Cell phone radiation danger: true or false?

from Grandview Park in San Francisco
Image via Wikipedia

Head-zaps, otherwise known as cell phone radiation levels, messing with your brain? Nobody knows. What we do know is that cell phones emit radiation, just as radio and TV stations do at somewhat higher levels. What we also know is that nobody cares much. The back-and-forth going on between legislators and cell phone industry lobbyists suggests that a few people do care… but it’s a long road from caring to understanding to any kind of meaningful action.

In California, where local and state efforts to increase information made available to consumers have met with mixed results, an explanation in the Letters section of today’s San Francisco Chronicle offers some interesting perspectives. To understand them, it helps to know about the city’s Sutro Tower (above), a looming structure completed in 1973 and now furnishing transmissions for 11 TV stations, 4 FM radio stations and about 20 wireless communication services.

Local electrical engineer Bill Choisser has this to say:

The power of radio waves falls off as the square of the distance. This means one watt an inch from your head (typical for a cell phone) has the same effect as 1 million watts 1,000 inches from your head. The strongest TV signals on Sutro Tower run i million watts. A thousand inches is about 83 feet. Whether putting your head 83 feet from Sutro Tower every time you talk on the phone bothers you, is up to you.

San Francisco’s board of supervisor’s voted last week to require disclosure of the measure of cell phone radiation next to sales displays, something unlikely to make the tiniest bit of difference to sellers, buyers or anyone else. The FCC has a similar requirement likely to make even less difference.

CNET’s Christina Jewett, on her California Watch blog, summed up some of the action at the state level, where Sen. Mark Leno‘s bill to make radiation level information more accessible recently died. Leno emphasizes, in a statement on his website that there’s no definitive evidence that cell phone radiation causes cancer or other illnesses. Supporters argue that there are potential health effects dangerous enough to warrant making more information available, Jewett explains, while opponents termed the whole business expensive and unnecessary.

When the bill was a going concern, it did little to slow the never-ending party that lobbyists for AT&T Inc., one of its chief opponents, tend to host at Arco Arena. The firm spent about $535,000 on lobbying during the first quarter of this year. From Kings games to Disney Stars on Ice to a Valentine’s Super Love Jam, legislative staffers continued to enjoy the hospitality. (Details below).

Whether the lobbying effort led to the bill’s demise may never be known. But the debate at least is bringing out more information on the issue, one that regulators and scientists pledge to keep watching.

Given the number of Americans walking around (or sitting, or standing in place) with cell phones plastered to their ears, I for one am happy that somebody is watching… and that Bill Choisser is explaining.

State hangs up on expansion of San Francisco phone law | California Watch.


  1. Head-zaps, otherwise known as cell phone radiation levels, messing with your brain? Nobody knows.

    No, we actually pretty much do know, and the answer is “no, it’s not.” Microwave radiation on the band cell phones use cannot even penetrate skin to any depth, much less the skull, much less affect anything in the brain.

    Technically any energy that is transmitted out from a central point is a “radiation”, but it’s too bad that the use of that term popularly conjures images of nuclear fallout and cancer. But radio and microwave energies are nonionizing; their wavelengths are simply too long. Radio and microwave transmissions don’t cause cancer.

    1. Justin, this comes under the category of beyond my education & understanding (BA, Art; MFA, short fiction.) But I’m still not satisfied that we know everything there is to know about radiation, or energy transmission if you prefer. Part of the CNET piece to which this blog post refers includes this Senate testimony: “Indeed, research indicates that cell phone radiation penetrates the heads of children much more than it does adults for a variety of reasons, including the fact that children have smaller and thinner skulls. This was first discovered by Om Gahndi, a radiation expert from the University of Utah, and confirmed by recent studies by Niels Kuster, an electrical engineer from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.” I did Google these guys (it’s spelled Gandhi) and though their findings are disputed I don’t see that they’ve been disproved. So while I don’t want to be alarmist, I still argue we should continue testing and doing research.

      1. But I’m still not satisfied that we know everything there is to know about radiation, or energy transmission if you prefer.

        Well, I would recognize that the thinner, smaller skulls of small children would be likely to result in higher levels of intercranial absorption of cell phone microwaves. But, there’s no evidence that exposure to microwaves harms the development of a child’s brain at these levels. And small children don’t frequently use cell phones.

        Again, much of your trepidation I think fixates on the word “radiation”, but in this context that just means “something that radiates.” It doesn’t refer to the harmful ionizing radiation (gamma and beta particles) produced by things like nuclear weapons or radioactive isotopes. Your cell phone is not in any sense radioactive. It’s emitting a small amount of microwave radiation – about one one-thousandth the intensity of a microwave oven, and on a different band – of which there is no evidence that it can penetrate the skull of an adult cell phone user to any extent. And even if it did – microwaves don’t cause cancer, they just raise the temperature of water. (In the 90’s, a novel form of space heating was developed that actually directed microwaves at occupants of the room – it actually microwaved people to make them warm! As scary as that sounds it’s completely safe, if a little unnerving.)

        Cell phones are safe. If they caused brain cancer we’d see a vast worldwide epidemic of it, simply as a result of how they’ve become such a fixture in our lives. At this point it’s a bit like worrying about water floridation.

      2. Among the spectrum of that which might hurt us, I would rather study other things less well known than Radio Frequency radiation. Ms. Johns, you need to realize that scientists have been studying this stuff since the dawn of radio. It is a path well worn.

        Furthermore, you seek to prove a negative. We can never prove something “safe.” What we can prove is that, given what we know of physical science and medical science, there is no reason to think RF radiation is dangerous at low thermal exposure limits.

        Very long and significant multi-year studies seem to have shown that that there if there are any primary correlations associated with such exposure, they have yet to be discovered. The few spurious correlations we have found to date have either been shown to be statistical sampling anomalies, or a poorly controlled data collection.

        As an engineer and an amateur radio enthusiast for decades, I’ll be the first to admit that this study is fraught with all sorts of opportunities for error. It requires a mix of education and background that is hardly common among the community: electrical engineering, physics, and medical science. Constructing well controlled studies is very difficult. Making mistakes that result in spurious results is very easy.

        Meanwhile, since few appear to be dying years later from radio exposure, I would posit that we might do better to spend our limited research monies on other endeavors.

        For example, let’s study Atrazine’s effect on the environment. Let’s study how the weakening of the earth’s magnetic field will affect us in the upcoming solar storms.

        Let’s study the toxicity of solar cell manufacturing byproducts so that we can make the process cleaner.

        The list goes on and on. Why should we waste any further effort on this dead end investigation that is literally as old as radio?

        And then, finally as a parting shot at the city of San Fransisco: What good is a label indicating exposure to something that, for over a century has been shown to be even more benign than a warm ray of sunshine?

        If we’re going to warn people about something, shouldn’t there be reasonable evidence (not fear) that something is dangerous?

      3. Those are just excellent points, Jake, and thanks for the note of comfort. There are certainly plenty of things to study and not enough people or funds, so you may well be right that it’s a waste of time and money to continue any research on cell phone radiation. I suspect some folks will keep on doing it though; and I’ll keep watching. As to my fair city, I absolutely love San Francisco but we do some pretty ridiculous things here. Passing a law requiring information in 11 point type that no one is ever going to read, on sales displays no one is ever going to notice, is one.

      4. I once wrote an article for a signage magazine about San Francisco throwing away perfectly good neon “OPEN” signs and replacing them with LED versions. While the LED technology would use a nominally smaller amount of electricity (not really much when you add it up) they would require replacement every few years, whereas a neon sign can last for decades and never grow dimmer. They’ll be burning through five or six LED signs, at the shop-owners expense, for every neon sign they replace.

        Sorry to derail the thread!

  2. The amount of radiation you receive from a cell phone is minuscule compared to the radiation caused by the sun. Healthy living tissue, such as that found in humans, contains mechanisms to repair DNA damaged by this ordinary radiation as a matter of course. “Radiation” is a scary concept in the age of nuclear bombs but it’s a facet of the universe that we have lived with for eons.

    1. I’m sure you’re right, Sam, and I make only slight efforts to stay out of the sun. Actually, I take vitamin D because I’m not in it enough — what can you do. Because I live so close to an elementary school and even closer to multiple cell phone antennae though, I just think it makes sense to keep trying to determine whether any damage might ultimately be done and if there are precautions we might be wise to consider. (Just like staying out of the sun — half the sun-lovers of my generation now have skin cancers thanks to having baked ourselves into beautiful tans every summer.)

      1. Some generations were slow learners. I now believe white & pasty is just about as sexy & healthy as brown that you’re born with.

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