Skepticism

New law requires cellular vendors to report the radiation emitted by phones

Attention Crackberry addicts:

San Francisco has tentatively approved a law requiring cellular vendors to report the amount of radiation your phone emits. The mayor, Gavin Newsom, is expected to sign it into law.

Proponents of the law claim that this information is as relevant to consumers as the nutrition information on food labels. Opponents claim that the information is irrelevant because science hasn’t been able to prove a conclusive link between cell phone use and tumors. Cell phone vendors worry that the information will mislead consumers into believing one phone is safer than another when there’s no conclusive evidence of a safety issue in the first place. 

Although several studies have tested a link between cell phone use and brain tumors, the results are inconclusive. Some studies have shown no correlation at all and others have shown a modest increase in tumors in high-volume and long-term users. The methodologies and conclusions of the studies are hotly debated from both sides.

A recent large-scale international study seemed to show a higher incidence of tumors in high volume users, which it defined as people who talk on their phones at least 30 minutes per day. Some would argue that’s average usage, which would imply a real threat to the general population. But the methodologies of that study have attracted vast criticism as well.

It is interesting to note that the incidence of brain tumor diagnosis hasn’t increased appreciably over the last decade despite a massive increase in cell phone use.

The Environmental Working Group published a list of the most popular cell phones and the radiation emitted by each. All phones listed fall below the FCC guideline of 1.66 watts per kilogram.

Although no conclusive evidence exists, if you’d rather be safe than sorry there are ways to reduce your radiation absorption. Here are some recommendations from the National Cancer Institute:

  • reduce the amount of time you spend on your cell phone by reserving it for short conversations, and trying to use land lines when possible.
  • use a hands-free ear piece to maximize the distance between the cell phone and your head. The radiation is emitted from the antenna in the phone, so putting distance between your head and the phone will decrease the amount of radiation you’ll absorb.

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38 Comments

  1. “It is interesting to note that the incidence of brain tumor diagnosis hasn’t increased appreciably over the last decade despite a massive increase in cell phone use.”

    Shouldn’t this be a very telling point?
    Put a graph of brain tumour diagnosis’s for the last ten years side by side with a graph of cell phone usage? :)

  2. so the non-ionising microwaves used for bluetooth are fine but not the non-ionising microwaves used for mobile phones?

    bluetooth headset manufactures are really winning in this whole non-issue, the last media circulated report I found ‘proving’ a link was funded and conducted by a bluetooth headset company

  3. @Solitas: I agree – that is interesting. But again correlation and there could be factors unknown that also effected a decrease in brain tumors that is offset by the increase due to phones.

    However, it does seem a bit premature to create a law. I doubt if it will effect the purchases though. When considering our personal well being we are much more likely to choose immediate convenience and benefit against possible future negative consequence. So if there is a cool feature on a phone is higher rad, we will ignore the rad.

  4. Haha, I love the EMF people. They don’t really have any good evidence, but…RADIATION! MAGNETISM! IGNORE THAT WE GET HUGE DOSES OF THIS FROM THINGS OTHER THAN CELLPHONES EACH DAY!

    Not to mention if you’ve ever had a MRI you’ve gotten a larger dose of magnetism and radiowaves than you probably will in your lifetime from even constant cellphone usage.

    But still, it’s so far been a safe bit of woo. Being against cellphones is a hell of a lot less dangerous to anyone than being against vaccinations, or being into homeopathy.

  5. @Zapski: Not talking on the phone while driving is a good idea, but aside from how it irritates you, what’s wrong with talking on the phone while in line for food (or anything else for that matter?)

  6. @vbalbert: Usually because the person talking in line neglects to make their food decision until the get to the front of the line, where suddenly they slow everyone else down behind them while being excessively rude and dismissive to the person trying to take their order.

    It’s as rude as saying to the clerk “I’m sorry but I don’t respect you as a human being, and am going to dismiss you because you are less important than this banal conversation about what I was doing last night with my friend.”

  7. @vbalbert: It’s rude.

    And half the time, you can hear their conversation, which is awkward.

    AND THEN, they go up to the counter, and continue to talk, while ignoring the cashier.

    There is a sign at one of my local post offices: “If you are on your cell phone, we will gladly help the next person in line.”

    Love it.

  8. Personally, I think phone conversations should be private anyway, and I always leave the room to be alone, or stand a good distance away from anyone else. In public places like a line, I will send an incoming call to voicemail, and call back shortly.

    If see that a call is important, I’ll give it my full attention and step out of a line to a somewhat more private area. If it’s not important then it can wait until a more convenient time.

    There’s never anything so important that it can’t wait 5 minutes.

  9. Low energy radiation, such as radio waves and microwaves, are not carcinogenic. High frequency waves, such as UV and X-rays, are the triggers of cancer.
    Cell phones can’t cause cancer – any correlation is not in fact causation.
    Too bad our legislators don’t listen to physics professors.

  10. What is really dumb about this is you can do a scientific test on the absorption rates of light at a certain frequency by human cells. While this acute exposure is not exactly the same as a chronic one, the fact is if there is no absorption from acute exposure there couldn’t possibly be one from chronic exposure.

    The other thing about this is that it makes consumers automatically discount real concerns the government issues about things like drinking, smoking, and eating junk food. This is just like Marijuana and harder drugs, the real gateway is government incompetence.

  11. @murdats: I never did understand why people feel Bluetooth headsets to be “safer” than a phone. Is it because they’re generally smaller than a phone, and they assume that less radiation will pour out of a smaller device?
    Try explaining the difference between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation to someone who immediately assumes “radiation” is scary and evil. It’s just as bad as explaining that the word “chemical” shouldn’t evoke thoughts of “bad”.

  12. I think blue-tooth headsets emit an RF signal orders of magnitude smaller than cell phones do. It only needs a range of a few feet vs. several miles for a cell phone. Inverse square law and all that…

    The problem of people in lines talking on their cells is really not that at all. The problem is they get to the front of the line and aren’t ready to order. They haven’t decided what they want yet, and haven’t even thought about it. But the cause of the distraction could be anything, not just cell phones. There could be a group of friends listening to one of them rant about Trent Lott (one of my coworkers favorite rant topic), or how the refs screwed the C’s in the 4th quarter. (That was a charge. Kobe *knew* it was a charge. He was really pissed off and then was totally surprised when they sent him to the line.) Anyway, where was I? Am I ready to comment yet? Uh, just a second… Oh, yeah, if someone isn’t ready to order/comment, they should just be sent back to the end of the line.

  13. @Ssteppe: Right, the radiation put out for cellphones is too low frequency to induce rotational or vibrational effects in any molecule, and too high frequency to induce translational effects. It has no resonance whatsoever with any molecule, and thus any protein, and thus any cell, and thus any human.

    All they’ve got left is magnetism to cling to, and I’m not sure that’s much stronger from a cellphone than the Earth’s magnetic field we’re subjected to constantly each day.

  14. @Buzz Parsec: I don’t have the power specs for Bluetooth, but that would be correct. And your phone will typically emit less power when it is being used closer to a cell tower. Power management software in the phones is smart enough to make that adjustment, to make the battery charge last longer. Ergo, those who are concerned about such things should actually *want* a cell tower on their neighbor’s property, so that their own phones will emit less power next to their heads.

    People just did not pay attention in high school physics class.

  15. @N47 (is that your first name?) , never thought of that! I have noticed that at my mom’s house, which gets terrible cell phone reception, my battery lasts about a day, where I get 4-5 days at home. Nearby cell towers = woo goodness!

  16. This just completely exposes the ignorance toward RF (radio frequencies). Think of it this way. The reason UV and X-rays are carcinogenic is because they are small and can affect bonds between or within molecules, such as those in DNA. The wavelengths are small, on the order of 200-300 nanometers (nm=one billionth of a meter) for highly damaging UV and 0.01-10 nm for X-rays. These are small, energetic waves that can interact at the cellular or molecular level. On the other hand, the RF from a cell phone is in the 800-900 MHz range, with a wavelength of about a foot! At the power levels presented, cellular/molecular events are highly improbable. The funny part is, the story was broadcast in major cities from TV and radio towers on top of buildings with adjacent populations in sitting in massively higher RF field strength of similar quality. Maybe we need to label the antennas in SF.

  17. eh, I’ve got all kinds of mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I’m all for more info being available to consumers. Then again, I know how unreasonable people can get when they hear the term ‘radiation’. I’ve wasted many hours trying to explain to people that TV’s and legos emit radiation, and that it is a very generic term for any sort of energy that is radiated (surprise, surprise…). IMO, just more evidence that we need more/better scientific education/literacy…

  18. I hate to chime in on the other side of this, particularly since I work for a cell phone company, but I don’t think it’s completely out of line to be a bit wary of the claim that there is *no* link to cell phones and cancer or what have you. I agree that if it does exist, it’s probably not a large effect because otherwise we would have seen a bigger effect than a couple of “there’s a little bit of correlation guys and also we can make rats get cancer with gigantic cell phones like they used in the 1970s”. Still, it’s possible that there might be something there, and I don’t think its a good thing to dismiss evidence out of hand because it violates the status quo.

    Think of the vaccine scare here. It isn’t bad in and of itself to be worried about vaccines causing other diseases. People *should* go out and research this. In the case of vaccines the research shows time and again that there is no link to autism et al, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother to research it. I think there’s a real danger on either side of this issue or with cell radiation in thinking that your own side is unassailable. And the crazy thing is, this attitude kind of creeps up on you. Few people, I don’t think, start out saying “vax causes autism and that’s that period”. The only way to avoid it in my opinion is to constantly check that you’re continuing to question everything and leave your mind open to change.

    As for etiquette, I just don’t see how talking on a cell in public is any more rude than talking to another person in public. Yes, if you’re too loud that’s rude. Yes, if you are talking to someone instead of ordering something at a restaurant, that’s rude. And yes, if you’re having conversations that are inappropriate for the location you’re in, that’s way rude. But how is that any different from the rudeness involved in talking to another person who is actually present?

    I think that some of the issue there is that people hear half of a conversation and it confuses them and they still haven’t totally wrapped their minds around the fact that you can do that now in public and because it’s not normal they see it as rude. Again, don’t get me wrong, actual rude behavior is rude behavior, but talking on a cell is not in and of itself rude.

  19. @Johnny Slick, there’s a limit to how much effort should be devoted to every random “I think there’s a connection, so it should be investigated.” Burden of proof and all that.

    It’s trivial to invent random correlations and theories to support them. For example, bowling causes bad driving, because driving after bowling puts you in a mind set to knock down pedestrians instead of avoiding them.

    I can invent a hundred of them before breakfast. (Actually, I just invented that one before breakfast, but I don’t think so good when I’m hungry… so maybe 10 before breakfast.)

    People who make stuff up like this are conducting a DOS attack on our brains.

  20. @Johnny Slick: Using a cell phone when talking to someone else, especially if you expect a service from them, is rude. You are refusing to give them your attention, meaning you frequently force them to repeat things for your own inadequacy. It becomes even worse because the douchebags who like to be on their phone while dealing with service personnel are frequently the douchebags who will get upset for people not doing exactly as they failed to communicate they wanted.

    I’ve been that douchebag a few times. I try to avoid it, but I know it happens. But I also try not to get mad when I’m the one being a douchebag.

  21. I don’t disagree that talking on your cell while ordering something is douchey. My point is, it’s no more or less douchey than talking to your friends instead of the server. I agree that people sometimes don’t seem to get the connection that nobody else cares about the conversation they’re having, but again that’s general rudeness, not the evils of cellular phones.

    Before this job (and, well, one job before that too I guess) I worked in retail, so yes, I know how customers can be. Which is part of the point here. People are rude with or without cell phones.

  22. And to the radiation thing… I admit that there’s not a hard and fast line where you should say “that sounds like something to remain on the fence about” and “okay, that’s just bollocks”. I think that cell phone radiation is closer to the first ideal than the second but YMMV. I’m certainly not making major changes in my lifestyle to prevent undue cell radiation – heck, like I said, I work for a cell company and use my device all the time for various things – but it’s there and I won’t begrudge others who want to take that extra precaution.

    FWIW, the “you can’t pass laws against it because there’s no indisputable link” argument is the same one that tobacco made and, before that, leaded gasoline. That doesn’t mean that cell phones cause cancer now, but I think one should be a little wary about the form of the argument. Again, whether that motivates you to do something about it is your call.

  23. @KevinF:

    On the other hand, the RF from a cell phone is in the 800-900 MHz range, with a wavelength of about a foot! At the power levels presented, cellular/molecular events are highly improbable.

    Many of the newer phones operate in the so-called “PCS band” at around 1800 MHz. Microwave ovens operate at around 2450 MHz.

  24. @ LtStorm:

    Right, the radiation put out for cellphones is too low frequency to induce rotational or vibrational effects in any molecule, and too high frequency to induce translational effects. It has no resonance whatsoever with any molecule, and thus any protein, and thus any cell, and thus any human.

    I disagree. Cellphones operate very close to the frequencies used by microwave ovens. A microwave oven works on the principle that water molecules absorb RF energy in that frequency range fairly effectively. If your cellphone was delivering a killowatt or two of RF output power to the antenna and you held it next to your head, you would literally cook your brain in fairly short order.

    Fortunately, the FCC limits RF output power of cellular devices to levels that are well below the threshold that would cause significant tissue heating. Make no mistake about it, however, when you are talking on your phone, some significant fraction of the RF energy generated by the phone is being absorb by your brain tissue. That is not in question.

    The question is whether or not this miniscule amount of RF energy (well below the level needed to cause heat rise) causes any disruption of cellular function and subsequent health effects. AFAIK, the science to date says that health effects are very unlikely (unless your driving, in which case your odds of crashing and being gravely injured are increased substantially).

    /BCT

  25. @Billy Clyde Tuggle:

    Not quite BCT… the water molecule does not “absorb” the RF as you state. The energies of those particular wavelengths cause a change in dipole moment that induces a resonance from shifting between at least two states. This is where the heating effect comes from.

    The wavelengths are not the same and the power is certainly lower, as you correctly state.

    I guess the question is if you can induce changes in molecular resonance with RF. We actually have tried this with plants and you can see changes in gene expression with high power RF fields. Again, high power and across a spread of wavelengths in the microwave (and beyond) range.

    The question is one of thresholds. We are all bathed in RF, all the time. There just is no evidence that we are exceeding those thresholds, leading to biological consequences.

  26. Here’s an investigation:
    How much talk time does your phone have?
    What is your phone’s battery rated at?

    For my HTC G1, this is, ~3 hours, and 1800 mAh @ 3.6V, respectively.

    My phone’s battery therefore holds about 6.48 Wh of energy. Divide by three, and its maximum power output is 2.16 W. Held to the side of your head, your head’s maximum opportunity for absorption is the hemisphere emanating from the speaker side of your phone, so call it half. 1.08W, total.

    That’s about 1/500 the radiation borne upon you by the sun. 1/20, if you discount radiation you can see.

    Also, cell phones pump out non-ionizing radiation, unlike Cosmic Rays, which dump more than a watt per square meter (somewhat, on average) uniformly on the earth at all times.

    At low energies, cell band radio waves have no affect whatsoever on biological tissue. This is not a “guess”. It’s a prediction energent from quantum electrodynamics – the properties of the electron and photon. Tissue doesn’t act as a “metal”, and so has a very small cross section for photons at the stated energies.

    The results are not “inconclusive”. That nothing has been found is stoic confirmation of a prediction of QED. It’s like saying that just because we have no examples of water catching on fire – but one example (though highly criticized for its methods) of a water-like substance catching fire in the persian gulf – that we can’t say for certain that water can’t catch fire.

    It makes my brain hurt seeing this kind of schlock taken seriously.

  27. @ kevinf:

    With regard to absorption I think we are arguing semantics. If there is heating of the water molecules then some portion of the RF energy interacting with the water must be dissipated (conservation of energy).

    The term “SAR” (specific absorption rate) is used commonly in the field or RF safety to describe the amount of RF energy dissipated (as opposed to reflected or transmitted) by a unit mass of biological tissue (usually the human head).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Specific_absorption_rate

    Otherwise I think we agree. My belly fat worries me a lot more than the miniscule of RF from my Iphone.

  28. Only a city that treated using a cell phone and driving as much as a problem as driving drunk has any moral authority to do this. Cell phone usage while driving has a well proven connection with death, this RF thing is just a slightly plausible hypothesis at best.

    And the idea that a cell phone that gives off 50% less energy is 50% safer is completely bogus (which will end up being the implication of these labels). I remember on the skeptics guide Steve mentioned that maybe it was the simple heat that caused the problem as much as anything.

  29. Just say “it’s non-ionizing radiation”. If that doesn’t shut them up, just explain that it works the same way as magnets.

    When I was younger – in the heady days of the microwave oven cancer scare – I would mock the microwave while it was on by dancing backwards a few feet and doing the ‘inverse square law boogie’.

    EM controversy does have an effect on skeptics, however – for instance, we chose not to buy a house next to an electrical sub-station because of the likely effect on resale value. People believe in it, therefore it exists… unfortunately…

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