Driving and sending text messages is much more likely to kill you than cell phone radiation. So, why do we keep talking about radiation?
Fears that the low-energy radiation emitted by cell phones could cause cancer appear to have been boiling since cell phones became mainstream. The latest outbreak is probably due to two things: an article in The Nation about "Big Wireless" and a government study that recently reported that some male rats exposed to large doses of whole body radiation developed a rare type of cardiac tumor.
Most scientific evidence says that cell phone radiation does not harm humans, according to the Food and Drug Administration: our cell phones are much more likely to kill us when we watch them while driving. But people are bad at judging risk. And the word "radiation" combined with the fact that we can not see or control the invisible forces that emanate from our cell phones becomes a perfect recipe for fear.
A perfect recipe for fear
It is true that cell phones do emit radiation. And radiation is a scary word for many people, thanks in part to the terrible aftermath of nuclear accidents and the photographs of the victims of nuclear bombs that the United States launched against Japan in World War II. People listen to radiation and associate it with nuclear radiation and the bomb, says Geoffrey Kabat, a cancer epidemiologist at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine and author of Getting Risk Right. "There are all these associations and those are deeply rooted in people, but it does not apply here."
There is a wide range of radiation types and many harmless things emit radiation, such as bananas, Brazil nuts and granite countertops, according to the Cincinnati Children's Hospital. The type of radiation that comes out of our cell phones is not the same radiation that is released by nuclear rain or X-rays. Cell phone radiation, also known as radiofrequency radiation, is much weaker, so it can not cause the same kind of cell damage that can cause cancer.
In fact, no one can really explain how cell phone radiation could cause cancer, says Christopher Labos, a cardiologist and biostatistician at McGill University. "You do not necessarily have to understand how something works to show that it's dangerous, but it certainly would make the case more convincing," says Labos, who wrote a detailed analysis of Science-Based Medicine on the recent government study of cell-phone radiation.
However, that mystery probably raises fears about the radiation of cell phones instead of calming them down, in part because of the way we cover the odd and the frightening in the media. We have seen the same with fear of nuclear power plants, according to an article published in Science in the 1980s by psychologist Paul Slovic. "Because nuclear risks are perceived as unknown and potentially catastrophic, even small accidents will be highly publicized and can have large dominant effects," Slovic wrote.
As a result, stories about a single nuclear fusion or a possible link between cell phone radiation and cancer will be amplified much more than the news about the nine people who probably died today in the United States for distracted driving. "This possible health effect from radiation is quite esoteric at this point, if there is something there, it seems to me that it's going to be very, very small," says Kenneth R. Foster, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania who has I have been investigating if there are biological effects of radio waves since the 1970s. "Driving and texting, people die doing that, but it's not a very exciting risk to worry about."
"Driving and sending text messages, people are killed doing that"
The dangers of driving and texting are old news; However, if someone were damaged by the radiation of their cell phone, that would be news because the novelty draws people's attention. In psychological experiments in which people have to choose images, they gravitate toward others they had not seen before, a phenomenon known as the bonus of novelty. So, if I wanted to capture a reader's attention, I would bet on a hypothetical headline that said "for the first time, cell phone radiation causes brain cancer in humans" about "Another person died today from driving and sending text messages."
Still, despite the odds, these fears may be for a while, because it's hard to prove that cell phone radiation does not cause harm. There are too many gene combinations, environmental exposures, cell phone usage patterns, plus a healthy number of random possibilities to consider. That's why we still have the conversation about whether coffee, for example, is good or bad for us. Therefore, although most of the evidence indicates that there are no health effects from cell phone radiation, the scientific literature is still somewhat mixed, says Foster. "Someone who wants to worry can choose, choose and find a lot of evidence to support their theories."
In the end, no matter how much you invest in research into the unlikely risks of cell phone radiation, Kabat says that "there is never a clear" for any of these border risks. "