A recent half-day symposium at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco was titled “Humanity at a Crossroads: New Insights Into Technology Risks for Humans and the Planet.” It was sponsored by 14 organizations with names such as the American Academy of Environmental Medicine and the California Brain Tumor Association. Every speaker had strong credentials and powerful arguments from serious research. It focused on the likely outcomes of our increased production of electromagnetic radiation (EMR) from ever more pervasive mobile telecommunications systems. One speaker compared beam-forming from an antenna to lasers, as if antennas that formed beams were Death Stars concentrating so much power on one spot that planets disappeared (he did not suggest this image directly, more with his hand and tone, but he did say “lasers” which, if used to send light down a piece of glass in a fiber optics network, emits no radiation at all). By the end of the day the parade of alarm bells was deafening.
Should we take this sort of talk about radiation seriously, or is this another case of “outlier science,” such as those who deny human contribution to global warming by cherry picking selected studies and analyses (or something in between)? Over 700 billion smart phones have been sold over the last decade. We are surrounded by other radiating devices at similar frequencies—WiFi routers, Bluetooth connections, cordless telephones, television remotes, video baby monitors, over-the-air television, military communications, radar, the sun. Some lower frequency sources, such as power lines and AM and FM radio, have been with us for a very long time, power lines more than a century. Yet we are not all rushing to the cancer ward. Of the many epidemiological studies attempting to assess actual increases in cancer and other harms that could be correlated to radical increases in cell phone use, only one shows any possible effect (it is from Sweden), and critics on both sides admit these studies are suggestive at best. However, we are not scientists doing research on the biological effects of radiation. We have limited capacities to evaluate the relative merits of serious radiation research beyond recognizing that more than 25,000 studies have been published with substantially inconsistent results, few have established cause and effect (most are correlations), many of the positive results (that there are problems) either cannot be reproduced or sit so close to the margin of statistical error as to question their relevance if not their results, and none come from testing human beings to determine how much radiation it really takes to create the basket full of problems advanced by the alarmists—we only do such things to rats and dogs.
But we do know something about telecommunications and radiation levels associated with over-the-air signal transfer and the production of electromagnetic radiation from signal wires and antennas. What was surprising about some of the speakers in this series was their own ignorance of actual power levels and behaviors of electromagnetic waves in telecommunications. No one in the business doubts that close proximity to a powerful antenna over extended periods of time will be harmful. Antennas must be turned off when workers scale an antenna tower to work on the tower or the antennas attached to it. Deep space antennas may produce signals with twice the power found inside a microwave oven, meaning they are carefully guarded. But antenna signals decay rapidly. Thirty feet away the level is 1% or less of the original signal power. By the time a signal sent from a mobile antenna reaches a mobile phone receiver, it is in much lower than the signal transmitted back to the antenna by the mobile phone. The actual behavior of the electromagnetic world as constructed today and as projected suggests that, should you continue using your mobile phone, you want to be as close to an antenna as is practicable, not further away.