America Doesn't Care About Cell Phone Radiation (But the Rest of the World Does)

Illustration for article titled America Doesn't Care About Cell Phone Radiation (But the Rest of the World Does)

When it comes to cell phone radiation, everyone thinks they're an expert. Recently, however, GQ talked to the real experts, and though there's no consensus, one thing's clear: the rest of the world is worried. The U.S. is not.


Last week I posted a link to a study of the 20 cell phones that emitted the most radiation. In the comments, readers were quick to debunk the notion of cellular radiation altogether, explaining that the radiation was nonionizing and thus definitionally unharmful.

GQ's report traces the cellphone radiation story back to Allan Frey, a researcher who worked for GE in 1960, whose research proved that waves from the nonionizing part of the electromagnetic spectrum could, in fact, be damaging. After 15 years of studies, the Pentagon abruptly gave him an ultimatum: conceal his findings or risk losing his contract.

From there the story is a familiar one. Megacorporations throwing their weight around to selectively promote their own studies and discredit those of others. The government doing something in between passively allowing and actively enabling it to happen. It smacks of conspiracy, but then again, it doesn't really at all.

Louis Slesin, the founder of Microwave News, explains, "[t]he committees setting the EM safety levels at the [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] historically have been dominated by representatives from the military, companies like Raytheon and GE, the telecom companies, and now the cell-phone industry. It is basically a Trojan horse for the private sector to dictate public policy."

Even if Slesin is not the most unbiased commenter, having even the vaguest sense of what goes on behind the scenes in our nation's biggest industries—GQ reminds its reader, in passing, of Big Tobacco, asbestos, and Agent Orange—it's hard to say outright that he's bonkers. It's harder still when you get some perspective on what the rest of the world thinks.


The article references myriad international studies in which cell phone use was variously connected with "brain damage, early-onset Alz­heimer's, senility, DNA damage, and even sperm die-offs," as well as being found to increase the likelihood of tumors up to 40% in adults.

This account, even acknowledging that the findings are preliminary, is particularly disturbing:

In a study by researchers associated with the venerable Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, which hands out the Nobel Prize for medicine, the massive expansion of digital PCS in Sweden during 1997 was found to have coincided with a marked but subtle decline in the overall health of the population. Might it be, the Karolinska researchers asked, that Swedes fell victim to the march of the first big microwave PCS systems? The number of Swedish workers on sick leave, after declining for years, began to rise abruptly in late 1997, according to the study, doubling during the next five years. Sales of antidepressant drugs doubles during the same period. The number of deaths from Alzheimer's disease rose sharply in 1999 and had nearly doubled by 2001. The authors of the study-Olle Johansson, a neuroscientist, and Örjan Hallberg, a former environmental manager for Ericsson, the Swedish telecommunications company-"found that for all individual counties in Sweden there was a similar precise time" when health worsened. It occured, they said, almost simultaneously with the rollout of the new digital service. Correlation does not mean causation, but epidemiologists I spoke with say the data are strongly suggestive and need to be followed up.


Of course, it's not only cell phone waves that we should be worried about:

In the summer of 2006, a super-Wi-Fi system known as WiMAX was tested in rural Sweden. Bombarded with signals, the residents of the village of Götene-who had no knowledge that the transmitter had come online-were overcome by headaches, difficulty breathing, and blurred vision, according to a Swedish news report. Two residents reported to the hospital with heart arrhythmias...This happened only hours after the system was turned on, and as soon as it was powered down, the symptoms disappeared.


I'm sure there are plenty of objections to be raised here, and I'm sure that they will be raised in the comments. And it's true, the verdict is still out, in many ways, on the science itself. But if nothing else, it's revealing just to see how aggressively other countries are pursuing that verdict, how closely they're looking at the issue. I'm glad, at least, that somebody is. [GQ]


"...the massive expansion of digital PCS in Sweden during 1997 was found to have coincided with a marked but subtle decline in the overall health of the population."

Unless they controlled for everything else but cellphones, the results would be subject to verification with further studies. From a scientific point of view, it's just hard to believe non-ionizing radiation can be that bad.