we at the point of diminishing returns?

  4. #6 Buck Field
    Chile
    April 13, 2014

    How typical and disappointing. Can’t we make the case for reasoned judgment and using best practices without flagrantly violating them & resorting to the worst offenses of religious & anti-science zealots?

    That the article’s author has the appearance of conflict of interest bias is a legitimate objection, whereas inventing the strawman of “bees all dead” and “gigantic tumors” is as close enough to lying to undermine your credibility. Being right is no excuse.

    If it’s wrong for others to exaggerate and lie, its wrong for us. Doing what others do without some minimal caution excuses ourselves from adult conversation. Offering a “j/k” or other justification after the fact is no excuse.

    Novella is popular, sincere, and I’ve quoted him publicly, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ILweWfuBreA) but is woefully uninformed about the state of the art in understanding good versus bad scientific understanding.

    In that area, “Your Deceptive Mind” should only be recommended for providing the most introductory reference to understanding such things. “Physician, heal thyself” was my most common thought listening to it.

    PZ, I would ask you, he, and 99% of the skeptic community listen to and learn from Jeffrey L. Kasser’s Philosophy of Science course http://www.thegreatcourses.com/tgc/Courses/course_detail.aspx?cid=4100
    wherein the complexities of good and bad science issues are taken most seriously.

    Please do yourself and the community a favor by featuring him, Godfrey-Smith, or someone similar.

  5. #7 Peter
    UK
    April 13, 2014

    The deep down problem seems to be Paul, the femail brain argues with it’s self less, than the male brain, which is why most of the time, men make better philosophers than women. My evidence is, the female corpus collosum is, usually thicker than the male corpus collosum, which seems to suggest, both sides of the female brain are more in harmony, than both sides of the male brain.

  6. #8 Oliver
    April 14, 2014

    It’s not just the “more research is needed” clause that’s pernicious. The NCI lets itself appear to concede that there is a link between cancer and cell use by addressing whether “a consistent link” has been established. An inconsistent association establishes no link at all, only coincidences. Lazy writing is doing more harm than than the sentence conscientiously written as you say to cover their asses. In the scientific literature this sloppiness is tolerated, I guess because we’re all supposed to know what each other mean, but the non-scientists mostly do not and should not be expected to.

  7. #9 Nick K
    April 14, 2014

    “More research is needed” on the effects of cellphones of the brain. That’s like saying more research is needed into the gender of angels (which was a serious subject for debate in the Middle Ages).

  8. #10 Charmaine
    South Africa
    April 14, 2014

    I seriously would want to know, do cellphones harm our health? I have had moments when i use my phone and my ear becomes hot.

  9. #11 Wesley Dodson
    April 14, 2014

    Almost makes me want a ‘traditional American lunch time hot dog snack.”

  10. #12 G
    April 15, 2014

    I detest the fear-mongering and overt obscurantism about “radiation,” ionizing as well as non-ionizing, and I’m also frustrated with the tendency toward online tabloid journalism. I also strongly support building nuclear fission reactors in large numbers to address the climate crisis, and building powerlines as needed to bring remote renewables to the grid.

    I also agree that “a few anecdotes != data.” However, within a 5-year period, two people I know who were/are heavy cellphone users had brain cancer, with the tumors located next to where they always held their cellphones. One was a woman in her 40s, who died of it (glioblastoma multiforme). One was the teenage son of a coworker, who lived and has been cleared of it (astrocytoma).

    So what do I do with that? “Coincidence” is a blackbox as useless as “God did it.” It seems entirely reasonable to collect public health data comparing the locations of brain tumors to the side of the head on which people hold their cellphones. If there’s any relationship, it should come out in the data fairly quickly and settle the issue. If there’s no relationship, the distribution of tumors relative to “side of the head where cellphone is held” should be flat even.

    The well-demonstrated danger of cellphones is distracted driving. I have a falsifiable hypothesis as to the cause:

    G.729 audio compression (the crappy cellphone audio that’s equivalent to 1934 landline audio) requires more attention to understand speech, than G.711 audio (modern TDM landline audio). The degree of attention required to understand cellphone audio is what causes the distraction that causes the accidents.

    Oldschool mobile phones (approx. 1940 to mid 1980s) had landline-quality audio, relatively few users, but four decades of use. No correlation with accidents was found. Citizens’ Band (CB) radio (1970s) had up to AM radio quality audio, with analog noise interference, and millions of users over a period of a decade. No correlation with accidents was found, despite the fact that CB radio requires not only holding the mic but pressing the button to talk.

    Experiment: Human subjects in a driving simulator. Test condition 1: Cellphone conversation while holding handset. Test condition 2: Cellphone conversation using handsfree device. Control condition 1: Conversation over landline while holding handset. Control condition 2: Conversation over landline using handsfree device. Control condition 3: No conversation.

    Measure: Performance errors on driving simulator, where each error scores an increment of 1 point.

    Predicted results: Significant difference between driving error rate under “control” conditions and driving error rate under “test” conditions, such that even the worst of the “control” conditions (landline while holding handset) is significantly better than the best of the “test” conditions (cellphone with handsfree device).

    Anyone interested?

  11. #13 David Marjanović
    Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
    April 15, 2014

    I seriously would want to know, do cellphones harm our health?

    No.

    I have had moments when i use my phone and my ear becomes hot.

    When you hold anything warm directly on your ear in weather that isn’t freezing, what do you expect to happen?

    It seems entirely reasonable to collect public health data comparing the locations of brain tumors to the side of the head on which people hold their cellphones. If there’s any relationship, it should come out in the data fairly quickly and settle the issue.

    Don’t you think it should have come out long ago? In particular, don’t you think we’d long know it if there had been a sudden increase in brain cancer rates when cell phones hit the market not long ago?

    Oldschool mobile phones (approx. 1940 to mid 1980s) had landline-quality audio, relatively few users, but four decades of use. No correlation with accidents was found.

    I’m sure not enough people had such a thing for the dataset to be large enough to test any hypotheses.

    Anyone interested?

    Well, sure, except I can’t finance an experiment…

  12. #14 G
    April 16, 2014

    Re. David @ 13:

    “Don’t you think it should have come out long ago?” Not necessarily; it took decades to pin down the risks associated with cigarettes. Public health issues are always uphill battles where powerful industries have a stake in the status quo (see also antibiotics in agriculture).

    My point was to operationalize my two anecdotal cases (both involving personal friends) into a falsifiable hypothesis: If cellphone use causes brain tumors, then we should expect to find a statistically significant difference between “(1) number of cases where patient held phone on same side of head as tumor” and “(2)…opposite side of head from tumor.” We should also expect to find an increase in brain tumors among age groups associated with heavy cellphone use, compared to same-age cohort prior to cellphones.

    At present there appear to be conflicting reports in this area, so to my mind the issue is not yet settled science.

    Re. “I”m not sure enough people had such a thing…” (oldschool mobile phones): A sufficient number of people in the USA had them during the approx. 40 year period they were in use, that a relationship would have been detected. Keep in mind that the Bell Telephone System would not have built the expensive land-mobile tower infrastructure if there had not been sufficient demand for service. In any case this reduces to another testable hypothesis per my experimental design.

    And, though I didn’t mention it above, if my hypotheses about cellphone driving are supported by results, then the logical implication is to demand that mobile phone carriers adopt G.711 audio, which is merely a matter of pushing new software out to the towers and handsets, with G.711 selected as the default option. This is _easy_ for them to do, and the only reason they have refused so far, is that they prefer to retain more of the available bandwidth for higher-profit services than “plain old conversations.”

    Lastly, since you’re in Germany: Europe and Asia use higher quality audio as the default setting on mobile devices, which is difficult to distinguish from landline audio. But if you have phone conversations with people in the USA who are speaking on mobiles, you may notice the problem we have here. It is truly the case that a 1935 landline telephone sounds better than a modern American mobile phone, and I can demonstrate that with actual equipment from 1911 to the present.

  13. #15 David Marjanović
    Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
    April 16, 2014

    Europe and Asia use higher quality audio as the default setting on mobile devices

    OK, but phoning while driving is still a major concern about accidents here. So is texting – and anything else that distracts. That said, you may of course be right that worse audio quality causes additional distraction.

  14. #16 bughunter
    The Deep End of the EMR Soup Bowl
    April 17, 2014

    Re: Charmaine @ #10

    I have had moments when i use my phone and my ear becomes hot.

    That’s because we were talking about you at the moment.

    Seriously, PZM just gave you pretty much the state of the art on EMR effects on people. Compared to what else is bouncing around, power lines and cell phones don’t add significantly to the total energy you absorb. And no one has been able to repeatably find even a weak connection between cell phones or power lines and health.

    If you’re still concerned, use a wired earbud/mic and keep your phone in your pocket or purse. But I would wager that your anxiety has more effect on your health than the electromagnetic radiation itself.

    For further protection, I suggest a nice aluminum foil toque.

  15. #17 G
    April 18, 2014

    Re. David at 15: Most interesting!, and you just suggested another set of test conditions to put in my hypothetical experiment: a) European cellphone, holding handset, and b) European cellphone, using handsfree device.

    The way to test this in the USA would be to obtain not only the European handset, but also a law enforcement “sting ray” device that is designed to simulate a cell tower for purposes of intercepting suspected criminals’ conversations.

    In law enforcement use, the “sting ray” becomes the “nearest” cell tower to the suspect phone, and relays communications to the actual carrier’s next-nearest tower. In the experiment, it would relay communications to a PABX that was programmed to simulate a carrier’s network. I have to believe that the manufacturers of “sting rays” have options for European standards, so they can sell to European PTTs & telecoms administrations.

    Thanks for de-facto suggesting that idea. The hypotheses I’m looking at would be modified accordingly, to search for significant differences between any sets of conditions. What I would have expected, is that the higher-quality Euro cellphone audio would produce fewer driving errors. But based on what you said, there may still be sufficient driving errors to constitute a hazard even at Euro audio quality. Very very interesting, all the more so because if you’re correct, it’s a counterexample to what I’m expecting.

    bughunter @ 16: Not Helpful.

    Let me be really, crassly, blunt about something (rant mode ON;-)

    There’s a way in which cellphones resemble cigarettes, but in contrast to cancer, this one is readily supported by data you can collect for yourself easily.

    Back in the heyday of cigarette smoking, if you were in a social gathering and said you didn’t smoke, people looked at you like you were weird, and very often made disparaging comments. There was a degree of social opprobrium attached to not-smoking, as if you were out of style, unfashionable, and a party-pooper who vaguely disapproved of something that “everyone else” enjoyed.

    Guess what? We’ve reached the same point with cellphones. And it’s as obnoxious as any other form of socially enforced conformity.

    Not having a cellphone does not equal being some kind of Luddite, and cellphones do not equal civilization.

    Many are those who are ferocious early-adopters of various technologies, but who choose, for whatever reason, to not have cellphones. It’s OK to be a _selective_ adopter, and it’s OK to not-do what “everyone else” is doing.

    This isn’t like vaccination, where those who refuse put the entire public at risk by decrementing herd immunity. This isn’t like voting, where those who fail to do it contribute to the erosion of the quality of representative democracy. This isn’t like climate change, where denialism contributes to collective failure to act on a major global crisis.

    This is just a consumer device. You can take it or leave it without harm to anyone else, and without harm to society at-large. The world isn’t going to end if you keep your landline.

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