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Negative Health Effects of Cell Phone Usage

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Dear EarthTalk: Could our health be negatively affected by all the radio frequencies being bandied about by cell phones and cell phone towers, wireless pagers and Internet systems, and other uses of radio frequency and microwave radiation?—Beverly Filip, Santa Cruz, CA


EarthTalk: Since the middle of the last century, technological advancements in telecommunications and other industries have led to significant increases in the use of radio frequencies. Equipment employing microwave and radio waves is today widely used not just in broadcasting and communications, but also in the health care industry, the food industry, and in a host of other industries in a wide range of applications.


Health Advocates Are Concerned
Health advocates have worried for decades that exposure to frequencies emanating from these many sources might be harmful. And the ubiquity of such technology today—especially considering the quantum leap in cell phone usage in recent years—only makes such concerns that much more pressing.


Various studies researching the health effects of cell phone use have yielded mixed results. Some earlier studies suggested a link between exposure to radiation from cell phones and an increased risk of acoustic neuroma—a cancerous tumor of the nerve connecting the ear to the brain—but more recent research found no such links. The issue is primarily heat. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Department of the Communication Workers of America (CWA), “As high frequency radio frequency radiation … penetrates the body, the exposed molecules move about and collide with one another, causing friction and, thus, heat … if the radiation is powerful enough, the tissue or skin will be heated or burned.”


Health Effects of Microwave Radiation
According to CWA, “There is substantial scientific data that establishes negative health effects associated with microwave radiation.” CWA cites cataracts as one possible negative health effect from prolonged exposure, as well as well as nervous system damage, and even reproductive problems in both males and females. This issue was in the news in 1992 over the issue of the safety of police radar devices, but subsequent studies were inconclusive.

As to cell phones, the results of a study recently published in the academic journal Environmental Health Perspectives do not bode well for habitual chatterers. Researchers documented brain damage in laboratory rats exposed to radio frequencies from cell phones at levels comparable to what people would experience during normal use. The study’s authors expressed concern that “after some decades of (often) daily use, a whole generation of [cell phone] users may suffer negative effects, perhaps as early as middle age.”


Enviromental Effects
The environmental effects of radio frequencies are also largely unclear. Migrating birds have been known to fly right into cell phone and other communications towers. Some blame the radiation emanating from such towers for disorienting the birds and undermining their navigational abilities. Others chalk such incidents up to poor visibility associated with bad weather and nothing more. Some farmers have observed that cows grazing near cell towers are more likely to experience stillbirths, spontaneous abortions, birth deformities, and behavioral problems, not to mention general declines in overall health. Moving cattle herds away from such towers has reportedly led to immediate health improvements.

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