Radiation and whether cell phone towers are dangerous

Radiation. Powerful enough to turn Dr. Bruce Banner (Bill Bixby) into The Incredible Hulk (Lou Ferrigno), or meek Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) into The Amazing Spider-Man (still Tobey Maguire, but more buff and spandexed). It also obliterated two cities in Japan, and continues to contribute to cancers near Chernobyl. It’s sciency, strong, and scary. No wonder it creates so much apprehension.

We’re all living every day surrounded by radiation sources, and bathed in radioactive rays. Cosmic rays are a significant and unavoidable source of radiation from above, and naturally occurring forms of radon, carbon, and many other elements in the earth’s crust bombard us with radiation from below.

Not all radiation is the same. The more-powerful, cell-damaging kind is called “ionizing radiation,” and we know that can strip atoms apart and disrupt DNA. This kind of radiation occurs in cosmic rays and diagnostic x-rays, and that’s why radiology technicians wear lead overcoats. It is a bad idea to be exposed to excessive ionizing radiation, though even that risk should be put in perspective, since you can’t possibly avoid it entirely. For comparison, a single chest x-ray exposes an adult to about the same ionizing radiation that you’d get in three days of living on the earth at sea level. Three days, that doesn’t sound so bad. But an abdominal CT scan? That’s about three extra years. Diagnostic radiology is a wonderful tool, but it should be used carefully.

The other kind of radiation is called “non-ionizing.” You’re swimming in that, too. All light is a form of non-ionizing radiation, as are radio waves and microwaves. Though at very intense, high exposures these kinds of radiation can damage tissue (think about a microwave oven, or spending a day in the sun), the process of damage is by the transfer of heat, not the destruction of DNA or other molecules directly. And it only takes a very thin layer of shielding to protect from even intense non-ionizing radiation. You can get a sunburn, yes, but you won’t burn through a thin piece of clothing or a layer of sunscreen, and a little piece of darkened plastic can make squinting unnecessary even on a bright day. Non-ionizing radiation doesn’t penetrate tissue well, and that’s one reason it’s thought of as generally safe.

Cell phones themselves use non-ionizing radio waves to communicate with their towers, and that radiation can barely penetrate the topmost payer of your skin. The most recent research has found no link between cell phone use and cancer, though good studies of more than ten years exposure have not been done. Certainly, if there is a risk, it’s very small; a large risk effect would be easy to spot in demographic and population trends, and it just isn’t there.

Cell phone towers transmit in both radio waves and microwaves, though the microwaves are directed to travel along lines of sight to the next tower– they don’t point down towards the ground at all. There is no credible evidence that they cause any direct harm. At least not from their radiation.

The real risk, of course, is automobile accidents. Car wrecks kill about 45,000 people in the USA every year. How many of these are caused by drivers distracted by a cell phone?

For a while, high-voltage electric transmission lines, which also emit electromagnetic radiation, were implicated as a cause of cancer and other bad things. After decades of research failed to find real evidence of any harm, the anti-power line crowd seems to have moved on to cell phones as the latest health boogeyman. (For more about the story of epidemiology and the rise and fall of the hysteria over health risks from power lines, read Geoffrey Kabat’s Hyping Health Risks.)

Don’t fall for the hysteria over cell towers. Careful studies have so far been able to rule out any large effect; though tiny effects are still possible, good research is being done to see what the extent of that might be. In the meantime, if you want to be safe around cell phones, don’t use them when you’re driving. That’s a much, much bigger health risk than could possibly be associated from the Scary Rays from The Sky.

Roy Benaroch is a pediatrician who blogs at The Pediatric Insider. He is also the author of Solving Health and Behavioral Problems from Birth through Preschool: A Parent’s Guide and A Guide to Getting the Best Health Care for Your Child.

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  • Alice Robertson

    This was very interesting. As a mom I would love to figure out what caused my daughter’s cancer (I was told it was radiation, but I would like more specifics about the mysterious cause).

    I, also, worry abour research. I am skeptical about agendas, tainted research (i.e. email hacking that reveals what researchers do to protect their jobs and the money flow). Parents screamed for years about vaccines not being safe, while pediatricians painted the parents as overreactive radicals. Their antics were helpful (the shots that were purported as safe are safer now), but their stereotypes remain. We face all sorts of research that doctors stand firmly on, yet personal stories are drown out by “research” that is often faulty or purposefully flawed.

    How can the average person manuevere the internet, stay sane, find unbiased research (if that exists. because humans are still entering the data and the stories about what many researchers go through to keep a job is pretty scary)? I spoke with a doctor who said he quit researching because of government involvement. This week Newsweek covered research that could save lives, but the funding to launch the research to the level of reaching private or government funding and approval is phenomenal.

    It ia a minefield out there, and to be very honest with you some readers will think you are quoting research funded by the cell phone companies. Skepticism is an asset when dissecting research, as long as we don’t become paranoid and start acting like the Mel Gibson character in Conspiracy Theory.

    • BW

      “How can the average person manuevere the internet, stay sane, find unbiased research (if that exists. because humans are still entering the data and the stories about what many researchers go through to keep a job is pretty scary)?”

      Alice, I think you did a great job expressing the great worry of the internet age: what’s true? Faced with what seems like an unlimited amount of information, with information containing enough truth to convince an educated lay-person but is false enough to be ridiculed by the experts, it’s so hard to determine what’s true. And a little scary because of the stakes involved.

      I think 10 years from now, there will be a whole new societal emphasis on the personal, face-to-face relationship with someone you can trust. We’re all going to be driven so insane with the unfiltered information, that we’ll only find sanity in the words of an expert that we know and trust. Hopefully we’ll all have a personal relationship with a physician we trust so we can ask their opinion on health matters, and be able to trust that the conclusions they reach are based on an independent, and critical, look at the evidence based on their experience and clinical wisdom.

  • Jim Purdy

    Dang, I wasted time making myself a tin foil hat!

  • http://jillofalltradesmd.blogspot.com/ Jill of All Trades, MD

    Dr. Benaroch, what do you think about the use of depleted uranium used in weapons by the U.S. troops since 1991, and the development of leukemia in many returning Gulf War veterans (among other serious health issues)? There are apparently no good studies showing a link, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a link. The VA is currently asking all Gulf War veterans to get a “free” physical with depleted uranium testing. However, they continue to use depleted uranium and continue to expose our troops abroad. I wonder what will happen to these men 10-20 years down the line. Makes me really nervous, as i have seen some of these veteran patients. What is your personal perspective on this — have you come across this issue in your readings? Great post and topic.

  • Mattheww Weber

    The main hazard from Depleted Uranium isn’t radiation, it is heavy metal poisoning.

    The reality is some of the Potassium in the body is in fact radioactive, K40 (it can be measured), however like Depleted Uranium, it has an extremely long half life (shorter than Uranium 238 in fact). Putting it bluntly, K40 and U238 are barely radioactive. Both have half lives that are measured in BILLIONS of years.

    The toxic effects of heavy metal exposure are well known, and documented. I have no doubt that exposure to Depleted Uranium dust is hazardous, but it isn’t because of the radiation.

  • http://www.notebookingdiscovery.org/wordpress Alice Robertson

    BW…….your answer to the problem of information overload is clearly my desire too. One thing patients love is when a doctor takes a personal interest in them, or their children. No one wants to feel like a faceless algorithm, being treated by a stone-faced statistical bearer. I do have a relationship, as described by you above, with a doctor….. but I think this doctor is possibly the exception……..not the rule. And then there are those pesky patients! Somedays I feel bad for doctors……..if you share something negative about them among a group of friends you are bound to hear a lot of disgruntled patients telling horror stories. I had to stay away from many of my friends for awhile just to lower the noise level……because I wasn’t in a position to be thinking negatively about doctors (i.e. I had one doctor who acted like a fraternity brother and would tell very funny jokes about his drunkeness, and even swearing to make us laugh [my kids were in the room], and basically I got to the point I was waiting on one of his cabinets to turn into a wet bar for Happy Hour, and a disco ball to launch from the ceiling, and the floor to light up). I would make jokes with my girls when we left that the only thing that surprised me was that the doctor didn’t wear a toga instead of a lab coat! He would make a great, entertaining neighbor, but I became so restless and fearful I truly thought he was going to amuse us to death. He wasn’t up on research, or even my daughter’s chart, but he was a people person and party animal! Our doctor helped us get in with a top-notch doctor and I am sleeping better at night, but laughing a bit less. It was a clear choice……….I really don’t want Comedy Central treating my child, but I really enjoy when doctors take a personal interest in their patients. That builds trust…….then when that trust is built the patient is more likely to listen to why the doctor thinks the research they are using may not be up to par.

    I am, also, grateful you didn’t suggest what most people do…….government censorship as a means of running the healthcare system or filtering of our information. I would rather have to do more research and ask more questions (which is why I like some of the medical blogs), than to have information hidden.

    I was reading about a type of speed-dating in one city where patients interviewed doctors in short bursts. They interviewed OB’s who would be delivering their children. It was, supposedly, highly successful. I started to wonder about a type of e-Harmony for e-potential patients that would match patients up with doctors they were more compatible with. I think it would be a great service. You could look for the willingness of the doctor to do e-mail, or if they do consoltations after-hours for resolution of problems,
    I lost my bestfriend to some really faulty internet information. She wanted to go the natural route for her breast cancer…….even felt the doctor hated women and just wanted her breast, and she died without even pain relief. She really thought that the Kombucha tea would kill the cancer and held firmly to that. She died vomiting bile, and in agony, and internet bad science and bad theology left the father in the living room praying with their four young children that their mother would resurrect. No doctor could convince her that her research was wrong.

    To wrap it up, and this is probably the wrong board to post on but it’s going to take some major changes on patients/doctors part for this to happen, although you are right it we would both gain.

    I agree with you, but it’s going to take a new breed of doctor, and a new breed of patient, and often a meeting of the minds somewhere inbetween the absurd and the medically proven research.

    • stargirl65

      You are right that major changes are needed on the patients and doctors parts to make things work. But you forgot the elephants in the room.

      The insurance companies that decide if things are paid for, how much they are paid, when they are paid, etc.

      Also the government that says what you can and cannot do, and please fill out this form first.

      Then of course the lawyers lurking in th back just waiting for something to go wrong. (You noticed I said “go wrong” and not “mistake”. A mistake does not have to be made for someone to sue. Just a bad outcome.)

      The entire system needs to be fixed.

  • http://www.notebookingdiscovery.org/wordpress Alice Robertson

    These are all very real problems, that cannot be worked out easily. Too many people rely on the government for their answers and services, and I tend to think overall the government does a poor job at most things they venture into…….but I know we need some oversite…….which leads to all sorts of debate. I think the doctor patient relationship is not reliant upon the government, nor the insurance companies. We are figuring this whole thing out right on the very tool that is changing the face of medicine……the internet is playing a huge role in our health care on many different fronts. I posted today on this blog about this topic of relationships on the malpractice thread from a few weeks ago that covered a book helping doctors who are sued.

    Not so sure the insurance companies are the elephant in the room, although, they are a pretty loud herd if they are! Some people would classify the insurers as downright demonic……..and they may place the government in that position too. The overlapping of government regulations and capitalistic venturing is not easily defined nor played out (and why am I, suddenly, extremely grateful Ayn Rand can’t post here……..oh……….I take that back………she is out there somewhere still stirring the pot! ). I have libertarian leanings, but the radical libertarians can be pretty scary (I tend to agree with Teddy Roosevelt who felt the capitalists need policing sometimes………….and some of the government regulations seem to have helped patients on some levels……..but as we have seen in the health care debate most of the really good ideas [I know…….good ideas are relative…….sigh…….and I know for whatever reason our representatives simply aren’t listening to me! Ack! The cheek of some of those people! ) will get pushed aside by capitalistic insurers and pharmaceuticals (while doctors take the blame, but then again……..there is a minority of doctors out there who act irresponsibly and cause a type of injury to the reputations of all doctors). I am dealing a lot with insurers because of my daughter’s cancer. The doctors have been very helpful in helping us to obtain special shots that only research hospitals can obtain. We have another major hurdle to cross soon with the insurers, so I am not too objective right now (I stay busy praying and being thankful there is someone bigger than the insurers and the government).

    Maybe the real problem is in Washington? I guess there is a lot of blame to be spread around, but I do think the bottomline is the patient/doctor relationship can be formed and even blossom amidst all these other messes. I am thinking if that doesn’t happen it’s the doctor’s employer and corporate medicine because they really keep doctors to a strict time frame……..and it’s not about our health……..it’s about money. Again, doctors will take the blame…….but then again corporate medicine is run by CIO doctors.

    Too bad doctors don’t have the magical powers we wish they had……..but then again…….maybe we should be thankful they don’t because God only knows what the patients would ask for, or what could happen to the awnry ones! Harry Potter, MD!