What's Going Through Your Head?

It wasn’t that long ago that the idiom ‘wired society’ came into being. It referred to the fact that ongoing technological advances in the field of communications, from telephones to the internet to satellites, had joined us all together, allowing for instant access to people and information. Today, wired is quite passé¢, so 20th century, if you will. We have become a wireless society. Sometimes, in the hills of Vermont, amongst which I live, it is not so apparent how wireless the society has become. Cell phone reception is spotty in and around our house and we have not felt a need to use Bluetooth or have a wireless computer network. In fact, I’ve resisted it. So have any number of cantankerous Vermonters – private landowners, interested citizens and various municipal bodies – remained resistant to the lure of upgraded cellular connectivity and the lucre of the telecommunications industry in exchange for dotting the landscape with towers.

But drive a few miles out of the hills, into the flats of the river valley and the towns that dot it, and the situation is different. Seamless, consistent connections are the rule. Buildings and even whole sections of towns are enjoying the benefits of wireless Internet access. Drive even further and the contrast is even starker.

A trip to the big City reveals people walking up down the streets, cell phones pressed to their ear, jabbering away for all the world to hear. Even worse, there are lots of people who appear to just be blabbering like lunatics – not even into a phone – until one notices the mouthpieces of headsets curled around the ear on the other side of their head.

Indoors is even worse. Restaurants, already packed with people and aisles so narrow that you feel you are eating with the people at the next table in your lap, feel even more cacophonous with phones ringing & singing & beeping and people conversing into them loudly enough to be heard by the other party above the din. A panel discussion in a university lecture hall is constantly interrupted by the various sounds produced by various electronic devices. Nervous giggles break out at one point when a sequence of melodious rings emitted one after the other makes the meeting feel as much a concert of modern music as a verbal forum. I notice the guy next to me, obviously bored with the event poking away at his Blackberry (or is it ‘Blueberry’?), reading and sending text. Urgent stuff he is communicating, like ‘I’m at a conference on 120th street… Where shall we meet when I’m done?’

Now, don’t get the impression that I’m a total Luddite. Far from it, actually. I love my computers and the web. Professionally, they have become nearly indispensable tools and personally they are a source of pleasure and knowledge. I’m using one most every day for hours. And like most everyone else, a cell phone has become my constant and useful companion.

But, unfortunately, I can’t get it out of my head that those sounds, pictures and text come with a price because they aren’t the only thing being emitted from these instruments.

Concern over the health consequences of electromagnetic radiation (EMR) is certainly not new. Ever since the Scottish physicist James Maxwell presented his famous equations to the Royal Society (formally known as the ‘Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge’) in 1864, the scientific world has been aware that electrical and magnetic forces travel through space together as electromagnetic radiation.

Much of the great scientific and technological advancement of the intervening century and a half has been the increased understanding and harnessing of these waves of electromagnetic radiation. Twenty years after Maxwell’s presentation, the German Heinrich Hertz (for whom the common electronic term ‘hertz’ (Hz) – or cycles per second – is named) showed that these waves do indeed exist by detecting, sending and creating electromagnetic radiation.

We all know from our experience in the world and from eighth grade science class that EMR is not one uniform phenomenon. It varies according to wavelength and frequency. The longer the wavelength the slower the frequency at which the wave oscillates; the faster the frequency the shorter the wavelength. It also turns out that the faster the frequency, the hotter the object that is emitting them.

Hertz had detected what we today call radio waves – the device he used would be instantly recognized by most of us (at least those of us old enough to have experienced the world before the Walkman, Discman and the iPod) as akin to a simple radio. That is what it was and it captured waves that are toward one end of the spectrum of EMR, waves that are very long (on the order of a thousand meters) and slow (around ten thousand oscillations per second – 10,000 Hz).

Moving up the scale to shorter and faster forms of EMR, we have microwaves, infrared, visible, ultraviolet, x-ray and gamma rays. Gamma rays are so small and fast that they cry out for scientific notation: the length is 10-12 meters and the frequency is 1020 Hz.

Even without modern technology, the world is awash with EMR. We are mostly aware of the visible kind, but other forms of EMR are present – coming from outer space and from fields on and in the earth as well as in our bodies. Life has evolved in the presence of these naturally occurring forms of EMR.

In the last 150 years humankind has learned how to create, send and receive many types of EMR that do not occur naturally. The question is what is the effect of this on us?

Part II

One of the things that really struck me during my last trip to India was the near ubiquity of cell phones. Even in the rural tribal area I visited, despite the lack of economic development, there was no shortage of ‘mobiles’ and connectivity was excellent – probably better than in many areas of Vermont.

With the number of cell phones approaching 4 billion worldwide, the electromagnetic radiation emitted from them and the signals transmitted via the infrastructure that supports them, not to mention EMR from power lines, nuclear facilities and other manmade communication devices ranging from radios to satellites to medical imaging devices, is now impossible to avoid in all but the remotest corners of the globe – and maybe not even there.

The question is should we be concerned? The effects of various types of EMR on living organisms has been studied for a century and while there is great clarity about the health consequences from exposure to some types, x-rays for instance, the consequences of exposure to other frequencies on the spectrum are still being debated.

For decades, anecdotal evidence has seemed to point toward the danger of living proximate to power lines. But research into the issue has not translated into general consensus within the scientific community nor the governmental agencies responsible for protecting the public as to the severity of the problem. Like many other issues affecting the public where corporate entities are involved, and where research is often sponsored by those same entities, it can be very difficult to sort out the truth.

But the number of people residing near power lines, cell towers or the like is nearly insignificant compared to those who are being continually exposed to cell phones. ‘Exposed’ is hardly even appropriate – we are putting them right next to our brains, and using them inside metal cages (automobiles) that can act as amplifiers of the radiation. It would seem that unbiased research into the health consequences of this technology is one of the most important endeavors that the scientific community should undertake.

This research is becoming easier to do in light of the fact that cell phone technology has been with us long enough so that large numbers of persons have been using them to various degrees for 10 years or more. Conjecture can give way to data regarding the presence of medical conditions developed due to long-term exposure to cell phone radiation.

Even going back to the early years of this decade, research oncologists in Sweden were reporting that people who use cell phone are over twice as likely to have a brain tumor on the side of the head where they use the phone. It was also reported around then that the risk of developing an acoustic neuroma – a benign tumor on the auditory nerve – was 3 or 4 times greater for cell phones users. (www.News.telegraph.co.uk September 5, 2001)

At the time this information became available, the head of the British Association for the Advancement of Science warned about the unrestricted use of cell phones, especially for children whose skulls are thinner and whose nervous systems are not fully developed. Dr. Lennart Hardell, the leading Swedish scientist who carried out one of the studies, also commented that his research had been done on people using analog phones and that he would have to wait until at least 2005 to carry out studies with people who had used digital technology for a sufficiently long period of time.

Well, he waited and we have the results of this next generation of his research. In a study released earlier this year in the publication “Occupational and Environmental Medicine” (2007;64:626-632), he and his team evaluated data from 18 other studies done on the possible correlation of long term cell phone use with brain tumors. The conclusions reads, “Results from present studies on use of mobile phones for >=10 (10 or more years) give a consistent pattern of increased risk for acoustic neuroma and glioma (tumors of the central nervous system, most often in the brain, that can be benign or malignant). The risk is highest for ipsilateral (one sided) exposure…. It is concluded that using a >=10-year latency period gives a consistent pattern of association between use of mobile phones and malignant brain tumors, especially high-grade glioma.”

Of course, publication of this data has not led to any great hue and cry by the media or by governmental organizations responsible for the public’s health in this country. But, interestingly enough, other governments are not as apathetic toward the problem. For instance, earlier this months the Central News Agency of Taiwan (akin to the AP in this country), reported that the National Communications Commission (akin to our FCC) is confident they can achieve a goal they had established of dismantling 1,500 mobile phone base stations this year.

The issue was openly discussed on the floor of the national legislature, where legislators were concerned about base stations placed on or near private buildings, schools and in residential areas. Lawmakers are wanting to cut the number of stations nationwide by half because they have a concern that they could “cause cancer, miscarriages and diseases of the nervous system, and could even drive people to suicide.” (Central News Agency, November 6, 2007).

A generation ago, I lived in Taiwan for a year when it was truly a third world outpost ruled by suppressive dictatorial regime. There was no leeway for any public debate on anything consequential at all. It was not without considerable amazement to see how the roles have reversed. While here in Vermont people the business community and the government are so concerned with creating more infrastructure to increase wireless capacity without any appreciable regard to the health consequences, that once backward nation is already disassembling theirs because of its publicly discussed and general understood inherent dangers.

The increased use of cellular phones along with the additions of WiFi and Bluetooth technology only make it all but certain that this latest form of pollution will influence our health for many generations to come unless there is greater public awareness about the issue.

Part III Once the genie of a new technology is out of the bottle, it is hard to get it to go back inside. For whatever hazards it may pose, there is usually an upside that makes it difficult to set aside. As a society, we have a tolerance of the risk involved and justify the consequences as the inherent cost of modern day life.

No better example of this can be found than the death and destruction caused by the automobile. All of us know personally or know of many people killed or injured in automobile accidents, but how many of us are willing to forgo them as a mode of transportation? I won’t – but sometimes when hearing or reading of yet another traffic fatality, I wonder to myself is this ongoing slaughter worth get from place A to B quickly. Are we all mad or just callous?

Another example was just picked up this past week by major media outlets. They have been reporting on an article that appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine (November 29th, 2007 edition) about the dangers of computer tomography or CT scans. Because they can image organs and body tissue three dimensionally, these ‘super X-rays’ are increasingly popular amongst physicians and medical consumers alike. Some 60 million of these scans were performed in the United States last year, up from 3 million a quarter century ago.

Two researchers from Columbia University Medical Center are warning that the radiation from them are dangerous and are predicting that in the future about 2% of all cancers will be a direct result of CT scan radiation. Since studies have shown that 1 in 3 diagnostic procedures carried out in this country are unwarranted, they estimate that some 20 million scans are done needlessly.

Yet because physicians, often under pressure to make rapid judgments and wary of malpractice claims, naturally favor the best and quickest diagnostic information possible, and their patients are more demanding of state of the art care, it is hard to imagine that these excesses will be curtailed in the future.

Cell phone technology is just one more technology from which most of us will not abstain because it is just too damned convenient. I’ve personally gone from a disdainer to phone carrying member of the tribe in the last few years. It is not hard to imagine a future not too far ahead where wired phones will be as quaint a memory as phonograph records.

So, barring some calamity of apocalyptic proportions, cell phones, the towers, blue tooth and all the other accoutrements of this technology aren’t going away anytime soon.

The question then, is how do we live with the technology safely – or at least minimize the risk?

Here are a few, mostly common sense suggestions, about how to do that. Of course, the first one is to use cells phones only when necessary and avoid lengthy conversations. This may be hard to do if, like many younger people today, the cell phone is one’s only phone.

Second, if possible, use the phone hands free – set it down elsewhere and turn on the speakerphone, or use a ferrite bead protected air tube headset. If one needs to carry the phone when it is on, use a shield designed to block the radiation the body. Avoid the Bluetooth headsets (wireless headsets), which create another set of frequencies right next to one’s head.

Finally, use one of the technologies like the Green 8, Q-link, Swiss Harmony or Diodes that modify or redirect the radiation emanating from the phone – or from other EMF producing devices. They are designed to either be worn on the body or placed by the device.

Some of the above can be used in combination, such as the ferrite bead and headset plus a Green 8, Q-link, or Diode. Some would appear to be redundant.

The list below which briefly introduces some of technology of which I am aware and some of which I actually use, also has some websites where you can learn more about them. These sites are mostly are of various venders selling them as opposed to the manufacturer. One can certainly locate others on the internet, and more than likely there is other technology out there of which I am not aware.

Green 8 – The creation of a German engineer, these products transform and neutralize EMFs. Of various sizes, they are meant to be placed in, under or near anything from a cell phone to a computer or TV to a cell phone tower or power station. Some are meant to be worn on the body. http://www.green8usa.com/index.php

Diodes – Also designed to be worn or placed by a radiation emitting device, a Diode contain a number of proprietary substances which “emit forty-seven resonant energy frequencies that synchronize and promote a healthy human energy field”. http://www.energpolarit.com/

Q-Link - A pendant worn on the body, this has what is called “Sympathetic Resonant Technology™“ which is designed to optimize human energy fields via resonating energy, somewhat like a vibrating tuning fork. http://www.q-linkproducts.com/

RF3 Air-Tube Headset - This headset transmit the sound along the 4 inches or so closet to the head by a simple tube, thereby stopping the radiation that is also transmitted from the phone up the wires. http://www.rfsafe.com/a_rf3headset.htm

Ferrite Beads – Used in engineering, a ferrite bead is a passive electric component used to suppress high frequency noise. Place on the wire of the headset, (and sometimes known as a ‘wire guard’), it blocks radiation transmitted from the phone into the headset. http://www.mercola.com/forms/ferrite_beads.htm

Shields - A special material which acts as protective barrier between you and a cell phone handset by deflecting RF Radiation. – http://www.rfsafe.com/apocket_shield.htm

Much of the actual technology that is claimed from the above devices is, at least for me, not easy to understand. And since I have no way of really testing it, it is impossible to say how well it works. In the end, I trust that the claims made by the manufacturers and of others who have a vested interest in selling them are close to the truth. In the end, since none of them are outrageously expensive, I see no reason not to invest in them for my family and myself. The downside is rather limited and the possible upside is enormous.