I knew that there were fears that direct contact with cell phones could cause brain damage, but I didn’t know the industry was acknowledging those risks by issuing warnings. One reason I didn’t know may be that I tend to rest my iPhone on my ear when I talk on it — sometimes, during long conference calls (hi, Grist!), to the point where it gets pretty warm.
Might I be frying my brain to the point that I make dumb decisions — like regularly pummeling my brain with radiofrequency radiation?
Well, the main reason I didn’t know, as the above-quoted New York Times piece by Randall Stross makes clear, is that companies like Apple and Research in Motion place their warnings in “the fine print of the little slip that you toss aside when unpacking your phone.”
In other words, the companies want to be on record warning you about cell-phone radiation, presumably for liability reasons, but they don’t want you to think too much about cell phone radiation. That’s likely because you might stop using your cell phone so much — or lusting after the latest and ever-more-powerful “smart” phone.
So what exactly are these dangers that cell-phone makers sort of want you to know about, and sort of don’t want you to know about? Well, a recent Harper’s piece (abstract here) spent several thousand words assessing the evidence, and found it inconclusive.
But as Stross shows, there is certainly enough evidence to inspire caution:
Henry Lai, a research professor in the bioengineering department at the University of Washington, began laboratory radiation studies in 1980 and found that rats exposed to radiofrequency radiation had damaged brain DNA. He maintains a database that holds 400 scientific papers on possible biological effects of radiation from wireless communication. He found that 28 percent of studies with cellphone industry funding showed some sort of effect, while 67 percent of studies without such funding did so. “That’s not trivial,” he said.
No, not trivial at all. I’m going to have invest in one of those “hands-free” devices for all phone talking — not just my iPhone but also my cordless home phone. I used to worry that people would think I was talking to myself if I used one of those. But that was before I surrendered untold brain cells not using one.
As for government regulators and cell-phone industry execs, I refer them to the “precautionary principle” entry in Wikipedia, which opens like this:
The precautionary principle states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action.
Stross reports that “there are 292 million wireless numbers in use” in the United States, and that about a quarter of households are wireless only. All together, we spend some 2.26 trillion minutes on our cellphones annually. Given the clear potential for harm, it seems like there should a serious effort to educate people about the risk of radiation risks from cell phones.
The city of San Francisco has moved in that direction, requiring cell phone retailers to prominently post the radiation levels generated by each phone. But rather than cooperate, the cell phone industry has lashed out in anger — the cellphone industry’s primary trade group recently pulled its annual trade show out of San Francisco.
Meanwhile, I type these words with my bulky laptop separated from my lap only by an over-sized hardback book. Isn’t this just the kind of decision you’d expect from someone who’s been subjecting his brain to radiation for years?