Alternative MedicineAnti-Science

The Daily Woo: Dangerous Cell Phone Radiation

Your Daily Woo is a brief summary of an alternative health treatment, as well as how it was experienced by me, Kate Donovan. I grew up with mostly alternative medicine (read: psuedoscience), and now you, lovely skeptics, get to live vicariously! (see note at the bottom of this post for an explanation of my attitude towards practitioners of pseudoscience.)

Really, I think I could sum up the entirety of why cell phones aren’t giving you cancer with this one graphic from xkcd.  But, sadly, Teen Skepchick doesn’t let me take over the Mad Art Lab mothership. So I guess we’ll just have to use our words.

As a high school junior, I really wanted to have texting privileges on my phone. There was a boy and he had a phone, and it was just so awesome to be able to text him and I wanted to be just like my friends. What finally convinced my parents to let me? Cancer worries–if I texted, I wouldn’t be putting my phone up to my head. A win for teenage me…and a loss for science.

For those of you lucky enough to have missed this bit of weird, it is a not-uncommon belief that cell phone use can lead to brain tumors and cancer. Luckily, there are scientists out there doing real science. Isn’t the scientific method great?

So what are the facts? Radiation is a scary thing, of Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island, right? So our phones are totally killing us slowly, right? Yeah, not so much. All radiation is not created equal. Cell phones (or mobile phones, for those of you across the ocean) emit radiation in the microwave spectrum, just like well…your microwave. It’s not ionizing radiation, the kind that damages DNA and is bad news. In fact, the radiation from cell phones has both not shown an an increase in cancer in any animals, it has also not amplified the effects of cancer-causing substances already in the body. (citation)

The European Commission Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks:

…exposure to [cell phone radiation fields] is unlikely to lead to an increase in cancer in humans.

This is a popular image (about a third of the image results for ‘cell phone radiation’ have some version of this) that ‘proves’ the danger of talking on wireless devices:

The picture, despite its wide circulation, ignores a laundry list of important factors, including logic, common sense, the difference between heat and radiation, and acknowledgement of confirmation bias. This man has held a warm object to his ear for fifteen minutes, and we’re supposed to be scared that….heat transfer occurred? The red coloration conveys a sense of danger, but ignores common sense. This same effect could be cause with a good pair of earmuffs…are those causing brain cancer? BAN ALL THE EARMUFFS! In fact, this level of increased thermal radiation is one order of magnitude less than what you experience by standing outside on a sunny day.

So, uh, call me maybe?

Note: I am rather snarky in my dismissal of these practices. Alternative medicine does real physical and mental harm. It does not deserve kid gloves. People deserve respect, their bad ideas and the damage they do to others does not.

Featured image from here
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Kate Donovan

Kate Donovan

Kate is an outspoken atheist, feminist, demisexual, stigma-busting student in Chicago studying psychology and human development. She juggles occasionally, would knit you something warm if she knew you, and reads anything she can get her hands on. She was raised believing alternative medicine worked, and now spends her time making skeptical faces at it. You can find her on Twitter at @donovanable

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