Do cellphones give you cancer?!? (How exactly harmful is electromagnetic radiation?)

I’ve seen a couple books that practically scream at me that electronic equipment is harmful. I’ve also heard that people don’t want to live near high voltage power lines because of health concerns. Also my own mother came to me saying that you shouldn’t keep your cellphone by your head as an alarm clock. (And then had a completly bogus and illogical experiment to prove that cellphones hurt you.)
Just exactly how harmful is electromagnetic radition? Or is it all just the public panicking.

Here is a really really awesome chart about radiation levels that will either quell your mom’s fears, or make her buy a lead suit.

ETA: Here’s more charts with less colors and more words. Both pages were written in response to recent events.

I was more wondering about specific electronic devices, not radiation in general. But still somewhat helpful :smiley:

Cell phones emit microwave radiation. This is non-ionizing radiation; it will not produce dangerous free radicals in your body. Microwave radiation can be absorbed by some materials and result in heating, which is why microwave ovens work, but the amount of microwave energy put out by your cell phone is too small to elevate the temperature of any part of your body by more than a tiny fraction of a degree.

Yeah I dig, sorry. I saw those charts yesterday and have been itching to share :slight_smile:

You can read the NIH recommendations here.

Long story short, no short term effect linking cell phones to cancer has been demonstrated. No long term studies have been done, but health effects are thought to be unlikely. EM levels in cell phones are way below what has been shown to cause changes in laboratory animals.

So overall there is no evidence that cell phones cause cancer and no reason to believe that they do, but it hasn’t been conclusively ruled out. But then again it hasn’t been proved that cell-phones don’t prevent heart disease so maybe your better off using them.

Got cell phones covered.

TV’s: Old CRT-technology television sets were able to put out some X-rays, but the amount wasn’t much. Modern flat-screen TV’s using LCD/plasma technology do not have this problem.

The answer is not as clear as people on either side of the argument will claim.

Electromagnetic radiation does not cause cancer directly, in the sense that x-ray radiation and other “ionizing” radiation does. Ionizing radiation has enough energy to alter the structure of molecules in your cells, including DNA, and electromagnetic radiation does not. This is the argument you’ll hear many people making when they claim cell phones are perfectly safe, and it’s a valid argument.

However, electromagnetic radiation can still transfer energy to your cells, heating them and potentially interfering with certain biochemical processes. This study, for instance, unexpectedly found that cell phone radiation increases the metabolic rate in your brain on the side you hold the phone:

This study indicates that exposure to radiation emitted from cell phones induced noticeable cognitive defects (increased response time) in test subjects:

It is certainly conceivable that cell phone radiation may cause cancer through some indirect means, or have negative effects on your brain unrelated to cancer.

Various studies have claimed to have found correlations between brain tumor risk and cell phone use, but they have all been largely dismissed in one way or another because of flawed methodology. The majority of the research conducted to date indicates that whatever increased cancer risk exists is minimal at worst.

That said: you don’t have to worry about sleeping with a cell phone next to your head. The amount of radiation emitted from an “idle” cell phone is minuscule. All of the concern about cell phones relates to the radiation emitted when you’re on a call.

It’s all public panicking.

This all started with power lines. Way back in the late 60s or early 70s, some insurance guys figured out that folks who live next to power lines don’t live as long as folks who don’t. Insurance guys get paid big bucks to figure stuff like this out, since it determines how they set their rates. For a long time, no one but the insurance companies really seemed to notice or care much, but then a study came out in the late 70s that linked power lines to childhood leukemia. That study has since been discredited, but at that point the genie was out of the bottle and the association between power lines and something bad had now been made in the public mind.

In the 80s, things really went nuts. People feared lawsuits and wanted to know what was safe and what wasn’t, but by that point almost no research at all had been done on the subject. So people started throwing out “safe” numbers that they pulled out of their backsides, and people started making all kinds of money by walking around with field strength meters and making reports.

In the early 80s, cell phones were these great big things about the same size and weight as your typical brick, and they cost so much that no one except for Miami police detectives named Crockett and Tubbs could afford one (that’s a Miami Vice TV reference for you youngsters out there). During the 80s though cell phones got smaller and normal folks could start to afford them. It didn’t take long before someone made the obvious connection that if power lines were bad, cell phones must be bad too.

With everybody going nuts over something that hasn’t really been studied thoroughly, some folks get the idea that maybe we should actually start studying these things, and bizillions of dollars pours into research.

Now we fast forward a couple of decades. Tons and tons of research has been done on the subject, and so far, no one has yet been able to establish a link between either power lines or cell phones and something bad. Sure, once in a while a study finds something, but none of those studies has yet held up to peer review and follow-up studies. Since this is a very heated issue, you might think that a lot of the research is biased, like oh gee, the study funded by the Coalition Against Evil Satanic Cell Phones found something bad, what a surprise.While some of the research is biased, the majority of it is being done by reputable scientists, and often it is this reputable research that finds something that later doesn’t hold up. That’s the way science works. You do small tests, and sometimes you find something, then you do follow-ups to see if that something really is there or not.

The problem is that the initial study gets all kinds of front page news coverage. CELL PHONES KILL! makes a great headline. The later study that says WE DIDN’T FIND ANYTHING isn’t quite so newsworthy, and doesn’t make the headlines, and often doesn’t even make the paper at all. This makes the public think that there’s a lot more evidence that cell phones and power lines are bad than there really is. The reality of it is that after several decades and umpteen bizillion dollars in research, no one has yet been able to prove anything conclusive. It’s hard to prove a negative, but right now the lack of evidence is really making it seem like there’s really nothing here to worry about.

Here’s what we know so far.

Electromagnetic radiation is a whole bunch of stuff. On the low end of the frequency spectrum, you’ve got long waves (which are useful for communicating through polar ice but little else), radio waves, microwaves (which are just higher frequency radio waves), infrared light, visible light, ultraviolet light, X-rays, gamma rays, and cosmic rays. Part way through the ultraviolet part of the spectrum, electromagnetic radiation becomes “ionizing”, meaning that it can strip the electrons off of atoms. This is well known to cause cell damage and cancer, and it’s why sunlight causes colors to fade over time. Below the ultraviolet part of the spectrum, electromagnetic radiation is relatively safe. If you get enough of it, you can cook something. That’s how a microwave oven works, and you wouldn’t want to be standing in front of a Hollywood style spotlight. At much smaller power levels, like what you get from a cell phone or a flashlight, the radiation is harmless.

At ultraviolet and above though, that’s where things are dangerous. That’s why we have sunblock for your tanning lotion and why sunglasses are made with UV filters. It’s also why you need a lead apron if you work as an X-ray tech.

So the next time you are panicking about your cell phone, imagine a flashlight. That’s how harmful it is.

The TV X-ray scare, like many urban legends, has some basis in truth.

The problem was originally with certain models of GE televisions produced in the late 1960s. They had a misaligned shield over a vacuum tube, which caused the TV to emit dangerous levels of x-rays, directed mostly downward at an angle. If you were sitting across the room, you were safe, but children sitting in front of the TV would get extremely high doses of x-rays. Those televisions were all recalled, though several thousand were never tracked down. However, the chances of any of those still being in use these days is pretty small.

This did set up the idea in the public mind that televisions, particularly color televisions, produced dangerous levels of x-rays. So even though the original problem was fixed, the urban legend continued. The fact that CRTs do produce a small amount of x-rays also helped fuel the UL.

You are correct that modern flat screen televisions do not produce x-rays and are safe. Even older CRT type televisions and computer monitors put out levels that are so small that they aren’t worth worrying about, though.

And, of course, heat is something that we’ve evolved to deal with. If something’s heating up any of your tissues enough to do damage, you’ll feel it, and pull away from it quicker than you can even think. Does it feel like your cell phone is burning you? No? Then you’re OK.

You’re probably thinking about Paul Brodeur, who is not an insurance guy but a scare-mongering writer who doesn’t understand statistics and how we fool ourselves. He wrote some articles in the New Yorker claiming that people who live near power lines are adversely affected by them. His biggest error was the post hoc fallacy.

His claims have not been substantiated or reproduced and further studies tend to refute him.

There have been recent studies done in Canada, and in England that fail to debunk the claims that cellphone use has no correlation with neural cancers over long periods. The data was equivocal, and the methodology has been criticized by both supporters of cell phone use, and detractors, in both studies.

So, it hasn’t been disproven, but there ain’t no smokin’ gun visible.

Phone companies are not falling all over each other providing data on useage patterns for customers either, claiming that privacy is a reasonable expectation for their subscribers. Cancer is only the big bugaboo, some claims have been made that early dementia, and certain cognitive dysfunctions might be related, but those data sets entirely lack control data, or even uniformly quantified use levels.

More tempest than tea in this cup, so far.