Friday, December 10, 2010


Identifying the cause of disease is the first step in its treatment. Epidemiology, the branch of medicine concerned with causation, seeks to establish correlation between exposure to a possible cause and actual occurance of the disease. Data must be taken over a period of years to allow for latency; if no effect is seen, a longer latency period is assumed. Since there is no record of individual usage, people are asked to recall what they did years earlier. Exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF) in modern society is ubiquitous, but with the exception of a few crackpots it was not thought to be a problem until 1989 when the New Yorker ran a series of hopelessly misinformed articles by Paul Brodeur linking EMF to cancer. The articles were turned into a series of books with lurid titles like Currents of Death. Brodeur had zero background in science but he managed to arouse the anti-science monster that had been in hiding since World War II. The media, trained to give both sides of the story, even if one side is the babbling of an idiot, was no help. It did not end until 1996 when the National Academy of Sciences, persuaded that the public would not accept an argument based on quantum mechanics, released a three-year study that found no effect of EMF on the human body. Almost overnight power lines stopped causing cancer. The anti-science monster had been chained, but it was still alive.


With the abrupt emergence of cell-phone technology a decade ago, the anti- science monster talked its way out of bondage. Devra Davis, who is not quite a scientist, but has a PhD in something called Science Studies, has donned the mantle of Paul Brodeur to write Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What Industry Has Done to Hide It, and How to Protect Your Family. What's missing is what was missing from Paul Brodeur: the universe is governed by quantum physics. Einstein pointed out a century ago that electromagnetic radiation behaves like units of energy called photons equal to Planck's constant times the frequency. They don't cause any trouble unless their energy matches some natural excitation. There isn't much to excite until they reach the energy of molecular vibrations in the microwave region. This is the part of the spectrum used in cell phones, so in principle your cell phone might cook your goose, but it would take a very long time. At even higher frequencies you reach the red end of the visible spectrum, then yellow, green and finally blue. Not until you reach the extreme blue end of the visible spectrum is there a problem. At that energy, photons can eject photoelectrons, creating mutant strands of DNA that can become a cancer. This is the lowest energy at which an incident photon can induce cancer. Photons of this energy are about a million times more energetic than a microwave photon, but cannot penetrate very deeply and therefore induce only skin cancers. However, in the last few days there have been reports that children exposed to cell phones radiation while in the womb have an increased risk of behavior problems several years after birth. At this point we can expect a wilder and wilder claims of effects from cell phone radiation.

Bob Park can be reached via email at
Opinions are the author's and are not necessarily shared by the University, but they should be.