You know the story about the man sitting at a bar who periodically makes a sudden, jujitsu-like movement with his hands and arms. When asked by the man next to him why he does that, he responds, “I’m keeping the elephants away.” When the questioner points out that “there are no elephants in this part of the world,” the flailer responds, “You see how effective it is!”
I was reminded of this story by the state of California’s move this past week to release guidelines telling the public how it can avoid harmful “radiation” from cell phones. The California Department of Public Health’s new guidelines are partly the result of a lawsuit brought by Joel Moskowitz, a professor at the University of California Berkeley, back in 2009. He won the case this past spring.
Moskowitz claims that “we’re not doing a good job in regulating radiation from these devices. In fact, we’re doing an abysmal job. People are being injured and harmed by the delay in having this information accessible to them.”
Explaining the motivation behind the guidelines, a spokesperson for the Cal Dept of Public Health, Dr. Karen Smith was quoted as saying, “We recognize that there are a lot of people in the general public that have some concerns about their cellphones and whether using a cellphone is safe. When you sleep, you keep the cellphone at least at arm’s length away from your body. And also, not carrying your cellphone in your pocket, having it either in your purse or not carrying it with you.” She referred to research that indicates that cell phones could increase the risk for brain cancer and tumors, low sperm count, headaches, as well as impaired memory, hearing, and sleep.
Before even considering what the scientific evidence has to say on this topic, two glaring ploys jump out at one. First, Moskowitz’s use of the word “radiation” to refer to the energy emitted by cell phones is designed to instill fear. Although the electromagnetic spectrum is a continuum, the word “radiation” is generally used to refer to “ionizing radiation,” that is, the part of the spectrum that has energies that are high enough to knock an electron out of an atom, causing ionization and possibly inducing cancer. Examples of ionizing radiation include UV radiation, X-rays, and cosmic rays.
In contrast, cell phone emissions are in the range between radio waves and microwaves and have energies that are many orders of magnitude lower than ionizing radiation.
Second, it is disingenuous for the Department of Public Health to refer to the public’s concerns about the safety of cell phones and to then go on to issue guidelines, which themselves instill fear, while tacitly acknowledging that there is no strong scientific support for concern.
The fact is that microwaves at high power levels can have effects. This is the principle behind the microwave oven. Heating from strong microwave fields could damage the eyes. But this occurs only at much higher power levels than those in wireless communications.