Friday, December 5, 2008

Is Cell Phone Electromagnetic Radiation Dangerous?

Is electromagnetic radiation from cell phones dangerous? This point is debated in a point/counterpoint article in the December, 2008 issue of the journal Medical Physics. (See my January 11, 2008 entry to this blog for more about point/counterpoint articles). This readable, if somewhat testy, exchange between scientists highlights many of the crucial issues in this debate.

Arguing for the proposition that cell phones are dangerous is Dr. Vini Khurana, a neurosurgeon at the Canberra Hospital in Australia. Khurana appeared on Larry King Live (May 27, 2008) and claimed that cell phones could cause cancer. He writes that "there is a statistically significant elevated odds (about twofold) of developing a glioma or acoustic neuroma on the same side of the head preferred for cell phone use over a duration of exposure [greater than or equal to] 10 years." He cites the BioInitiative Report: A Rationale for a Biologically-based Public Exposure Standard for Electromagnetic Fields to support his claim.

Arguing against the proposition is Dr. John Moulder of the Medical College of Wisconsin. Moulder, an expert on the biological effects of exposure to non-ionizing radiation, contends that "the current evidence for a causal association between cancer and exposure to radiofrequency (RF) energy is weak and unconvincing." He cites a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine titled Cellular-Telephone Use and Brain Tumors (344:79-86, 2001) to support his claim.

Readers of the 4th Edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology will be familiar with this topic from Chapter 9, Section 10: Possible Effects of Weak External Electric and Magnetic Fields. Our discussion there was centered on the question of 60 Hz power line fields and health hazards, but these considerations also apply to cell phone frequencies.

Where do I stand on this issue? I am skeptical of these claims of cell-phone-induced brain cancer. The key point is that these fields are non-ionizing. Cell phones operate at a frequency of about 850 MHz. The energy of a photon of that frequency is 3.5 millionths of an electron volt (0.0000035 eV). Energies of an electron volt or more are needed to break most chemical bonds. X-ray photons, and even ultraviolet photons, have that much energy, but photons at cell phone frequencies do not have nearly enough energy to break bonds, and most cancers are caused by the breaking of bonds in a DNA molecule. Moreover, the thermal energy of particles at body temperature is about 0.03 electron volts, which is roughly ten thousand times more energy than an 850 MHz photon has. In other words, all the molecules in your body are bouncing around and colliding with your DNA molecules with energies vastly larger than the energy of a cell phone photon. Perhaps there are a whole lot of photons, what then? That is another way of saying that the electromagnetic radiation heats the tissue (like in a microwave oven). Strong electric fields in the MHz and GHz range can heat tissue, that is the main way they can interact with your body, but slight heating doesn't cause cancer.

Physicist Bob Park, author of the weekly newsletter What's New, makes a similar case against the danger of biological effects of nonionizing radiation in an editorial published by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Khurana's response to these arguments is that "no known mechanism does not equate to no mechanism". Perhaps. But without a plausible mechanism, one expects the epidemiological evidence to be compelling and unambiguous. I suggest you read the point/counterpoint article and cited references, and then decide for yourself. One point I am certain about: you need a good understanding of basic physics and its application to medicine and biology in order to sort out complex issues such as these. The 4th Edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology is one place to gain that knowledge.

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