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The Science Of Radiofrequency: Why Cell Phones, Microwaves, Wi-Fi, And Smart Meters Are Unlikely To Pose Health Risks

Cell phones, microwave ovens, wi-fi, smart meters. What do they have in common? They all emit radiation in the radiofrequency range. And they all radiate controversy. Given that these devices are set to become as commonplace as light bulbs, it is understandable that questions arise about their possible health effects. There are all sorts of allegations that exposure can trigger ailments ranging from headaches to cancer. Allegations, however, do not amount to science. And there is a lot of science to be considered.

Let’s start with the fact that an alternating current flowing through a wire generates an electromagnetic field around it. This field can be thought of as being made up of discrete bundles of energy called “photons” that are created as the electrons in the wire flow first in one direction then in the other. Photons spread out from the wire, their energy depending on the frequency with which the current changes direction. The number of photons emitted, referred to as the ‘intensity’ or ‘power” of the radiation, depends on the voltage, the current and the efficiency of the circuit to act as an antenna.

In ordinary household circuits, the direction of the current changes sixty times a second, that is, it has a frequency of 60 Hz, the unit being named after Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, the first scientist to conclusively prove the existence of electromagnetic waves. The photons emitted by such a circuit travel through space and have the capacity to induce a 60Hz current in any conducting material they encounter. Essentially, we have a “transmitter” and a “receiver.” If special circuitry is used to produce current in the range of 10 million (10MHz) to 300 billion Hz (300 GHz), the photons emitted are said to be in the radiofrequency region of the electromagnetic spectrum. That’s because with appropriate modulation at the transmitter (amplitude modulation (AM), or frequency modulation (FM)) these photons can induce a current in an antenna that can be converted into sounds or images.

But what happens when photons in this energy range interact with living tissue, such as our bodies? The greatest concern would be the breaking of bonds between atoms in molecules. Disrupting the molecular framework of proteins, fats and particularly nucleic acids can lead to all sorts of problems, including cancer. However, photons associated with radiofrequencies do not have enough energy to do this, no matter what their intensity. An analogy may be in order.

Consider a weather vane sitting on a roof. It is mounted on a sturdy metal rod, but of course can spin. You decide you want to knock it off the roof, but all you have are tennis balls. You start throwing the balls, but even if you hit the support, nothing happens. You just can’t impart enough energy to the ball to have it break a metal rod. And it doesn’t matter if you gather all your friends, and they all throw balls at the same time. You may have increased the “intensity” of your efforts, but it doesn’t matter, because no ball has enough energy. Of course if you had a cannon, you could knock down the target with one shot. That’s why high energy photons such as generated by very high frequency currents, as in x-rays, are dangerous. They can break chemical bonds! While you are not going to damage the weather vane with the tennis balls, you can surely make it spin, and the friction generated will heat up the base, the extent depending on how many balls are thrown.

Now, back to our photons. In the radiofrequency region, no photon has enough energy to break chemical bonds, but they can make molecules move around, generating heat. The more photons released, the greater the heating effect. This is exactly how microwave ovens work. They operate at radiofrequencies, but at a very high intensity or “power” level, meaning they bombard the food with lots of photons causing the food to heat up. You certainly wouldn’t want to crawl into a working microwave oven and close the door behind you. Similarly, you wouldn’t want to stand right next to a high power radio transmitting antenna, such as used by radio or TV stations, because you could get burned very badly. But the number of photons encountered drops very quickly with distance as they spread out in all directions, so that even standing a few meters from the base of such an antenna would not cause any sensation of heat. Just think of how quickly the heat released by a light bulb drops off with distance.

The “smart meters” that are being installed by electrical utilities monitor the use of electricity and relay the information via a built-in radio transmitter. But the radiation to which people are exposed from these meters quickly drops off with distance, as with the light bulb, and is way below established safety limits. Furthermore, the smart meters only transmit for a few milliseconds at a time for a grand total of a few minutes a day! Cordless phones, cell phones, routers, baby monitors, video game controls and especially operating microwave ovens expose us to similar radiation, usually at far higher levels. Smart meters are responsible for a very small drop in the radiofrequency photon bucket.

It must be pointed out, though, that safety standards are essentially based on the heating of tissues. But what about the possibility of “non-thermal” effects? What if radiofrequency photons cause damage by some other mysterious mechanism? Over the last 30 years more than 25,000 peer-reviewed papers have been published on electromagnetic fields and health, many devoted to non-thermal effects. Health agencies do not find present evidence persuasive of a hazard at ordinary exposure levels, and given the extent of research that has been carried out, it is unlikely that one will be identified in the future.

Although an overwhelming number of studies on cell phones and brain cancer have shown no effect, admittedly some have suggested a barely detectable link. Despite the weak evidence, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified electromagnetic fields associated with radiofrequencies as “possibly carcinogenic,” indicating a level of suspicion without any implication that the fields actually cause cancer. This notion pertains to cell phone use and has nothing to do with the far weaker fields associated with wi-fi and smart meters. I would have no issue with a smart meter in my house.

What then about those consumers who claim they have developed symptoms after smart meters were installed? I think it is appropriate to consider John Milton’s poetic view of the power of imagination: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven.”

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Joe Schwarcz, Ph.D., is the Director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society and teaches a variety of courses in McGill’s Chemistry Department and in the Faculty of Medicine with emphasis on health issues, including aspects of “Alternative Medicine”.  He is well known for his informative and entertaining public lectures on topics ranging from the chemistry of love to the science of aging.  Using stage magic to make scientific points is one of his specialties.

News You Should Know: Distracted Driving, Nurse Strike, And ADHD

distracted driving, cell phone, reporting on health, car accident, riskDistracted Driving: Studies of driving while talking on a cell phone may have overestimated the risk of car crashes, new research suggests, Amy Norton reports for Reuters Health.

Nurse Strike: Some 4,000 nurses are expected to strike for one day at eight Sutter Health hospitals in California on December 22, John S. Marshall reports for the Associated Press. We predict a less than peaceful holiday for patients and hospital staff.

ADHD: Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Reporting on Health - The Reporting on Health Daily Briefing*

Health Care Is Stuck In The Past

We respond to certain “Code Blue” situations in our hospital. In the ED, of course, and in the outpatient areas and radiology, and if needed as back-up in the inpatient units. The hospital issues one of those overhead calls when there is a code blue — a cardiac arrest or other collapse, person down, injury, etc., but we also carry a pager in the ER in case we don’t hear the overhead call. The pager also signifies which doc is designated to respond to such a call, since we often have 8 docs working at once. It’s a little ritual we have at change of shift, passing off the pager and the spectralink phone, like the passing of the torch to the oncoming doc.

So of course I took the pager home the other day and had to make an extra trip to the hospital to return it. Ugh.

As I was driving back in, I took a moment to really look at the thing, and it struck me that this pager is the exact same model I used in medical school and residency, way back in the mid nineties. The exact same one: Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Movin' Meat*

Daylight Savings Means More Driving In The Dark: Tips To Avoid Motor Vehicle Accidents

Did you know that your 20/20 vision may drop to 20/40 when you’re driving in the dark? That’s because your pupils dilate to try to let in more light, and in so doing, they sacrifice their ability to focus clearly. Night-time driving can be dangerous for many additional reasons, and I had the opportunity to interview two experts about these risks, and how we can reduce our chances of being in harm’s way when we turn our clocks back on November 6th.

Optometrist, Dr. Christina Schneider, Senior Director, Medical Affairs for VISTAKON® Division of Johnson & Johnson Vision Care, spoke with me about common nighttime driving problems such as dry eyes, headaches, and eye fatigue – and what to do about them. We also discussed the risks of driving with an under corrected or uncorrected vision problem, and some of the available options and treatments available to improve our night vision

I also spoke with John Ulczycki, Group Vice President – Strategic Initiatives, for the National Safety Council, about safe driving tips. Please listen to the conversation here:

Traffic safety experts report that fatal motor vehicle accidents are three times more common at night. So how can we improve our nighttime driving safety? John’s tips include: Read more »

Cell Phones And Brain Cancer: Evidence Of A Link Is Limited

Man-on-cellphone

If the recent announcement by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that cell phones may cause brain cancer has you worried, you might want to wait a bit before trashing your mobile phone and going back to a land line.

Last week, the IARC convened experts from around the world to assess what, if any, cancer threat cell phones pose to the 5 billion or so people who use them. After reviewing hundreds of studies, the IARC panel concluded that cell phone use may be connected to two types of brain cancer, glioma and acoustic neuroma.

That sounds mighty scary. But the IARC said the evidence for this conclusion was “limited.” Most studies have shown no connection between cell phone use and brain cancer. In the relatively small number of studies that have observed a connection between the two, the positive result could be due to chance, bias, or confounding.

The decision puts cell phones in IARC’s Group 2B category of agents that definitely or might cause cancer. Group 1 are things like asbestos, cigarette smoke, and ultraviolet radiation. Things in Group 2B are “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” Other denizens of this group include coffee, pickled vegetables, bracken ferns, and talcum powder.

I think the IARC decision puts cell phones on notice—a formal “we’ve got our eyes on you” warning—more than it fingers phones as a cause of brain cancer. For one thing, the evidence so far is pretty weak. Writing on the Cancer Research UK Web site, blogger Ed Yong offers a peak at the data through 2009, taken from a review by Swedish researchers. A graph from the paper shows that only one of 28 studies shows a statistically significant association between cell phone use and cancer. We’ll know more about the strength or weakness of the evidence when the panel publishes its report online later this week and in the July 1 issue of The Lancet Oncology.

For now, I’m far more concerned about being rammed by someone talking on his or her cell phone while driving than I am about getting brain cancer from a phone. If you think the IARC report warrants action, the FDA offers suggestions for reducing your exposure to radiofrequency energy from a cell phone, like using the phone less, texting instead of talking, and using speaker mode or a headset to place more distance between your head and the cell phone.

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Latest Interviews

How To Make Inpatient Medical Practice Fun Again: Try Locum Tenens Work

It s no secret that most physicians are unhappy with the way things are going in healthcare. Surveys report high levels of job dissatisfaction burn out and even suicide. In fact some believe that up to a third of the US physician work force is planning to leave the profession…

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I am a huge fan of the winter Olympics partly because I grew up in Canada where most kids can ski and skate before they can run and partly because I used to participate in Downhill ski racing. Now that I m a rehab physician with a reconstructed knee I…

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Latest Cartoon

Richmond, VA – In an effort to simplify inpatient medical billing, one area hospitalist group has determined that “altered mental status” (ICD-9 780.97) is the most efficient code for use in any patient work up.

“When you enter a hospital, you’re bound to have some kind of mental status change,” said Dr. Fishbinder, co-partner of Area Hospitalists, PLLC. “Whether it’s confusion about where your room is located in relationship to the visitor’s parking structure, frustration with being woken up every hour or two to check your vital signs, or just plain old fatigue from being sick, you are not thinking as clearly as before you were admitted. And that’s all the justification we need to order anything from drug and toxin screens, to blood cultures, brain MRIs, tagged red blood cell nuclear scans, or cardiac Holter monitoring. There really is no limit to what we can pursue with our tests.”

Common causes of mental status changes in the elderly include medicine-induced cognitive side effects, disorientation due to disruption in daily routines, age-related memory impairment, and urinary tract infections.

“The urinalysis is not a very exciting medical test,” stated Dr. Fishbinder. “It doesn’t matter that it’s cheap, fast, and most likely to provide an explanation for strange behavior in hospitalized patients. It’s really not as elegant as the testing involved in a chronic anemia or metabolic encephalopathy work up. I keep it in my back pocket in case all other tests are negative, including brain MRIs and PET scans.”

Nursing staff at Richmond Medical Hospital report that efforts to inform hospitalists about foul smelling urine have generally fallen on deaf ears. “I have tried to tell the hospitalists about cloudy or bloody urine that I see in patients who are undergoing extensive work ups for mental status changes,” reports nurse Sandy Anderson. “But they insist that ‘all urine smells bad’ and it’s really more of a red herring.”

Another nurse reports that delay in diagnosing urinary tract infections (while patients are scheduled for brain MRIs, nuclear scans, and biopsies) can lead to worsening symptoms which accelerate and expand testing. “Some of my patients are transferred to the ICU during the altered mental status work up,” states nurse Anita Misra. “The doctors seem to be very excited about the additional technology available to them in the intensive care setting. Between the central line placement, arterial blood gasses, and vast array of IV fluid and medication options, urosepsis is really an excellent entré into a whole new level of care.”

“As far as medicine-induced mental status changes are concerned,” added Dr. Fishbinder, “We’ve never seen a single case in the past 10 years. Today’s patients are incredibly resilient and can tolerate mixes of opioids, anti-depressants, anti-histamines, and benzodiazepines without any difficulty. We know this because most patients have been prescribed these cocktails and have been taking them for years.”

Patient family members have expressed gratitude for Dr. Fishbinder’s diagnostic process, and report that they are very pleased that he is doing everything in his power to “get to the bottom” of why their loved one isn’t as sharp as they used to be.

“I thought my mom was acting strange ever since she started taking stronger pain medicine for her arthritis,” says Nelly Hurtong, the daughter of one of Dr. Fishbinder’s inpatients. “But now I see that there are deeper reasons for her ‘altered mental status’ thanks to the brain MRI that showed some mild generalized atrophy.”

Hospital administrators praise Dr. Fishbinder as one of their top physicians. “He will do whatever it takes to figure out the true cause of patients’ cognitive impairments.” Says CEO, Daniel Griffiths. “And not only is that good medicine, it is great for our Press Ganey scores and our bottom line.”

As for the nursing staff, Griffiths offered a less glowing review. “It’s unfortunate that our nurses seem preoccupied with urine testing and medication reconciliation. I think it might be time for us to mandate further training to help them appreciate more of the medical nuances inherent in quality patient care.”

Dr. Fishbinder is in the process of creating a half-day seminar on ‘altered mental status in the inpatient setting,’ offering CME credits to physicians who enroll. Richmond Medical Hospital intends to sponsor Dr. Fishbinder’s course, and franchise it to other hospitals in the state, and ultimately nationally.

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Click here for a musical take on over-testing.

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Unaccountable: A Book About The Underbelly Of Hospital Care

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