Since the 1970s, scientists have invested a huge amount of time and effort to understand and protect people from carcinogens. As scientists gradually discovered the negative effects of tobacco, asbestos, and ionizing radiation, people began taking many precautions to avoid them. However, this attention only came after these carcinogens became fixtures in everyday life. In her talk on October 25th at the Thayer School, Devra Lee Davis, a visiting scholar from the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley and president of the Environmental Health Trust, warned her audience of another fixture of modern life that could potentially cause cancer: the non-ionizing radiation from cellphones and laptops.
The radiation used in cellphones and wireless internet routers is in the microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum. It has less energy than visible light and is significantly less powerful than X-rays and gamma rays. This type of electromagnetic radiation is called a non-ionizing radiation, because it does not have the energy to ionize atoms. In wireless communication, microwaves are sent out in bursts or modulated pulses from the source, carrying coded information to a receiver.
Some experimental evidence, however, suggests that non-ionizing radiation from normal sources such as cell phones and laptops can cause humans harm. For example in one study, sperm cells exposed to cell phone radiation were more likely to contain damaged mitochondria than those left unexposed. Another study showed that laptop radiation can lead to enhanced DNA fragmentation. A third revealed that fewer brain cells form in mice prenatally exposed to modulated microwave pulses that mimicked GSM, the standard signaling method for wireless phones. In one particularly alarming case study, six women who carried their cell phones in their bras developed an unusual form of breast cancer in the middle of their chests—right where they held their phones. They had no other risk factors for the disease. Thus, Davis explained that non-ionizing radiation from normal sources does biologically affect people.
Of course, cell phones and wireless computers are increasingly important fixtures in modern life. The radiation they cause will not go away. Davis did, however, offer simple solutions which could minimize peoples’ risk. Some are behavioral changes meant to keep distance between the human body and the radiation source. When talking on the phone, for example, people could use headsets or the speaker instead of placing the phone directly against the ear. Phone cases could be designed to dampen the radiation emitted by the phone. Simple electronic changes could be implemented as well. Davis noted that phones send out pulses every 900 milliseconds when hunting for signal; if this interval was increased, users would be exposed to less microwave radiation.
Concluding her presentation, Davis asked a seemingly-simple question: is microwave radiation from mobile devices dangerous? The answer, she stated, is not so clear. There is evidence that microwave radiation has a biological effect on humans. Certainly, there are risks. But it is unknown whether this effect directly causes cancer. Case studies seem to suggest that it can, but other studies have yielded negative results. If it exists, a positive link between mobile devices and cancer might not be visible for another decade. But, as Davis ended her presentation, she pointed out that with problems like this, society has a tendency to withhold action until the human cost becomes too high and the dangers become unmistakable. In the final moments of her lecture, she asked, “When should we act?”