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Posts Tagged ‘cell phones’

Relative Radiation

March 21, 2011 Leave a comment

With the current crisis in Japan with the nuclear power plant, the media has latched onto the public’s fears of radiation.

And y’know what? I understand that fear. Radiation is invisible. It could be anywhere and you won’t know it until it’s too late.

But I am not afraid. Why?

The thing is that I know how much radiation we get on a daily basis, and how it compares with certain medical procedures and working near radiation sources, like a nuclear power plant. Most people do not, and the media plays on those fears to drive up ratings.

Thankfully, Randall Munroe of xkcd fame has created another wonderful (and timely) poster illustrating the relative doses associated with doing certain tasks or living near certain places.

Click on the image see the large version.

Some of the most interesting comparisons:

  • You get more than 3 times the radiation dose living within 50 miles of a coal power plant than you do living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant
  • Flying round-trip from New York to Los Angeles would give you the equivalent dose of living within 10 miles of the Three Mile Island accident.
  • Living in a stone, brick, or concrete building for 15 years gives you a larger radiation dose than anyone got from the Three Mile Island accident.
  • Using a CRT monitor for a year gives you a larger radiation dose than living next to a nuclear power plant for a year (but then again, who uses CRT monitors anymore?)

So while the Japan nuclear crisis is indeed serious, it is no reason to stop using nuclear power in general.

Oh, and the radiation dose from cell phones is zero, because phones don’t generate ionizing radiation and they don’t cause cancer. Relax, people.

Cell Phones, Your Brain, and the Media

February 23, 2011 72 comments

Usually, when a scientific study gets this much media attention, it has something quite impactful to report.

But when the study has nice, media-friendly buzz-words like “radiation” and “brain activity”, you get a firestorm of media coverage. Even if your study doesn’t say all that much.

The study I am referring to is called “Effects of Cell Phone Radiofrequency Signal Exposure on Brain Glucose Metabolism” which was recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study looked at 47 healthy volunteers; a relatively small study. The researchers took these volunteers and gave them all PET scans on their brains. They had also strapped two cellphones on either side of their head. One cell phone was on, and the other was turned off.

During a 50 minute phone call, they compared the two sides of their brain to see if there was any change in glucose uptake.

What did they find?

Whole-brain metabolism did not differ between on and off conditions. In contrast, metabolism in the region closest to the antenna (orbitofrontal cortex and temporal pole) was significantly higher for on than off conditions (35.7 vs 33.3 μmol/100 g per minute; mean difference, 2.4 [95% confidence interval, 0.67-4.2]; P = .004). The increases were significantly correlated with the estimated electromagnetic field amplitudes both for absolute metabolism (R = 0.95,P < .001) and normalized metabolism (R = 0.89; P < .001). [JAMA]

So basically, whole-brain metabolism was the same whether the phone was on or off. However, in regions close to the phone’s antenna, the metabolism was “significantly higher”. It is important to point out that in this context, “significantly” means statistical significance, not a large increase. In fact, the increase was only about 7%.

Brain imaging physicist Dardo Tomasi of Brookhaven National Laboratory, who co-authored the study, said that’s several times less activity than visual brain regions show during an engaging movie. [Wired]

Ok, so now the important question: what does this mean for our health? Nora Volkow, the study’s lead author commented:

Volkow says it is too early to tell whether this is good or bad for the brain. “Much larger fluctuations in brain activity occur naturally,” says Patrick Haggard at University College London. In fact, being able to increase activity might boost the brain’s connectivity, and could even be useful therapeutically, Volkow suggests. [New Scientist]

So although the study was published as a “Preliminary Communication”, and that the study itself concludes:

This finding is of unknown clinical significance. [JAMA] (emphasis mine)

there is still a large number of news outlets which reported on the study. Why?

Well we know why already. That “unknown” word in the above quote carries a lot of baggage.

Cell phones are the new danger to health, of course. Despite there being no conclusive evidence that cell phones even have the ability to cause cancer, and the fact that even with the explosion of cell phone use in recent years, cancer rates have not increased, people are still scared of their cell phone.

This is thanks to poor media coverage, and a few crackpots out there who are determined to prove that technology is going to destroy us all.

And as a result this small, preliminary study with a result that, while interesting, is completely benign, gets extensive media coverage. Not only that, but some news sites give thinly veiled comments suggesting that the results somehow show that cell phones are dangerous, like this one:

The unusual finding, published on Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, is likely to lead to new calls for stricter regulation of radiation emissions from the ubiquitous phones. The government currently assumes the signals have no effects other than a harmless warming of tissues near where they’re held. [The Globe and Mail]

or this one:

Some studies have linked cell phone exposure to an increased risk of brain cancers, but a large study by the World Health Organization was inconclusive. [MSNBC]

Of course they used the word “inconclusive” in the above quote, when it should really read “it showed no correlation”. Scicurious points out that this is probably because “‘inconclusive’ sounds scarier”.

So nobody panic. This study does not show that cell phones are dangerous. It may show that the electric field from the antenna somehow increases metabolism of glucose, but those findings need to be corroborated by other labs. Let’s wait until their findings are duplicated on a larger scale and a mechanism by which this effect happens can be discovered before we decide what, if any, impact this study should have.

Ontario Says “No” to Cell Phone Warning Labels

November 5, 2010 1 comment

And it’s the right call. For two reasons:

  1. There is no conclusive scientific data to support any adverse health risks associated with short, moderate, or long-term cell phone use.
  2. A warning label would serve no purpose, other than to instill fear into the users.

The bill proposed to put a sticker on all cell phones indicating that there could be an increased risk of cancer from using a cell phone. Not only is this unnecessary, but it’s also wrong.

The scientific data overwhelmingly shows that there is no increased risk of cancer associated with cell phone use.

And what purpose would a warning sticker on a cell phone serve anyway? Would any of us stop using our cell phones? Would we hold it further from our head while we talk on it?

Of course not. Eventually we would get over our initial shock and fear of the warning sticker, read all the buzz-word containing media-frenzy stories about the evils of technology, and then settle back into our normal routine. All in all, this was a bad idea to begin with.

But my oh my, look who turned up to give her opinion on this issue. Our old friend Prof. Magda Havas from Trent University. She turns up in just about every story that involves cell phones, wireless internet, power lines, dirty electricity, and many other stories trying to convince us that technology is bad.

So I want to get something straight about why she keeps showing up. Is it because she is an expert? I would argue not. Her Ph.D. is in botany (the study of plants) so I don’t see how this qualifies her to study electromagnetic fields and their interaction with the human body. The list of publications on her website has very few peer-reviewed articles. Instead, it’s littered with “Letters to the Editor” and other opinion based writing. Not a lot of scientific credibility there.

No, she shows up because media outlets try to get both “sides” of the story, even if one side is way off base. Enter Magda Havas, who is one of very few people in the world who believes in electrosensitivity and kids getting sick from wireless internet. There are so few people who think this way, that they keep going to one person on the fringe to get her opinion. It is sloppy reporting, and not indicative of the evidence.

On CSI, Grissom (who was the best character but left, and now I am sad) always tells us to “follow the evidence” because the evidence will lead us to the truth. If we follow the evidence about cell phones, we see overwhelming evidence that cell phones are safe. Why then, do we continue to read about how evil they are?

William Peterson as Gil Grissom. From Wikipedia

Wi-Fi the New Danger to Children…Apparently

August 16, 2010 2 comments

Well, as if we didn’t have enough to be afraid of in the pseudoscientific world, now we have to be afraid of our wireless internet connection.

Parents in Barrie and other northern Ontario towns have called the public school board to remove its recently installed Wi-Fi system because, they claim, it is making their children sick.

The symptoms include memory loss, trouble concentrating, skin rashes, hyperactivity, night sweats and insomnia.

These are extremely non-specific symptoms, and most of them can describe pretty much every young child I know at some point in their lives.

Said one of the parents:

“I’m not saying it’s because of the Wi-Fi because we don’t know yet, but I’ve pretty much eliminated every other possible source.”

Really? You’ve eliminated EVERY possible source? Thats quite a bold statement when it comes to environmental factors.

Now, its hard to blame these parents for looking out for their kids, but this is a clear cut case of poor understanding of technology and media hysteria.

Oh yes, I’m talking about YOU CBC!

For example, take the “expert” they got to comment on this story, one Professor Magda Havas from Trent University (in my hometown of Peterborough, Ontario, incidentally).

So what does this professor say? From the CBC article:

Claims by Health Canada that Wi-Fi is safe provided exposures to radiation are below federal guidelines are “outdated and incorrect,” based on the growing number of scientific publications reporting adverse health and biological effects, Havas wrote.

Havas did her Ph.D in Botany, so what makes her an expert electromagnetism, I have no idea. But from her website (note the advertisement to her book at the bottom), it seems she is involved in fear mongering for just about every junk science theory about electromagnetism affecting humans, including the dangers of power lines and cell phones (all these technologies have repeatedly been shown to be safe).

It amazes me that they couldn’t find an actual expert in electromagnetism to comment on this story. But then, it wouldn’t increase readership would it?

But shall we interrupt this exercise in bad science and bad science reporting for some REAL science?

The energy deposition from a typical wireless signal is roughly 100 times less than exposure to a cell phone (which remember, has been shown to be a perfectly safe level). It is also thousands of times less than current government regulated safety levels, AND is less than normal background radio frequency radiation. Maybe that rat-bastard Ryan Seacrest and his Top 40 crap is making us all sick!

Now how about a bit of logic? The parents claim that these symptoms go away on the weekends. This makes no sense as children are exposed to wireless signals at their home, at the mall, the airport, restaurants, pretty much everywhere. If it was the Wi-Fi and these children are truly sensitive to it, they should be sick virtually all the time.

And what about children living in an apartment building, where there are literally dozens of wireless signals in their vicinity. Shouldn’t they be affected at home as well? Shouldn’t this be more widespread?

Ok, so when I start freaking out about stuff like this, my lovely girlfriend invariably asks “So what COULD it be, if not the Wi-Fi?”

My Lovely Girlfriend. Yes, I have one!

Well, remember these symptoms: trouble concentrating, hyperactivity, insomnia, night sweats. This sounds like me when I was a kid. I was always having trouble sleeping and running around like a madman. These tended to go away on the weekend though, when I could just relax and play video games. Also, kids don’t like school; they could get stressed out and cause these symptoms, which would of course go away on the weekends and in the summer. They may be staying up too late on weeknights, so sleep deprivation could easily cause some of these symptoms.

Want to know what I really think is happening? I think a child got sick with something, and an over-zealous parent read something about Wi-Fi being dangerous on the internet. They heard that the school had recently installed Wi-Fi and BAM! you got yourself the perfect storm of fear.

If you take nothing else from my blog, please take this: Correlation does NOT equal causation.

Just because these children got sick after (several months after, which is kinda weird. Shouldn’t they have gotten sick right away?) the school board installed wireless networks, does NOT mean wireless networks made these children sick.

I could just as easily say the sun rose after my alarm clock went off this morning, therefore my alarm clock caused the sun to rise. It is a logical fallacy and stories like this are riddled with them.

So don’t worry folks, your internet is just fine. Continue using your laptop (to read this blog, hopefully) and your cell phone without fear. With every new technology there will be those who try to convince you its bad. And unfortunately, there will also be protective parents to make a fuss over it.