I need this for my cosmetics bag »« I’m a scientist, I believe in proof

So go crawl into a dark Faraday cage and wait for civilization to collapse

Salon sometimes, and with increasing frequency lately, publishes some genuinely pernicious crap. I notice they’ve been experimenting with click-baity titles and more lists (I am growing to hate lists on the internet), there is more and more gullible religious pandering, and some days I think they’re experience huffpo envy — ‘if only we were a little more schlocky and gossipy and threw in some more T&A, we’d get more traffic!’ And now they’ve published some hysterical nonsense about cell phones causing cancer. Apparently there are no editors on the staff with even the slightest bit of scientific training who’d recognize that this claim is oft-debunked nonsense.

They even gave it the title “Your cell phone is killing you”, although they did exercise some restraint in leaving off the expected six exclamation points afterwards. The content consists of selective mention (not citation — the author doesn’t bother to give us enough information to track down the work) of only papers that show any purported effect of electromagnetic radiation at all, and hysterically concludes that we’re all in the middle of a great experiment that will end with the bees all dead and all of us having gigantic tumors on one side of our heads, Alzheimer’s disease, and with our sperm all limp and zombiefied, which is a good thing, because otherwise those sperm would spawn hideous mutant offspring.

Ho hum. In the 19th century, people were concerned about electricity leaking out of outlets if they weren’t turned off (in houses that had open gas flames!). We’ve had the terrors of high tension wires zapping everyone passing under them with madness and death inducing magnetic fluxes. Now it’s cell phones. They’re next to your head! They’re transmitting!

And you know what they’re transmitting? Radiation.

Most notably, the entire power grid is an EMF-generation network that reaches almost every individual in America and 75% of the global population. Today, early in the 21st century, we find ourselves fully immersed in a soup of electromagnetic radiation on a nearly continuous basis.

Yes, we are. It’s true. Of course, it’s not just the 21st century: when early humans stepped out of their caves to throw sticks at antelope 100,000 years ago, they were fully immersed in a soup of electromagnetic radiation on a nearly continuous basis. The earth has a magnetic field of several hundred milliGauss, and visible light has a frequency of about 500 trillion Hz; yet you don’t sense any effect of that magnetic field, and sunlight at that frequency merely warms your skin (higher frequency light, around 1000 trillion Hz, does damage cells severely — it’s the UV that gives you sunburn).

Yet even if you live directly under a high tension line, that source is only providing about 1-2 milliGauss, and cell phones are radiating at at about one billion Hz, an insignificant fraction of the energy from the soup bath in electromagnetic reaction you get from just walking around outside, even when slathered in high SPF sunscreen.

However, while science has not yet answered all of our questions, it has determined one fact very clearly—all electromagnetic radiation impacts living beings.

This is certainly true! Here’s James May cooking a hot dog and melting a steel plate by using a mirror to focus sunlight.

The inescapable conclusion of this experiment: we must ban flashlights. Otherwise, they might fall into the hands of small children who would then use them to disintegrate their playmates.

This is representative of what the author of this silly piece, Martin Blank, does throughout his article. He looks selectively at the literature, reports only on the cases that support his conclusions, and then makes sweeping assertions of disaster awaiting us all.

As I will discuss, science demonstrates a wide range of bioeffects linked to EMF exposure. For instance, numerous studies have found that EMF damages and causes mutations in DNA—the genetic material that defines us as individuals and collectively as a species. Mutations in DNA are believed to be the initiating steps in the development of cancers, and it is the association of cancers with exposure to EMF that has led to calls for revising safety standards. This type of DNA damage is seen at levels of EMF exposure equivalent to those resulting from typical cell phone use.

This is not true. The National Cancer Institute summarizes the effects of cell phones:

Studies thus far have not shown a consistent link between cell phone use and cancers of the brain, nerves, or other tissues of the head or neck. More research is needed because cell phone technology and how people use cell phones have been changing rapidly.

That last sentence, the one that begins “More research is needed”? That’s what we call a CYA statement: a bureaucratic cover-your-ass bit of boilerplate to make sure that some remote happenstance doesn’t cause them regret — it’s also a standard appeal for “give us more money” from a funding agency. But read the rest: they describe many of the experiments and the evidence, and also summarizes the common flaws that lead some studies to contradict the sense and science of electromagnetic fields. The conclusion from all of the major organizations is that any effect of cell phones is so marginal that no significant consequence of cell phone use on your physiology is detectable. Compare that to Blank’s claim.

Or you can get Steve Novella’s opinion, or Orac’s. It’s not impossible that the teeny-tiny emissions of your cell phone might lightly tickle some cells in some subtle, unpredictable way, but the totality of the current evidence says no, it doesn’t seem to have any significant effect.

If you’re still worried, here are instructions on how to build a Faraday cage (short summary: lots of aluminum foil). Climb in, and turn the lights off. And no flashlights! You could incinerate someone with one of those!

Comments

  1. says

    It’s all true!!!
    I used a cell phone once and now there’s hair growing in that ear!! And the other one!! That means that the radiation went right through my head!!!
    And all because I lifted the tinfoil a little bit.

  2. says

    Sigh, cell phone hysteria is never going to go away, is it? Much like microwave fears, it is going to linger as long as we have them. Actually, I vaguely remember reading that one of the reporters that set off the fear of microwave ovens was also a major player over the fear of high tension power lines and cell phones, but I cannot remember who they were. Can only confirm this, or am I mixed up? Probably due to my cell phone, and router, which are in the same room as I am!

  3. george gonzalez says

    Yeah, one can try. One can mention the ridiculousness and irony of worrying about absorbing a few milliwatts of phone photons each of which are 100 million times weaker than sunlight, while standing in the sun which is hitting your head with 100 watts of radiation. You’re probably a billion times more likely to die because you’re walking or driving and looking at your phone. Make that infinitely more likely, as the chances of a milliwatt of wireless signal doing anything is almost certainly ZERO.

  4. shouldbeworking says

    This is in the news in Canada too after the Royal Society of Canada reviewed the federal government’s safety standard for EMF. All the pseudoscience fans had a field day.

    Lenses and mirrors must be banned! As a young boy, I burned a hole in my little brothers’s sock with my magnifying glass. The sock was still on my brother’s foot at the time.

  5. Holms says

    If you’re still worried, here are instructions on how to build a Faraday cage (short summary: lots of aluminum foil). Climb in, and turn the lights off. And no flashlights! You could incinerate someone with one of those!

    But what about your body heat? You’ll cook yourself in infrared radiation DON’T DO EEET!!!

  6. says

    Yeah, the article was pretty bad — and the comments, when I read it, were a 50-50 mix of paranoia and dismissal. But there’s one thing: don’t blame the headline on the author. It’s been confirmed by multiple people who have written for Salon in the last couple of years that the headlines are not written by the article authors (which is why Salon’s headlines have become so utterly misleading in so many cases recently).

    (That doesn’t mean the article isn’t terrible, just that a small part of the terrible-ness wasn’t actually the author’s fault.)

  7. ck says

    Unless I’m mistaken, haven’t the maximum transmit power of cell phones been steadily decreasing, too? LTS maxes out at something like 23 dBm, while CDMA was 28 dBm and GSM was 36 dBm. All the other things people expect phones today have demanded battery power, and there is less and less budget for wastefully blasting RF for no reason.

    You’re probably far more likely to burn yourself from a defective battery catching fire in your hand than somehow develop cancer from the pathetic radiation the cellular communications part of cell phones can generate.

  8. says

    Even if there was a risk- it’s got to be measured against the benefits, something these cell phone scares never seem to do.

    I haven’t seen solid numbers, but I think it’s a fairly safe bet that there are a few people alive because cell phones allowed emergency services to be contacted more quickly. Life and death can come down to seconds when you need an ambulance, and cell phones being so common should bring the average time to contact emergency services down by quite a bit. Or a fall in the home, you might not be able to get to a landline but there’s a decent chance the cell phone is in arms reach.

    And these are just the safety benefits to be balanced against the safety risks. Once other benefits are considered… a cancer risk severe enough to counter all the good the phones do would be blatantly obvious by now. Any risk small enough to have remained unconfirmed this long, I can’t see how it could possibly compete against the benefits cell phones can bring.

    Yet another time I give some loons the benefit of the doubt and they still end up wrong.

  9. auraboy says

    Isn’t Martin Blank the Cusack misanthropic assassin character in Grosse Point Blank? What’s he doing writing about cellphones? Shouldn’t he be killing they guys dog?

  10. bcwebb says

    Thankfully Blank is no longer an actual associate physiology professor in the med school Columbia.

    His website mostly focuses on 60Hz, although the article seems to make no distinction between 60Hz and a billion times higher frequencies. The claim of his papers is that SOME cells in pitre dishes produce a slightly (~20%) different amount of stress proteins. OTHER cells seem to be ok. It looks very much like cherry-picking among multiple groups of marginally significant statistics to get the result he believes has to be there.

    His papers claim the DNA is a “fractal” antenna which is major mojo. How a discrete linear chain can can be fractal is a little unclear. How a free space wavelength at 60Hz of 5000 km is supposed to couple to a DNA molecule is also unclear. but hey, EMF!

    I do have a warning for the tin-foil hat people – you’re doomed. At 60Hz the coupling is primarily magnetic and near field. A metal sheet will only block ELECTRICAL fields parallel to any seams.
    So no voltage but your compass will spin.

  11. hexidecima says

    ah, pure stupidity, too bad we can’t convert those people into fuel. I’ve heard the same thing about irradiated meats, that they’ll kill you all! but of course the damn fools who say such things don’t even know what the procedure is.

    nothing like working retail to realize that the average person is gullible and not very bright.

  12. says

    “Of course, it’s not just the 21st century: when early humans stepped out of their caves to throw sticks at antelope 100,000 years ago, they were fully immersed in a soup of electromagnetic radiation on a nearly continuous basis. ”

    An improvement… the caves were full of radon gas and snakes.

    The thing about cell phones is this: It is basically the same thing as a microwave oven, but much lower power. Try this experiment: Get a box of frozen macaroni and cheese. Get all your cell phones and your friend’s cell phones. Put the cell phones all around the macaroni and cheese and turn them on, make a call with each phone (they can talk to each other) and see how long it takes to cook the macaroni and cheese. It will take forever, literally. Only when the sun expands and engulfs the earth will the macaroni and cheese cook under these circumstances.

  13. says

    We need to ban lightning as well. Turn on your AM radio during a thunderstorm and see how much RF noise each lightning pulse generates. And they’ve got a far higher transmitting power than your cell phone.

    Even if cell phones all vanished tomorrow, along with all other radio technology, we’d still be zapped with radio waves at various frequencies, all naturally generated.

  14. Erk12 says

    First off: who the fuck *talks* on their texting/mobile internet and gaming device? Maybe my friends are weird, but the time between actual voice calls on my cell is measured in weeks to months.
    Second: why does no one seem to care about hand cancer? If cells phones are causing brain cancers, why are they not causing cancer in the hand used to hold them to the head? I guess skin cancers around the ear and inner ear cancers are also somehow not affected by cell phones.

  15. felidae says

    The cellphone crap pales in comparison to the argument against smart electric meters that recently erupted in my town–one of the opposition talking points was the danger to human health from the RF signals the meters use to communicate, showing that these people were in total ignorance of the inverse square law. There was no convincing these folks that, if there was any danger from RF emissions, that a cell phone a few inches from their brain pumped a lot more energy into it than a smart meter 20 feet away The electric company had to back off and have an opt out plan to calm the fears of the ignorant

  16. Rasmus says

    Try going to Google and type in “cell phones cause a”, “cell phones cause b”, “cell phones cause c” and so on and look at the auto suggestions. Cell phones apparently cause pretty much everything bad you can imagine.

    Same thing goes for WiFi, that stuff will pretty much do anything short of chopping off your arm. According to Google’s auto suggest WiFi causes autism, brain cancer, cancer, depression, hair loss, impotence, jaundice, low sperm count, miscarriage, nausea, pain, queefing, ringing in ears, sleep problems, tinnitus and xerostomia… (And I didn’t make up the part about queefing.)

    It’s a miracle civilization hasn’t collapsed.

  17. chigau (違う) says

    Rasmus #24
    There is probably a homeopathic nostrum that cures all of those.

  18. says

    I am growing to hate lists on the internet

    10 Reasons you should hate lists on the internet:
    1) They are presented one item per page, so they can hit you with 10x as many ads.
    2) The items on the list are so superficial you’ve forgotten about #10 by the time you reach #1
    3) Sometimes the items are redundant
    4) Other times the items are redundant
    5) People don’t really think in terms of “lists of ten”
    6) …

  19. numerobis says

    WiFi caused me to learn about queefing, so it’s not entirely false that there’s a link.

    felidae@24: is this Hydro Quebec? There was a protest today in Montreal apparently. Apparently the counters cause people to be thirsty and tired. Unfortunately, my MNA and his party are jumping on the idiot wagon.

  20. says

    I expected this from PZ Myers but you Marcus Ranum! How could you betray me! Lists are integral to my writing!

    And on that Bombshell…

  21. Alan Boyle says

    @26 Marcus Ranum

    Not all lists are the same. I make my living writing lists (often of ten things), I get paid around $100 for each (sometimes less, sometimes more). I put about 10 hours of work, on average, into a list. Sometimes more. That includes researching the concept, coming up with an entry for each number, finding reliable sources for each point. I only use reputable sources (no tabloids, blogs, Wikipedia, etc.), and all of my sources are linked to in the finished product. I include a source for every point I make (I’ve used up to 60 sources for one ten-item list). I thoroughly scour the Internet to make sure the same information hasn’t been covered in another list elsewhere.

    The sites I write for present the lists over one or two pages at most, with unobtrusive advertising. It does what it’s supposed to do—provide ten minutes of entertainment for a few hundred thousand people each day.

    And because of that, I’m forced to utterly agree: I hate lists on the Internet. Because most of them (*cough*Buzzfeed*cough*) are the sort of vapid, hackneyed tripe you outline, and it makes me feel awful for having anything to do with it.

    Anyway, here’s my most recently published piece for anyone that would like an example http://listverse.com/2014/04/09/10-secret-societies-that-created-the-modern-world/.

  22. ludicrous says

    Cellphones, pshaw. What about magnets? Your refrigerator door is covered with little magnets pulling the precious nutritious waves out of your eggs and tofu.

    Terrorists have been buying up those extra strong ones they have now on the internet. No one is paying attention and when they get enough of them they will walk past your house and pull all the nails out while you’re asleep.

  23. blf says

    So go crawl into a dark Faraday cage and wait for civilization to collapse

    Won’t work: Not proofed against peas.

  24. es0tericcha0s says

    *Sigh* I own a little company that does cell phone and tablet repair and just had a customer go on about this the other day. I had read enough to realize that there isn’t any sort of proof connecting cell phones to cancer and all that but couldn’t recall specifics. Not wanting to seem like a jerk, I just smiled and nodded through the whole spiel, including him saying that he is so sensitive to the radiation that he could be blindfolded and you could hold up various phones to him and he could tell which had more. He even goes so far to buy phones with radiation output being one of the main things to look for. So tempted to test that out, but that’s not exactly the customer friendly attitude I wanna promote. lol People want to believe the crazy. Much more interesting than the mundane.

  25. mykroft says

    I have a fair understanding of electromagnetic radiation, and the effects of a milliwatt at one frequency can definitely not be the same as from a milliwatt at another. That being said, we have enough empirical evidence to show that exposure to the EM soup we now live in is at most a minor factor in our longevity when compared to the other environmental threats. Pollution, junk food, lack of exercise and numerous other manifestations of our modern culture can and do affect us much more profoundly.

    We don’t understand risk well. We focus on the wrong things, and ignore the real threats. An airplane crash that kills a few hundred people frightens us more than the much higher potential of death in an auto accident. Global warming is not an immediate concern, vaccinations cause more harm than good, health insurance costs too much; the list goes on and on.

    Man is not a rational animal, man is a rationalizing animal.

  26. David Marjanović says

    Try going to Google and type in “cell phones cause a”, “cell phones cause b”, “cell phones cause c” and so on and look at the auto suggestions. Cell phones apparently cause pretty much everything bad you can imagine.

    At least, the fourth suggestion is cell phones cause cancer snopes.

    1) They are presented one item per page, so they can hit you with 10x as many ads.

    Adblock.

  27. Nick Gotts says

    Global warming is not an immediate concern – mykroft

    Well, perhaps not if you don’t expect to live long, and couldn’t give a shit about anyone else. And if you discount the likelihood that it is already increasing the frequency of extreme weather events.

  28. ck says

    @Nick,

    You must’ve missed the other items on mykroft’s list. They were all supposed to be examples of poor risk assessment.

  29. unclefrogy says

    back when I first started to hear about the connection of cancers and power transmission lines with the people who lived close to them I wondered about it. Why didn’t anybody look in to the effect of living so close to an area that was treated with so much weed killer that the ground was mostly bare?

    uncle frogy

  30. says

    Rasmus @24:
    I tried your suggestion for Google searches. I didn’t get far though. One link in particular caught my eye (not in a good way):

    http://www.newsmaxhealth.com/Headline/cellphones-cancer-cellphone-radiation-oxidative-stress/2013/07/30/id/517768/

    There’s more troubling news linking cellphones with cancer. Researchers at Tel Aviv University found indicators of a major risk for cancer in the saliva of people who were heavy users of cellphones.

    Since cellphones are placed close to the salivary glands when in use, the scientists decided to examine the saliva of cellphone users to look for clues in the relationship between cellphones and cancer. They examined men who used their cellphones for at least eight hours a month, although most cellphone users speak for much longer, as much as 30 to 40 hours a month, according to researcher Dr. Yaniv Hamzany of Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine. Their saliva was compared to people who didn’t use cellphones at all, or only used them to send text messages.

    The scientists discovered that the saliva of those who were heavy users showed high amounts of oxidative stress. Oxidative stress produces free radicals which damage all parts of cells including DNA, and is an important risk factor for cancer.

    Given the number of people with cell phones, wouldn’t there be a lot more people with “high levels of oxidative stress” due to cell phone usage?

    Here is more from that article:

    • A Swedish study found that those who used mobile phones for 10 years quadrupled their risk of ear tumors. One study conducted by twelve 12 European research groups found that radio waves from cellphones harm cells and damage DNA. Researchers at the University of Washington discovered that two hours of exposure to the levels of radiation emitted by cell phones splintered the DNA of brain cells in rats, making them appear similar to cells found in cancerous tumors

    […]

    • A Russian study found that children who used cellphones had poorer memories than those children who didn’t, and a British study found that children who used cellphones risked memory loss, sleeping disorders, and headaches.

    As with the article in the OP, the above doesn’t contain any links to these studies (though there is likely enough info included to hunt down the studies if one wanted).

  31. Rasmus says

    Yeah, I know that the studies are all over the place. But when they write that something is quadrupled, or increased by some other huge factor, you gotta ask how common that something was in the first place.

    The manufacturers and various government regulatory agencies are acting as if microwaves are dangerous and that there is a dose response like one would expect in that case. This seems like a reasonable precaution until it’s been proven beyond all doubt that phones are harmless.

  32. Christoph Burschka says

    I am growing to hate lists on the internet

    Indeed; they occupy places #10 through #1 on You Won’t Believe These Ten Things Lazy Internet Journalists Need To Stop Doing.

  33. ck says

    Tony wrote:

    • A Russian study found that children who used cellphones had poorer memories than those children who didn’t, and a British study found that children who used cellphones risked memory loss, sleeping disorders, and headaches.

    As with the article in the OP, the above doesn’t contain any links to these studies (though there is likely enough info included to hunt down the studies if one wanted).

    I just wish these people would rule out the mundane things before trying to link these things to the big, nasty ailments. I’d bet that many or most those children probably use their cell phones late into the night, and since that involves staring at a small, brightly lit screen in the dark, it can probably explain all of that (since the same things are often reported by those that use their laptops in bed late into the night). I wouldn’t even be surprised if the researchers themselves suggested this, but that it was left out of the news article to make it sound more dire.

  34. Lyn M: ADM MinTruthiness says

    Greg Laden #20

    It will take forever, literally. Only when the sun expands and engulfs the earth will the macaroni and cheese cook under these circumstances.

    Pffft. Overuse the lithium batteries to start a few fires and you may cook some of that mac and cheese way before the sun goes nova. Possibly.

  35. says

    My cellphone is the least of my worries. I have just learned that my entire body contains neutrons, just like those found in nuclear power plants. The only remedy I’ve come up with so far is to exercise a lot, which I understand may result in fewer of these horrible, dangerous neutrons.

  36. Snoof says

    I hold my iPhone to my left ear, and I’ve noticed that I get more earwax in my right ear!!!

    You can’t argue with that!

    Indeed. I cannot argue with those two statements of fact.

    Drawing any conclusions, on the other hand, is a bit trickier…

  37. Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened says

    From the link:

    Despite rumors to the contrary, a Faraday cage is not necessary to protect against solar coronal mass ejections because the frequency content of such disturbances is at much lower frequencies

    Unless my understanding of the term is completely off, these aren’t dangerous to humans anyway. Also, the fuck does “frequency content” mean?

    silver (the best conductor)

    Since when was silver the best conductor?

  38. jamessweet says

    There have been a handful of tantalizing case studies where people with VERY excessive cell phone use seemed to have tumors in a particular location. Of course, not only does that not prove anything, but it has to be balanced against the very high prima facie implausibility of significant cellular damage from the low radiation levels emitted by cell phones. The most likely explanation for these case studies is mere coincidence.

    I would say, if you are a very VERY heavy cell phone user (like several hours every single day), you might be justified in getting a Bluetooth earpiece out of an extreme abundance of caution. Maybe. But then again, if you are using your cellphone that much, you’d be justified in getting an earpiece anyway, just for convenience….

    It’s just so wildly implausible, from a physical perspective, that you’d need very strong evidence to support the hypothesis. And what evidence has been provided is, at best, of the “more research is needed” variety. Weigh that against something where the priors seem to indicate a serious possibility of risk, and there’d be cause for concern. But weigh it against cell phone radiation? Nada.

  39. birgerjohansson says

    I constantly emit infra-red radiation. I am a mutant!
    BWAHAHAHA! (goes off planning the destruction of the world)

  40. Kevin Kehres says

    Someone should tell him that computer displays are literally THROWING EM radiation at him.

    Maybe it’ll keep him off the computer.