Cell phones aren’t dangerous, don’t need labels

Posted March 04, 2010, at 7:48 p.m.

The Maine Legislature is currently considering putting “warning” labels on cell phones. Cell phones do not need labels warning people about the harmful effects of electromagnetic radiation for the simple reason that their emissions are not harmful.

Can openers, microwave ovens, television sets, fluorescent lights, light bulbs, fax machines, computers, video monitors, computer wireless cards, refrigerators, radio-TV towers and stoves are just some of the devices that emit electromagnetic radiation. Some of this radiation is significantly more energetic than that emitted by cell phones.

If you put warning labels on cell phones, you should place them on just about every other electrically powered device that you own.

There are many reasons to expect that cell phone radiation is not harmful. The energy of all electromagnetic radiation is carried by particles called photons. The energy of a photon depends only on its frequency: the higher the frequency the higher the energy.

The energy of a photon determines how much damage it can do. Quantum mechanics has demonstrated that energies are not cumulative in the sense that many low-energy photons cannot break chemical bonds that even a single high-energy photon can break. Simply adding more photons heats objects.

Scientists have done extensive testing of the effects of electromagnetic radiation on living cells. These tests are used to set limits on the emissions of electrical devices so that they have no deleterious effects on living cells.

The photons produced by consumer electronic devices have much lower energies than the photons that carry the electromagnetic radiation called light. Fortunately, no one is proposing that we put a label on light bulbs warning about their electromagnetic radiation, even though they produce photons having about 200,000 times as much energy as the photons produced by cell phones. Both types of photons lack the energy to produce chemical changes.

The sun also produces ultraviolet photons that have enough energy to cause chemical damage. This is whyyou can get sunburn from even a short exposure to the sun, but never get sunburn regardless of how long you sit under ordinary lights.

We live in a sea of electromagnetic radiation both natural and humanly made. We are constantly bombarded by natural radiation in the form of sunlight, cosmic rays, radon gas, radiation from the foods we eat and electromagnetic fields generated by our own cells. Many of these sources produce much more energetic photons than do cell phones.

In addition, our bodies receive a constant stream of electromagnetic radiation in the form of cell phone, radio and TV signals whether we are using any devices or not. Simply not using a cell phone will not spare you from electromagnetic radiation.

People allege that cell phone radiation is harmful because of some studies that show a correlation between cell phone usage and various types of brain cancers. Many of these studies are not a basis for policy because they involve small numbers of people and are statistically flawed.

For example, in the Boston area you can find some neighborhoods that have a higher cancer rate than others. You would also find that these high cancer rate neighborhoods have a very high percentage of Red Sox fans. On the other hand, you can find neighborhoods in the New York City area that have low cancer rates and a low percentage of Red Sox fans. You could then claim that you have “proof” that being a Red Sox fan increases your likelihood of getting cancer.

There have been attacks on devices emitting electromagnetic radiation for many decades. At one time or another, people worried about the “deleterious health effects” of electric power lines, microwave ovens, television sets and computer monitors. There was a period when people were busy putting up signs warning people that microwave ovens were in use. Fortunately, these signs are relics that no one takes seriously.

The cell phone warnings fit into this same category of useless signs that no one would take seriously. Fear of electrically powered devices is hard to understand given that human lifespans have increased dramatically since their introduction.

There are much more useful resolutions for the Legislature to consider than putting useless warnings on devices that do not need them.

George Markowsky is a professor of computer science at the University of Maine.

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