Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hang up and live!

No doubt Stayin' Alive nation is concerned about the much publicized study from Brookhaven National Laboratories that finds there is indeed an effect on brain activity from exposure to cell phone radio waves and/or low frequency electromagnetic fields. (They give off both so who knows exactly what's causing what.)

I am not an expert on the relevant biology and biophysics but it's simple enough that I feel I can summarize it for you. Unlike functional magnetic resonance imaging that you have probably heard a lot about, and which is widely overinterpreted in my view, these researchers used PET scanning to measure glucose metabolism in the brain. Their methods were quite rigorous -- for one thing, the participants didn't know when the cell phones were on and when they were off -- and the correlations they found were very strong (i.e. the response they saw was highly consistent), so despite the fairly small sample (47 people) the results strike me as compelling.

However, just because something happened doesn't necessarily mean that it matters. What they saw was that the brain cells closest to the cell phone antenna got a bit more active. This degree of activation was a lot less than the differences you see naturally when the brain is engaged in particular tasks. In other words, if you are just thinking hard, or paying attention to something, there will be bigger effects on the metabolic rate of particular neurons. So there is no particular reason to think this phenomenon causes physical harm. Certainly there is no known mechanism by which it could be associated with a risk of cancer, which has been the main concern about cell phones up till now.

But, we don't know what we don't know. There could be some as yet undiscovered mechanism by which chronic stimulation of a particular brain region in this way has long-term physical effects. There could certainly be psychological effects of some kind. But that is purely speculative. You could choose to worry about anything that isn't fully understood, and I can't see any reason to worry about this in particular. We already know, for example, that exposure to ultra-fine particles from motor vehicle exhaust is very harmful, but most people pay absolutely no attention to it.

However, this does seem like a good occasion to reiterate some sensible advice. These subjects were exposed to the cell phones for a long time -- 50 minutes. A brief call probably doesn't have this effect. And there are lots of perfectly good reasons to limit cell phone use. We already know that it is very dangerous to talk on the phone while driving. That ought to be a huge worry but people do it all the time. So just stop. It can wait till you get home.

Also, people use their cell phones as a substitute for existing in the world. My brother was walking to his car a while ago and he saw this woman screaming into her phone, "Anthony, answer the %$#@ phone! Why don't you $@#@!@ answer %^&* the %^&* phone!" Then this guy ten feet away turned around and yelled at her, "What the $%^ do you want?" People are breaking up with their boyfriends over the phone on the street corner, calling their wives to say they'll be home in two minutes (apparently so the boyfriend can run out the back door), gibbering while they're paying for their groceries or eating in a restaurant. Just cut that shit out and be in the space where you are. It's very doubtful that talking on the cell phone when you actually need to, a few minutes a day (not while you're driving!) will do you any harm.


rental elf said...

Nice article, thanks for the information.

roger said...

"Just cut that shit out and be in the space where you are."

that says it all.