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Posts Tagged ‘cellular’

Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer? See What a Real Expert Says

November 24, 2010 6 comments

I’ve written about the issue of cell phones and Wi-Fi and the supposed health risks associated with their use. The resounding scientific evidence shows they are perfectly safe, but the media continues to stoke fear in the public with unbalanced coverage.

When reading a news story about this sort of thing, I always wonder why they don’t ask an actual expert. The answer is that an expert would say how implausible the story is, and that they are silly for reporting it.

That doesn’t sell newspapers.

Instead, they find the one person on the fringe who maintains that there is a magical mechanism by which non-ionizing radiation can harm us. But thankfully, Phil Plait posted on his blog today something I have been looking for a long time.

I’m not a researcher (anymore). I don’t have a Ph.D, so I can tell you what I think, and I can tell you I know what I’m talking about, but I will never have as much credibility as a real university professor in physics or electrical engineering.

Enter this talk by Professor Christopher Davis from the University of Maryland’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. It was given at a National Capitol Area Skeptics meeting, and posted on YouTube. It’s in 5 parts and each part is about 13 minutes long.

It is a fascinating talk and not too technical, so you don’t need a science background to understand the main points. He even touches on backscatter x-ray scanners which have been in the news quite a bit lately. Enjoy!

Cell Phones and Cancer: The Globe and Mail’s Epic Fail

September 26, 2010 3 comments

So I wake up around 8:30 on Saturday morning. I’m enjoying a nice coffee and watching a “Hell’s Kitchen” episode that I’ve PVR’d.

Then I open my laptop to read the news, and right there on the home page of The Globe and Mail I read the headline: “The Disturbing Truth About Cell Phones”

Here we go…

The author of the article quotes a book newly released called Disconnect. Even though the book admits that there is no conclusive evidence that cell phones are in any way dangerous, the article still manages to come across as fear-laden and lazily researched. The article claims that studies show that the risk of glioma, a rare type of brain tumor, doubles with cell phone use. Funny, that’s not what this review of the literature says.

One thing that I think science journalists are particularly bad at is understanding that you cannot prove a negative. There are a large number studies which show there is little or no evidence that cell phone use is associated with increased health risks. However, when these studies are covered in the press or quoted by those opposed to cell phone use, they simply say that this shows “more study is needed”.

Now, I am all for studying the long-term risks/benefits of cell phone use. However, it needs to be made clear that when a study shows “no correlation”, this is not “inconclusive”. The only thing which will satisfy journalists or anti-cell phone activists is a study saying that “cell phones proved to not cause cancer”. The unfortunate thing is that this will never happen.

It is impossible to prove a negative. It would be like saying “prove to me that the sun won’t rise one day”. In order to prove this, I will have to perform an infinite number of observations, which is of course impossible. I could tell you that all the evidence suggests that the sun will rise every morning that the Earth continues to rotate on its axis and the sun continues to burn. But I cannot conclusively say “the sun will always rise”.

The Globe and Mail article also performs a common fallacious argument, which is cherry-picking data. Even though there is a large body of literature on RF radiation and cell phone use, the small number of studies which suggest a negative health effect of cell phones are often touted as proof that they do, in fact, cause negative health effects. This is wrong.

You have to look at a whole body of literature, not just a few isolated studies. For example, here is a study which not only shows no negative health effects of cell phones, but actually shows it may help fight Alzheimer’s disease. This is an isolated case which demanded further study, but no other lab showed similar results. So you can see why you need to look at a large amount of literature to get an accurate picture. This is something The Globe article fails to do.

The article also talks about a study in which rats were bombarded with microwaves and found that they had damaged DNA. Not only that,

The rats also had brain-cell alterations, memory lapses and fluids leaking from their brains into their blood, indicating a breach of the blood-brain barrier.

Where do I start with this one?

Well the reference to the study is not given, so that’s a big problem. It is not stated at what powers or frequencies of microwaves the rats were exposed to. Big problem there, since it is not fair to compare different powers or frequencies than those used in cell phones. And the final problem is rats are not people. This may seem obvious to most of us, but results from a rat-based study do not always translate to humans. Many drug studies test drugs which helped disease models in rats, but failed to do the same thing in humans, the physiology is different. To tout this study as evidence that cell phones hurt humans is wrong. It may warrant further study, but it doesn’t prove anything.

So lets not start throwing out our cell phones in favour of tin-can phones or telegraphs just yet. The literature shows that there is no conclusive evidence linking cell phone use to negative health effects.

Lets remember to keep these things in perspective too. A study which was just published estimates cell phone related deaths in the United States over the last decade. Not from microwaves, but from talking or texting while driving. In 2005, there were 4572 deaths related to cell phone use while driving. In 2008, the number was 5870. The study also estimates that from 2001 to 2007, texting resulted in an additional 16 000 deaths.

These numbers are only for the United States, not worldwide. This is a problem that is more dangerous than RF radiation will ever be, even if it did cause damage to humans.

Even though I am not a huge fan of Oprah, she has the right idea with her “No Phone Zone” pledge.

You can read more about the dangers of using cell phones while driving and sign the pledge on her website.

Be Afraid of Your Wi-Fi! Be Very Afraid!

September 1, 2010 Leave a comment

Wow. I cannot believe this is still in the news.

Its one of those things you hope only happens once and you never hear about it again. Like the Star Wars Holiday Special.

But unfortunately, the Wi-Fi hysteria remains in the news. This time with a couple of new foot soldiers. They include a drama teacher from Brock University, and a self-proclaimed specialist named Barrie Trower.

And perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, but the reporting of this story in the CBC is really starting to irk me. Lets explore shall we?

I wrote previously about the parents in Simcoe county in Northern Ontario were claiming that Wi-Fi was making their children sick. The supposed dangers of Wi-Fi has been dismissed by teachers, the World Health Organization, Health Canada and scientists worldwide; as it should be.

But proponents of the evils of technology continue to drag the story out and spread fear throughout the community. With a little help from their friends, the news media.

Take, for example, this audio clip of an interview on CBC with Barrie Trower.

Barrie Trower on CBC Metro News

Trower claims to have worked for the British military in the 1960s on experiments dealing with low-level microwave radiation. He claims that they caused adverse health effects; everything from affecting the blood brain barrier to the immune system. He is quite vague and never explains what frequencies or power levels of microwaves he studied.

A couple of my favourite quotes from the audio file are these:

I have a document here…it lists all of the illnesses that  children and adults can get from very low-level microwave radiation. And it specifically says on the top…this must be kept secret…the ordinary general population must not be told because it will affect industrial profit.

What is this document? Who wrote it? There are no specifics given about the origin of this mysterious document. Trower claims he gets it from the freedom of information act, but if that were true he should have given us the specifics so we could look up the document for ourselves. I am skeptical…

When I saw Wi-Fis being put in schools at the same powers and the same levels that were used in the 1960s for experiments, I knew straight away that there were hidden dangers to the young children.

You knew straight away, did you Mr. Trower? What about when Wi-Fi was being put into offices, Universities, laboratories, airports, and coffee shops? Did you not think there was a danger then? It seems interesting to me that only when the story about the Simcoe area parents came out, did Mr. Trower decided that he should reveal to everyone about the secret 50 year old experiments that he did with microwaves.

Nor has Mr. Trower provided and clear arguments or evidence (at least, to the news outlets) that Wi-Fi poses any sort of threat to anyone.

And what about the other British scientists that performed these experiments? I find it odd that they all wouldn’t want to come out and save chidren’s lives if they thought that Wi-Fi was dangerous.
While the interviewer sounds slightly skeptical, he fails to ask the right questions to point out the weaknesses in what this man is saying, so thats YOUR fault CBC.

Now lets move on to the drama teacher from Brock University, one David Fancy. Said Fancy,

It’s not necessarily up to me to say that they cause harm. I think there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that they do. But we certainly can’t say with any conclusive level that they’re safe.

Actually David, yes we can. There is a large body of literature which has studied and reported the effects of exposure to microwave radiation. The conclusion is that at the frequencies and powers associated with cellular phones, cell phone towers and Wi-Fi, the exposure level does not pose any danger.

In fact, 1 years worth of exposure to a wireless signal is roughly the same exposure as you would get in a 20 minute cell phone call. And in a recent large scale study, the long term effects of cellular phone use has not shown any mal-effects over the past 10 years.

Now, just to be fair, there is a small smattering of studies which suggest a health effect from low level microwave exposure, which these fear-mongerers can spout of the top of their heads. However, one has to take into account the entire volume of literature, not just a few isolated studies (most of which have had their conclusions contested).

You see, when a subject is studied as much as RF radiation, there is bound to be some random noise in the results of individual studes; particularly if the studies involve small sample sizes. This is completely expected. What is important is what the overall picture of the studies is, and that picture is that Wi-Fi is safe.

You can all relax now.

This all would be clear in the news stories, if the news outlets bothered to get an actual expert opinion. Why haven’t the CBC gone and interviewed physics Professors or doctors or biologists or RF engineers? Doesn’t this seem like an obvious thing to do?

Apparently not, and its having an effect. On a CBC poll about 1/3 of parents are concerned about Wi-Fi and its health effects. Kudos CBC on causing fear in these parents minds.

Sadly, talking to Physicists doesn’t boost ratings (unless maybe its Phil Plait) so we won’t get those opinions in the news. You have to go and search them out yourselves.