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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.

How Tanning Beds Nearly Killed Me

When I was a teenager I did some stupid things, but looking back I think that the worst decision I made was to go to a tanning salon. At the time I remember tanning salon staff assuring me that it was “safer than the real sun” and the fastest way to get a healthy-looking glow. “You could bake in the sun all day, or spend 20 minutes in a tanning bed for the same effect” said the staff. So after trying several sunless tanners in varying shades of orange and having them slough off like patches of dirt, I decided to make my alabaster skin a nice, even shade of light caramel with months of tanning each year.

Fast forward twenty some-odd years and I’m in the surgeon’s office having a wide-margin re-excision of a melanoma on my back. I’d been wearing sunscreen since my early twenties, carefully protecting myself from UV radiation. I had realized the error of my ways after a serious conversation with a dermatologist, but I had “gotten religion” about skin protection too late. My fate was already set from the tanning bed exposure.

A new study in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) estimates that tanning beds may be responsible for hundreds of thousands of non-melanoma skin cancers per year in the United States. As for melanoma (the deadliest kind of skin cancer), the World Health Organization has determined that the risk of melanoma is increased by 75% when the use of tanning devices starts before age 30. In fact, they classify tanning bed exposure as a “group 1 carcinogen” – in the same class of human toxicity as asbestos, tobacco, and mustard gas.

I was surprised to learn how common tanning bed use is, especially in Europe. According to the BMJ study, 10.6-35% of people in Germany, France, Denmark, and Sweden have used a tanning bed at some point in their lifetimes. The global nature of this problem is daunting – and with research suggesting that tanning has addictive properties, it may be as difficult to get people to avoid tanning salons as it is to have them quit smoking.

As for me, I learned my lesson and I have the scars to prove it. I was lucky that a dermatologist caught my melanoma before it spread, but now I need to be on the look-out for more of them and redouble my efforts to stay out of the sun. If you’ve ever used a tanning bed and have fair skin and freckles, you should probably keep your dermatologist on speed dial. That temporary “sun-kissed glow” can easily turn into wrinkles and Frankenstein scars in the not too distant future – along with a potentially fatal cancer diagnosis. Trust me, it’s not worth it.

Prostate Cancer: When Active Surveillance Wins Out Over Immediate Treatment

The word “cancer” strikes fear in everyone who is told they have it. It conjures up images of a fast-moving, life-threatening disease.

That isn’t necessarily the case for men with newly diagnosed prostate cancer. More than half of them have a type of cancer that is confined to the prostate gland and that grows so slowly it will never affect their health or their lives. Yet almost 90% of men told they have prostate cancer opt for immediate treatment with surgery or radiation therapy—which often cause trouble getting or keeping an erection and an assortment of urinary problems.

Two weeks ago, a panel of experts convened by the National Institutes of Health recommended that many men with localized, low-risk prostate cancer be closely monitored, and that treatment be delayed until there was evidence that the disease was progressing.

“It’s clear that many men would benefit from delaying treatment,” Dr. Patricia A. Ganz, conference panel chairperson and director of the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control Research at the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of California in Los Angeles, said in a statement, adding that Read more »

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

Are Doctors More Likely To Refuse Certain Medical Care?

No CPRA must-read piece from Ken Murray:

Years ago, Charlie, a highly respected orthopedist and a mentor of mine, found a lump in his stomach. He had a surgeon explore the area, and the diagnosis was pancreatic cancer. This surgeon was one of the best in the country. He had even invented a new procedure for this exact cancer that could triple a patient’s five-year-survival odds—from 5 percent to 15 percent—albeit with a poor quality of life. Charlie was uninterested. He went home the next day, closed his practice, and never set foot in a hospital again. He focused on spending time with family and feeling as good as possible. Several months later, he died at home. He got no chemotherapy, radiation, or surgical treatment. Medicare didn’t spend much on him.

Worth the full read.

And so true. I’ve joked about getting the above tattoo when my times comes. (I would quibble that the modern CPR success rate is better than infinitesimal, especially with hypothermia, but it still ain’t great.)

It may have to do with Read more »

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

Pregnant Journalist Strip Searched And X-Rayed Three Times

Like most pregnant women Lynsey Addario was cautious and conscientious. After all, this was her first pregnancy. She called the border officials in advance to make certain that she would not have to walk through an X-ray machine when she entered a country that has been besieged by war for more than 60 years. Unfortunately, Addario was wrong. Dead wrong. She was scanned, not once. Not twice. But THREE times and then made to strip down to her underwear. The soldiers laughed each time she complained. What was so funny? Her 28-week pregnant belly? Or perhaps her vulnerability.

As an American photojournalist with a Pulitzer Prize under her belt, Addario is not immune to danger. She had first-hand experience while on an assignment for The New York Times in March of 2011. At that time, she along with four other journalists went missing for four days in Libya.  They were ultimately released but not before Addario was allegedly groped and humiliated by Libyan soldiers. In May 2009 she broke her collar bone in a motor vehicle accident in Pakistan where another passenger was injured and the driver was killed. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Dr. Linda Burke-Galloway*

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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Caring For Winter Olympians In Sochi: An Interview With Team USA’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Gloria Beim

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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The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

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Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

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Unaccountable: A Book About The Underbelly Of Hospital Care

I met Dr. Marty Makary over lunch at Founding Farmers restaurant in DC about three years ago. We had an animated conversation about hospital safety the potential contribution of checklists to reducing medical errors and his upcoming book about the need for more transparency in the healthcare system. Marty was…

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