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The misguided debate on cellphone safety

By 1 March 2011 One Comment

News came out last week that a new study from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that cell phones caused additional brain activity and it predictably stirred up the old cell phone safety debate again.  CNET Editor Kent German interpreted the CTIA’s (Wireless Association) statement that essentially said “nothing to see here folks but we’ll keep a tab on past and future scientific developments” as an act of stifling legitimate debate.  But the CTIA’s statements appear to be an effort to stifle undue panic and Mr. German’s definition of “debate” seems to mean that we need to support laws based on pseudoscience.

When we get down to it, Kent German is upset that the CTIA decided to take its convention business away from San Francisco and into San Diego after the city passed a law requiring “radiation” labels on cell phones that list the Specific Absorption Rates (SAR).  German defends the San Francisco law by arguing that it made no “scientific claims” about cell phone safety and is only meant to stir up debate, but the mere use of the term “radiation levels” in casual retail settings suggests something extremely dangerous.  We know as a scientific fact that wireless radio “radiation” is nothing like the danger of sunlight which is known to be very carcinogenic (especially between 10AM and 2PM) on human skin.

On the other hand, the published maximum SAR values are largely meaningless in real-world usage because they indicate the maximum power level of a cell phone.  The further (or more obstructed) a cell phone is to a cell tower, the more radio transmit power the cell phone needs to reach the cell tower.  If towers are closer, the cell phones are required to transmit at lower powers so as to avoid overloading the cell tower (equivalent of why it is bad to yell in someone’s ears).  What this means is that at a given operating range, two cell phones will probably have more similar SAR values but the phone with the higher maximum/published SAR can operate at a longer range.  If you’re out in the middle of nowhere stuck in a snowstorm without winter survival gear, you’ll probably want the phone with higher SAR.  But using that same high maximum SAR cell phone in the city (where cell towers are dense) won’t necessarily expose you to higher SAR values and higher transmit powers from your cell phone because it doesn’t need to operate at maximum power.

Based on existing scientific knowledge, we can’t build a low power cell phone that is also long range.  Engineers don’t design higher power cell phones just for the heck of it and they would rather have the lowest transmit power possible to increase battery life, but it is ironic that the same cell phone radiation fear mongers also obstruct more cell towers and I wouldn’t be surprised if many of those same people also complain about poor wireless coverage.  The only way to reduce the operational SAR of a cell phone by being closer to a cell tower which means denser cell tower deployments.  And because the physics of radio propagation dictate that cell towers are thousands to millions of times weaker than cell phones by the time it reaches a person, anyone seeking lower cell phone exposure will want to live closer to a cell tower and not further.

The city of San Francisco goes out of its way to block new cell tower deployments but also make it difficult to sell higher powered cell phones with the radiation labels they force on cell phone manufacturers.  Many of the same parents that oppose cell towers near schools have no problem with Wi-Fi in the home and school when Wi-Fi radiation is easily 10 to 100 times stronger than cell towers and operate on similar frequencies.  The same people protesting a 10 watt cell tower don’t seem to be as alarmed by TV towers broadcasting at over a million watt in the exact same VHF and UHF frequencies.  Ultimately, the cell tower protesters simply force all of us to live with inferior phone and data coverage and force us to have higher transmit power in our cell phones.

Another irony is when Kent German says: “I’m not a scientist, so I’m not about to interpret the findings of this or any study”.  Anytime someone leads a sentence with “I’m not a scientist”, I can almost feel an imminent dose of pseudoscience coming my way masquerading as real science.  True to form, German follows his “not a scientist” statement by proving it when he says that we don’t know if cell phone use causes DNA mutation.  But even a novice connoisseur of science knows that cellular signals are of the non-ionizing variety which don’t cause DNA mutation.  The concerns over cell phones is that there might be some other very long term harmful biological effect that we have yet to identify, but all the massive scale multi-decade studies have proven these fears to be wrong, and even the studies on children have been found to be safe.  More informed debate and more scientific studies are good, but paralysis of wireless infrastructure and health fear mongering based on pseudoscience is counter productive.

One Comment »

  • K S Parthasarathy said:

    Thank you.

    You have presented lucidly many facts on cell phone use. Behavior of activists is the same whether they deal with ionizing radiation or non ionizing radiation.I have faced the latter over several decades

    K S Parthasarathy Ph.D