Disconnect, a book about the risks of cell phone radiation

Among the many dangers we face in our daily lives, from the hostile drivers who tailgate on our morning commutes, to the box of fried bread and sugar donuts bought in to the office, to the kid coughing on us with a 103 fever and influenza… it may seem alarmist to point out one more potential risk normally found in our own pockets. But the common cell phone, and the low level of radiation it emits, are increasingly subjects of debate. Depending on who you listen to, the cell phone is either a modern necessity beyond reproach, or a clear and present danger to which minimizing your exposure is worth the selectively Amish effort.

I picked up a copy of Devra Davis, P.h.D, M.P.H, new book entitled Disconnect. She purports to tell the truth about the cell phone radiation and what the industry has done to hide it, and to provide a few means of protecting yourself against the possible adverse effects of prolonged microwave radiation exposure. I have not fully read the book yet, but I have found it fascinating so far. As a family physician I believe in the value of preventative measures for health, but I am also aware of the paralyzing effect that excessive paranoia can have on our lives. I use a cell phone, but only minimally.

She centers her argument upon the central disconnect between the emerging science of cell phone radiation on human physiology, and the assumption that just because cell phones are omnipresent they must be safe. U.S. cell phone standards were set almost 30 years ago prior to the era of handheld wireless technology, and presumed that an average call would last 6 minutes. Dr. Davis makes the following points:

– At least one study has conclusively proven that cell phone radiation can unravel DNA.   [Another recent study showed that cell phone radiation affects the metabolic activity of brain tissue, as proven by PET scans]
– Studies funded by the cell phone industry find dangers with cell phone radiation at only half the rate that independently funded studies do, signaling a conflict of interest in scientific results.
– Men who do not use cell phones have “healthier” sperm than men who use phones for 2-4 hours a day.
– In one experiment, rats that had mastered getting out of a tank without drowning got lost and swam in circles after being exposed to cell phone radiation for an hour.
– Other nations are already acting on emerging epidemiologic concerns. France is banning the sale of phones for its children, and Russia, the UK, Canada, Belgium, Israel, Finland, Germany, and India have all discouraged the use of cell phones by children. There is no mention of what North Korea or the Sudan are doing.
– The Israeli Dental Association has reported a dramatic rise in a type of rare cheek cancer in young adults under 20.
– Lloyds of London, the oldest insurance company still active in the world, refuses to insure cell phone manufacturers against health-related claims, as do a number of other major firms.
– There are stories of scientists who raised concerns about the long term impact of cell phones on health who were defunded or chased out of research altogether.

The quality of this evidence is often inferential and anecdotal, but it is still worth consideration.  Dr. Devra Davis uses cell phones herself, which adds some credibility to her arguments since efficient life without wireless communication is just not practicable. She does make the point that we need to demand safer cell phones with higher safety standards, and offers these unproven but intuitive measures to possibly decrease the risks of cell phone radiation:

– Use a speaker, hands-free device, or even an earphone to distance the cell phone transmitter from the body and head. Radiation intensity decreases exponentially with distance.
– Try not to carry a cell phone on the body, as the phone still emits radiation when not in active use as it searches for towers, pushes notifications, etc.
– Beware of weak signals and standby mode when the signal strength is blocked, as radiation emission increases while the phone works harder to establish contact
– Keep cell phones away from children, as studies consistently show that their growing brains and skulls are more vulnerable to the effects of cell phone radiation. [I also think the younger generation as a whole is learning that communicating in a multitasking-simultaneously-oral-and-texted-polyconversation is socially acceptable]
– Don’t leave the cell phone on your nightstand. 75 years of low level radiation emission next to your head sounds like a bad idea to me, too.
– [I would add that I try to keep conversations on cell phones brief, and text when simple communication is all that’s needed]

I’m sure that cell phone radiation paranoia deserves it’s share of tempered reasoning.  Realistic comparison to the relative risks of everything else in our often toxic environments shows that cell phone worry is not worth obsession. As I open my window to get some fresh air I’ll be sucking in nanoparticulates, and the stress of my day job will causing dysfunctional amounts of cortisol and adrenaline to be released. But I still think minimizing risks where prudent and possible it worth the fight, and I’ll be reading the rest of her book when I can.

Coincidentally the New York Times Magazine has an article about cell phones and brain cancer today.



7 thoughts on “Disconnect, a book about the risks of cell phone radiation

  1. Matt M

    Any word about how cell phone radiation compares with lap-top, IPad, Kindle, and other electronic appliances? All of these communicate with a local network or cell tower.

    For that matter, how do the communication devices compare with household and high voltage electrical systems, and their electric fields? While I might be willing to return to mid-20th century technology, going back to the mid-19th century just is not going to work.

  2. Owen

    If cell phones have been around for 20 years, if the user population is millions->billions, then surely by now epidemiology would have shown a trend?

    And then I ask, how long have power lines been around.

  3. shadowsong

    Is she arguing that cell phones produce ionizing radiation that we have previously been unable to detect, or that non-ionizing radiation can cause cancer?

  4. Greg P

    The biggest problem I have with such opinions has to do with the conspiracy aspect, that information is being withheld, studies quashed, with the basic idea that there is some evil person or body of people with evil intent.

    We know from medicine that there are, always have been, always will be many uncertainties, and some certain things become uncertain later.

    One might easily argue that there is a conspiracy for some to propose conspiracies, since this might be the only way they perceive to be able to make their mark. Most of these attacks are only people asking interesting or important questions, but asking an important question is not the same as giving a sound answer to it.

  5. Scrubs

    Interesting, since this posting the World Health Organization also says cell phones may cause cancer. (May 31st). The declaration was made after a week-long meeting of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon, France, which involved 31 scientists from 14 countries, who decided there was enough evidence linking use of cellphones to an increased risk of glioblastoma.
    When we will know for sure on this heated debate? and can cell phone manufactures make them less carcinogenic?

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