Mobiles give you brain cancer?
Take a message, I'm on the other line
Column Call me sensitive if you must, but when someone starts talking about wireless and keeps using the word "radiation" I tend to suspect an agenda.
So this week when Occupational Environmental Medicine used headlines such as "Using mobile phones for more than 10 years doubles risk of brain cancer", my first respose was to search through the article for this magic word.
I didn't find it until the third paragraph, and it was carefully used.
That made me read the piece more carefully than I would have done otherwise. According to author Geoffrey Lean, the survey he's reporting "is important because it pulls together research on people who have used the phones for long enough to contract the disease".
Me. That's who they're talking about. I started using mobile phones in the old analogue phone days with the cool NEC Micro 900 back in the early 1990s. So I take reports like this very seriously.
And the question all heavy phone users will want answered is: what do I do about it? I mean, it's not as if I can go back to a world where I don't have this essential tool of modern business. I'm more totally addicted than any cigarette burner.
Naturally, my first response is denial.
My own opinions on mobile phones, Wi-Fi, and other radio transmissions, are that until we have a large and statistically valid body of epidemiological data to analyse, we simply don't know what the long term effects are. There are lots of stories, and Lean quotes a typical anecdote in his piece:
Neil Whitfield, a 49-year-old father of six, developed an acoustic neuroma in 2001 after years of heavy mobile phone use, on the left side of the head, to which he had held his handset. He says he had no family history of the disease and that when he asked a specialist what had caused it, the doctor had asked him if he used a mobile.
It's a great quote to illustrate something we already know - if we do know it. But, epidemiologically, it's simply meaningless. Anybody can get acoustic neuromas; very, very few of us do. Even if they are shown to be caused by mobile phones, which is not yet clear, it's not obvious that it's "radiation" that is the mechanism.
The ill-effects of simply covering your ear for prolonged periods are widely understood, and I haven't heard of a study which tests the effects of heating (what is known as "cooking") your nerve cell sheaths. I do know that phones heat your ears up.
The trouble is, I'm immunised against stories like this.
If you take the trouble to research the history of the telephone mast debate, you'll quickly discover more "green ink" than even a Hi-Fi nut could spread on the entire CD canon.
Recently, I was debating the subject with a well-known anti-mast campaigner - he appeared on the notorious Panorama "exposé" of Wi-Fi dangers - and I mentioned, in passing, that the amount of power given off by a wireless antenna was really, really small. His response: "We didn't evolve in a way that enables us to cope with that sort of radiation."
I said: "But it's not radiation in the same sense that radium-based luminous watches were. And I've seen people campaigning about phone masts while parading up and down in the street with their babies in the sunshine, without sun cream."
He said: "But we've evolved to cope with sunshine."
Well, not really. Ultra-violet radiation from the vast nuclear fusion bomb that is the Sun is just one of the ionising spectra which causes skin cancer and will actually make your skin burn and fall off if you have more than a few minutes exposure. I said as much: "But UV is seriously dangerous. It's ionising radiation."
"Oh, no, negligibly," came the reply.
After you've had similar conversations with enough well-meaning but ignorant people, you start to ignore them, the way you ignore people who tell you the CIA is beaming messages into their skulls to try to make them confess to things they haven't done.
But the OEM isn't a green ink outfit. If it's right, we'll have to change the way we use phones.
The obvious first step is to use hands-free speakers wherever possible. Parked on the table in front of you, the radio intensity of your pocket mobile is a tiny fraction of the power that reaches the side of your head if you hold it to your ear (work it out: for every two centimetres you move it away, using the inverse square law).
The next obvious step is to get earphones which aren't broadcasting in the same band. Some headsets are used as antennae by the phone, and if you plug them into your ears, you may be getting as much power as the phone itself puts out (unlikely, if you reckon that these antennae are far more efficient and allow the phone to broadcast at a much lower level). Ordinary stereo headsets, however, are more common these days and are less likely to be problematic.
You might want to re-design your Bluetooth headset. I've always felt that the standard design is silly. I'd rather have the Bluetooth in a "pod" clipped to my pocket, and a standard stereo heatset (wires!) coming up to my ears, so that if I bump my head, my expensive hands-free device doesn't fall into the gutter and down a drain.
Finally, you could consider using the phone as a text device, rather than voice. Send SMS texts, emails, and sound clip MMS messages, rather than spend long periods on the phone.
But the more sensible approach would be to ask for more data.
Ten years ago, phones were vastly more powerful than they are today. Typical power output was around six watts to seven watts. Typical power output of today's thin slivers of technology is a thousandth of that. The batteries simply don't have enough energy stored in them to broadcast at that power for more than a few minutes.
Even if you don't find that convincing, you might recognise that mobile phones may be (relatively) new to mankind, but wireless isn't. TV transmitters are long-established and powerful. How powerful? Try this quote (forgive me) from Wikipedia:
"Modern transmitters can be incredibly efficient, with efficiencies exceeding 98 per cent. However, a broadcast transmitter with a megawatt power stage transferring 98 per cent of that into the antenna can also be viewed as a 20 kilowatt electric heater."
Anybody living within a mile or so of one of the major TV towers should, if this theory of radiation-induced cancers is true, be riddled with tumours. So far, studies seem to have failed to have turned up such clusters. And studies of communications workers installing and testing microwave transmitters have also failed to spot any significant risk. Those systems go back a lot further than the first mobile phones.
There's one final area worth focusing on: The effects of wireless transmissions on naked flesh vary according to spectrum. The 2.4 GHz band, for example, is excellent at heating water (which is why microwave ovens use that, and also why Wi-Fi and Bluetooth stop working well in a room full of people), but move a little way up or down the spectrum, and the effects on water become trivial.
So, after collecting more evidence, if we do find that there are some spectra which are safe for human tissue, we can see if an international treaty can be drawn up to use those for personal communications systems.
The one thing that isn't going to happen is that the world will throw away its phones.
People do accuse the mobile operators of being in cahoots with the phone makers to hide "the truth" about wireless. If they are, they're wasting their energy, because as we know humans will carry on doing things that harm them.
We've known "the truth" about alcohol, motoring, tobacco, and saturated fats for ages, but McDonald's still has to provide huge car parks, and pubs and cigarette machines continue to flourish. ®