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Cellphone radiation – is it harmful?

December 11, 2013 1 comment

There are an estimated 6.8 billion cellphones all over the world and about 900 million in India, second highest in the world. There is an increasing concern over health effects of cell-phone radiation in general public, largely attributed to popular media. This adversarial reporting on radiation has cause so much fear that people are frowning over children and pregnant women using cellphones

The main claims about dangers of cellphone radiation are fatigue, dizziness, brain tumors, cancer, heating of body tissue (to the extent of brain getting cooked like an egg or popcorn). When a news agency like CNN publishes an article about how carrying a cellphone in pocket is akin to roasting one’s bone marrow, panic among readers is expected. So, is cellphone radiation really that harmful? What do clinical studies say about this? Did we have sufficient time period since the advent of cellphones to conduct long-term research? Is there any conclusive evidence for or against any of these claims?

What does research say?

We actually had sufficient time to conduct long-term studies on effect of cellphone radiation. This nation-wide massive study done in Denmark and published by National Cancer Institute (NHI) studied 420,000 cellphone users over a period of 13 years tested the association of cellphone usage with brain tumor, salivary glands tumor, leukemia and other cancers and their variation by duration of cellphone use, time since first subscription and age at first subscription. The results didn’t support the hypothesis with any statistical significance.

Another study published by European Commission Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) researched on how radio frequency (RF) fields, including those generated by mobile phones, might affect health. They studied people who have used a mobile phone for up to 10 years. This study used three independent lines of evidence (studies on humans, animals, and cell cultures) and concluded the following:

  • Exposure to RF fields is unlikely to lead to an increased cancer risk in humans.
  • There is no evidence so far that exposure to radio signals could cause self-reported symptoms like headaches and dizziness. There have been indications that there might be adverse effects that are caused by expectations or beliefs that RF fields and EMF in general are harmful (a nocebo effect).
  • There is no evidence that individuals are able to sense RF fields.
  • There is no evidence that RF field exposure contributes to DNA-damage.
  • There is no evidence that RF fields effect human or animal reproduction and development.

Fun fact: RF radiation is non-ionizing radiation, which means it doesn’t have enough energy to damage living cells or break chemical bonds. Ionizing radiation, on the other hand, like x-rays, gamma rays and cosmic rays, can damage living cells and cause cancer.

Probably the most extensive and widely cited study on cellphone radiation and brain tumors is the Interphone study, which was a coordinated interview case-control study done in Japan, who used a novel approach of estimating the radiation absorption in a tumor and its variation along with cellphone usage. The study observed no increase in overall risk of tumors in relation to regular mobile phone use. NCI has also published a note, citing a study published in British Medical Journal, that while cellphone use in U.S. increased substantially over the period 1992 to 2008 (from nearly 0 to almost 100 percent of the population),  trends in glioma (a type of brain tumor) incidence did not mirror that increase.

Finally, International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of World Health Organization (WHO)  assessed and evaluated available literature and studies about effect of RF radiation on tumors and released a statement that there’s no evidence linking cellphone radiation with brain tumors. It has classified RF fields as Group 2B carcinogenic agents, which is “possibly carcinogenic to humans”, which actually means that there is limited (insignificant) evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and less than sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals. To realize what this means, Group 2B contains Coconut oil, Aloe vera, Caffeine and Asian pickled vegetables!

In summary, studies done till date suggest no evidence for cellphone usage causing dizziness, headaches, tumors or cancer. Despite evidence, if you are paranoid about it, you can try to maintain cautionary approach in using cellphones. But if that latest iPhone steals your heart, radiation effect is not any valid reason not to buy it.


References and further reading:

Swerdlow AJ, Feychting M, Green AC, Leeka Kheifets LK, Savitz DA. Mobile phones, brain tumors, and the interphone study: where are we now? Environ Health Perspect. 2011;119(11):1534–1538. doi: 10.1289/ehp.1103693.

Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR). Health effects of exposure to EMF. Scientific Committees. Retrieved 2008-12-08. <http://ec.europa.eu/health/ph_risk/committees/04_scenihr/docs/scenihr_o_022.pdf&gt;

Takebayashi, T; Varsier, N; Kikuchi, Y; Wake, K; Taki, M; Watanabe, S; Akiba, S; Yamaguchi, N (2008-02-05). “Mobile phone use, exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic field, and brain tumour: a case-control study”. British Journal of Cancer (London: Nature Publishing Group) 98 (3): 652–659. doi:10.1038/sj.bjc.6604214

Johansen, C., Boice Jr., J., McLaughlin, J., Olsen, J. “Cellular Telephones and Cancer: A Nationwide Cohort Study in Denmark.” Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 7 Feb. 2001, Vol 93, No 3: 203-207.

WHO. “Electromagnetic fields and public health: mobile telephones and their base stations.” World Health Organization. World Health Organization, 1 Jun. 2000. Web. 13 Jan. 2010. <http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs193/en/&gt;

Dunning, B. “How Dangerous Is Cell Phone Radiation?” Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 2 Sep 2008. Web. 10 Dec 2013. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4117&gt;

The Ancient Wisdom

We often come across statements from traditionalists like “Our ancestors knew this long back, and our scientists have come to know about it now” whenever some significant scientific discovery or proposition has been made. This happens a lot in India, where people’s pride of Vedic knowledge often clouds its scientific veracity. In this article, we are going to identify some aspects of these claims where understanding of nature was given already in the scriptures

First of all, we need to understand that I am referring Vedas, Upanishads and Vedanta as ‘Scriptures’ as they were works of revelation, communicated or “revealed” by some supernatural agency. Works like Surya Siddhanta (Author unknown), Aryabhatiya (Aryabhatta), Pancha Sidhanta (Varahamihira), etc.,  are not scriptures as they were not “revealed” but were derived from logic-based and evidence-based rational methodology

1. The adjective “Vedic” is a misnomer

Not every scholarly work made in India in the ancient and medieval periods is “Vedic”, or sourced from scriptures. Whatever mathematics regarded as contribution of India to the world was done by Indian mathematicians like Aryabhatta, Varahmihira, Brahmagupta during post-Vedic period. Moreover, there was a great contribution from Jain scholars to Indian mathematics, and so it is very unfair, if not insulting, to use the “Vedic” qualifier for these.

The more recent “Vedic Mathematics” published in 20th Century which has tricks to do elementary arithmetic calculations is neither Vedic not Mathematics, and its claim that “there is no part of mathematics, pure or applied, which is beyond their jurisdiction” is superfluous and ridiculous.

“Vedic astrology” is also one such misnomer, and there is no mention of any kind of star-divination (Jyotisha) in the Vedas. Horoscope-based astrology is more of a Hellenistic influence in post-Vedic period in India, and wasn’t “revealed” to the Aryans. So, Hindus don’t need to feel astrology as some kind of Vedic baggage they need to carry as part of their religious faith. If they still feel it as cultural baggage that needs to be followed, refer this post where I criticized the blind practice of tradition that becomes irrelevant and dangerous over a period of time

2. Terseness of Scientific literature

Since old Babylonians, people have been sensible enough to use a crisp, unambiguous and direct writing style for scientific information they have discovered. The reason behind this is obvious, that if I were looking for some scientific information, I would want it without any ambiguity and to-the-point. If there’s something mentioned which is cryptic, indirect and ambiguous, it’s more likely to be mysticism and fantasy than science. This is a good rule of thumb anyone can use in everyday reading. We know claims from traditionalists that verses from scriptures mention String-theory dimensions, Mass-Energy equivalence, Big Bang, Black Holes, Speed of light and so on. We also have the claim that Quran mentions lot of scientific information, for instance, development of the human embryo during pregnancy.

If we look at these type of claims, all of them make use of farfetched and cherry-picked interpretations of verses from scriptures forcing them to be conclusive with the discovery made. This is done with so much enthusiasm and pseudo-sincerity that when dimensions in String theory had changed from 10 to 26, the Vedic interpretation also changed from 10 to 26. Also, the verses under consideration of these claims, in fact never literally mention any information as observed in nature, and they refer to something else when looked at the proper context. We can only bridge the verse and information from the discovery made, but cannot arrive at the discovered fact from the verse using logical reasoning.

Simply put, someone with basic trigonometry knowledge can prove Sin^2(x)+Cos^2(x)=1, but a kid who has learned numbers cannot start with 1 and show that it is equal to Sin^2(x)+Cos^2(x)  due to the lack of knowledge of trigonometry in the first place. It’s only due to the presupposition of information, that scriptures can be interpreted into agreement.

Apart from this, one thing to be noted here is that, myths in scriptures don’t actually mean anything. When the Upanishads say everything has come from Brahmanda, it doesn’t mean anything. But when there is a scientific claim that the universe could’ve originated from a miniature energy source via Big-bang, there are some 100 parameters to measure, validate and refine the claim. Scientists don’t pull speculations out of their asses, and they have sound rational basis to do so. And the method of falsification filters any unreasonable speculations over a period of time.

For eg., our knowledge on what could’ve happened during and just after the Big bang has been refined so much by now, that the substrate from which everything came out can simply be void of any matter or energy but just have quantum fluctuations, and in that case, the claim of genesis from Brahmanda, which is an infinite energy source, becomes completely false. Don’t be surprised if some Art of Living or Inner-engineering fellow comes up with a new definition of Brahmanda or cites a different verse altogether. Apparently, god works in mysterious ways and talks in a lot of tongues with ambiguity.

Moreover, mere information (like development of human embryo or speed of light) is useless for science and humankind, unless the method in which that information can be obtained and validated is mentioned. What am I going to do with a Time-machine if I don’t know how to operate, customize, improve and build it? I can only clean it, put it in a museum and worship it if I am stupid enough.

On a lighter note, unless god wants to impress people by making a show-off of the information he knows, there is no point to any of these claims and interpretations from “revealed” scriptures.

3. Exaggeration of ancestors’ lifestyle

 It is a popular notion that our ancestors were very smart, enjoyed excellent health ever in the history of humankind, had far superior technology than we have now, and were pure by body, pure by heart, pure by soul, and so on. The perspective of “Us-Them” is a false and idiotic dichotomy, especially to look at progress and technology. Well, if they had far superior technology than us, or at least as good as us, they would’ve definitely had printing presses,  and had easily passed-down all their discoveries and technology to the future generations.

But that never happened. I’m not saying our ancestors didn’t pass down any information to us: It’s just that the method of communication has been getting refined since olden times. The way how Babylonians and Egyptians have shared their history is more complicated compared to how the Holy Roman Empire did, and the way we know about a more recent event like World War II is far less ambiguous, and is direct and academic. It’s nonsense to think that ancient civilizations like the Indus Valley or aboriginal tribes in Sri Lanka had sophisticated technology capable of something like air flight. We don’t have any stone tablets from the past that have blueprints of at least a printing press. Why would any civilization invent the best technology ever, and then choose not to pass it down to their children?

Also, it is a matter of common reasoning to understand that technology always improves over a period of time, and the technology our ancestors had in 2000 BCE was superior to that in 5000 BCE and the technology we have now is far superior to that in 1990 CE; As a matter of fact, we have a technological acceleration now. We have become better in fighting against diseases than our ancestors: We even eradicated smallpox and are on our way towards a climax with polio, we improved our life-expectancy, ventured into extra-terrestrial space, and our understanding of life and the universe improved by leaps and bounds compared to what we had 100 years back. Politically, we have come to the stage where genocide is categorically immoral, war is frowned upon, equality and liberty rule over everything else, and are recognizing other species as an equal part of nature with us. We need to keep this in mind while understating the achievements of the current generation and overstating those of our ancestors.

In conclusion, we should stop demoralizing ourselves by undermining our generation’s progress and contribution to human history, and make efforts towards improving the things around us in a better and useful way. Misinterpreting and improperly understanding our ancestors’ knowledge and contribution is an insult to the fact that we are building on the progress and technology fundamentally laid down by them. We have to give them the due credit for what they have done to us, uphold the spirit of Scientific progress and constructively work for ourselves and the future generations.

Further Reading:

Vedic Mathematicshttp://www.tifr.res.in/~vahia/dani-vmsm.pdf

The surprising decline in violence (Ted talk) – http://tinyurl.com/ak7tco5

Scientific Progresshttp://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scientific-progress/

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