Nov 27, 2015
Last week, I got my first wearable. Before using it, I wanted to read up on it, to learn if it was safe to have on my person, 24/7. My goal was a blog about how to safely use gadgets. But I ended up learning a lot more than I expected. Let me start at the beginning.
My new $12 Mi Band is a barebones wearable from Xiaomi without even a dial to tell the time. What it does have is a motion sensor that counts my steps and monitors my sleep patterns. It also has a vibration motor as well as notification lights to communicate. I can set it to vibrate when I get a call, or receive messages, or as an alarm. The notification lights do some notifying. But decoding flashing lights is a bit too nerdy for me. The invisible cellphone unlock function is fun, and I happily buckled on the band.
Truth is stranger than fiction
My wife however didn’t share my excitement. She worries about the harm that gadgets may be doing to our bodies. She’s not into technology, but she’s aware her ear gets warm when she talks too long on her cellphone and it begins to hurt, and she intuitively knows that can’t be good.
My curiosity was tickled and I began to wonder if her worry was justified. Cellphones have become popular only in the last 10–15 years, and it may be too early to understand their effect on our bodies. So I read up about them.
What I found was an almost fictional tale of invisible rays, DNA cracking, ruthless corporates, global media manipulation, a crusading scientist whose house gets mysteriously burnt down, and more. In short, all the ingredients for a riveting Hollywood thriller.
I was more worried about my brains being cooked than cooking up a thriller. So I have stuck to my goal of a blog about safely using gadgets, though I have touched upon these stories, and given links for more details. However the blog is a bit longer than I expected. Getting at the truth was not easy with so many exposes, coverups and unverified stories.
Is history repeating itself?
It took nearly 50 years for the dangers of smoking to become accepted. The fact that tobacco was a huge cash generating industry with a powerful lobby may have something to do with it. But tobacco was miniscule compared to the size of the global cellphone industry, so it may be a case of deja vu.
A cellular phone is basically a radio that sends signals on electromagnetic waves (microwaves) to its network’s cellular tower. The waves’ effect is like a microwave oven, but weaker. It’s measured as SAR (specific absorption rate), and a cellphone’s legal limit is 1.6 watts/kg. Cellphones with high SAR are more damaging. The harmful effects are increased by other factors like the cellphone’s signal strength, distance from your body, and time on your body. However, heating may not be where the real danger is. I’ll come back to this.
Hitting below the belt
All of us have first hand stories of the effects of cellphones. Mine is about a friend who used to drive around all day with his cellphone on the car seat between his thighs and up close to his unmentionables. He ended up visiting his doctor to complain about a pain in the unsaid part. The doctor advised him to keep his cellphone away from his body, and the pain vanished.
Reading between the lines
That’s when I first began to wonder if I was being too complacent about my toys. The problem is technology is so deeply interwoven with my life that it’s hard to avoid close contact with my gadgets. But if I can make some sense of the online info overload, maybe I can work out some guidelines for myself.
There is a lot of conflicting info on the internet about the danger of cellphone usage. So I tried to put two and two together. Like the fact that many insurance companies no longer cover health problems caused by cellphones radiation. Besides, 60% of insurance companies are refusing to cover cellphone makers and wireless carriers against future health damage suits, and forecasting brain tumour costs between 2020 and 2030.
The alarm bells began going off in my head.
Do cellphones cause cancer?
In May 2015, 190 independent scientists from 39 countries, who between them have authored more than 2,000 papers on the topic, requested the UN, WHO, and national governments to put stricter controls on cellphone phone radiation. They point to new research that suggests even the low levels of radiation from cellphones could potentially cause cancer.
One of the issues is that the cellphone industry uses SAR as a measure of a cellphone’s safety. SAR only measures the heating effects of cellphone radiation. But new studies suggest that exposure to cellphone radiation can cause dangerous biological effects without any heating.
Studies have shown that the unique pulsing nature of a cellphone’s electromagnetic waves causes resonance in our cells, which can break DNA strands and cause DNA to lose its ability to repair itself.
In one word, cancer.
Also since nerve cells can no longer divide and proliferate, this damage could lead to degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s… You can read more about this here.
This one hour talk by Dr Devra Davis back in 2012 is a bit heavy, but has a lot of information and disturbing facts. And this video about a breast cancer in the shape of a cellphone is quite an eye opener.
How electromagnetic waves affect our body
All living organisms generate electromagnetic fields called a biofield. Some of the waves emitted by a cellphone are similar to this human biofield. They confuse the body.
To give a rough analogy, it’s like a pilot receiving instructions from the control tower as he prepares to land his plane. Imagine if a second voice comes on the same radio speaking in an unknown language. The crosstalk will confuse the pilot as he can’t make out what the control tower is saying. He will abort the landing and wait till he can hear the control tower clearly. But what if the second voice keeps babbling away, drowning out the control tower’s voice, and his fuel starts to run out...
Similarly when the body is constantly bombarded with electromagnetic waves, our cells get confused, stop their regular activities and go into a protective mode. This causes biological problems like damage to our DNA, intracellular free-radical buildup, leakage in the blood-brain barrier, disruption of intercellular communication, and an increased risk of tumours.
So why isn’t everyone worried?
One reason may be that the effects of radiation may show up only after years, maybe even decades. Secondly, we may not be connecting the dots. Just like people once did not connect cancer with tobacco.
The truth is many studies have linked cellphone radiation to development of brain tumors, genetic damage, and other exposure-related conditions. But a well-funded cellphone industry media machine continues to mislead us. For instance, an industry-funded study in Denmark confidently proclaimed in 2011 that cellphone use is completely safe. Here are some insights into how the industry manipulates the media.
In 2009, a review of cellphone studies was conducted by Dr Joel Moskowitz at the University of California, Berkeley. He found that industry-funded studies tended not to associate cellphone use with a heightened risk of tumors, while public-funded studies usually found the opposite result. “This is very much like studying tobacco back in the 1950s,” he says. “The industry has co-opted many researchers.”
Putting away my toys
When I began this article, I was only thinking about the effects of bluetooth on my Mi band. But I soon realised bluetooth’s harmful effects paled in comparison to the potential damage by a cellphone’s radiation.
Like many people, my cellphone is my favorite toy. It’s by my side, 24/7. It wakes me up, brings me news, records runs, plays music, gives messages alerts, enables replies, assists me with my schedule, lets me shoot and share photos and videos, tracks finances, stores documents, helps me navigate the roads, and lets me play games. It’s mostly in my pocket unless I’m working when it resides on my desktop within hand’s reach.
Putting my cellphone away is going to hurt as bad as extracting a tooth. But I won’t think twice if it’s a rotten tooth. So why should this be different?
7 inches to safety
Remember the cosy feeling of your warm phone in your pocket? That’s the feeling of your chromosomes being toasted! Soft tissues are more affected by radiation, and a cellphone in my pocket puts my internal organs at risk.
But what is a really safe distance? My cellphone’s manual recommends at least an inch away from my body. According to the Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, moving your cell phone just 5 cm (2 inches) away from your head while talking on it, reduces the electromagnetic radiation that reaches my head by 75%. It goes down to less than 1% by keeping the cell phone over 18 cm (7 inches) away from any part of your body. That’s clear enough.
When I have to put my cellphone in my pocket, I now push in my wallet between it and my body. If I’m working, my cellphone sits within hand’s reach but not so far that I can’t read the screen. If I’m driving, it will go into the car’s side pockets. Jogging time use is still an issue.
A poor signal causes the cellphone to emit more radiation as it powers up to try to link to cellphone network towers. So now if my signal strength is bad, I keep my phone away from my body.
Dual SIM cards means more radiation. So if I don’t need the second number to be working all the time, I just turn off the second SIM.
Traveling is another time when a cellphone emits a lot of radiation as it keeps losing connection with one cellphone tower, and trying to connect to the next. I now use my speakerphone or headsets while travelling.
Speaking of cellphone towers, they are an even more dangerous source of radiation. Distance is again the key. If you move 10 metres away from a tower, the radiation is less than 0.1% of what it is one meter from the tower.
The longer the cellphone is in contact with your body, the more harm it does. My headset is always connected so my default answer mode is via headset. If I don’t have my earphones, I switch the phone from ear to ear to cut contact time. Some researchers point out that earphones may channel the waves directly to the ear but as the effect is diluted, it’s a far lesser evil.
See more, hear less
Texting is safer than speaking on a cellphone as it keeps the phone further away from your head. As a rule, I prefer texting to calling as I think twice before I put down anything in words. This reduces mistakes and misunderstandings. The exception to the rule is when I’m driving.
A cellphone also emits more radiation while you dial and wait for a call to be picked up as it tries to link up to a nearby cell tower. So while waiting for my call to be picked, I look at the screen instead of listening to the ringtone. I take it up to my ear only after I see and feel it connect. I say ‘feel’ because my Mi phone gives a quick buzz the moment it connects which I believe is an Android function. I don’t think my recently deceased iPhone 5 did this.
Btw, if your inner OCD is being triggered by all this, you could try getting an electrosmog meter. This guy is using one to compare 3G vs 4G radiation. He claims that 3G emits less radiation than even 2G, but 4G emits the most.
Kids have smaller, softer skulls. This means when kids hold cellphones to their ears, the rays penetrate much deeper and cover almost all of their brains. A study by Dr Lennart Hardell in Sweden, found that kids who began using cell phones in their teens had four to five times more malignant tumors by their late 20s as those who did not use cell phones as teenagers. Other studies have found an increase in autism over a period that closely parallels the increase in cellphone use.
Ideally, children should not use the cellphone phone network at all. I usually ask my kid to use the landline where possible. If she must use my cellphone, the call must be short, and preferably on the speakerphone.
My old iPhone 4 is lying around the house but it’s in a safe wifi only mode. This allows safe browsing and texting (via whatsapp). Turning off the network is simple. I just put the phone into flight mode and turn on the wifi. To turn the phone back on, all I have to do is switch off the flight mode.
To wear or not to wear
It’s early days in wearables and not enough studies on its effects. Unlike advanced wearables, my Mi Band doesn’t have 3G or GPS, just a Bluetooth low energy (LE) radio. LE uses less power than normal bluetooth and emits far less electromagnetic waves. But it’s supposed to be on my wrist 24/7, and my hand’s often under my head when I sleep. That means close contact for long periods of time to sensitive zones. Extending my cooking analogy, this theoretically means my brain is being slow-cooked on a low flame. Hmm.
The Mi Band does a lot of fascinating stuff but we are on untrodden paths. Maybe I should take it off at night, and make do with analyzing my sleep just once a week though I was really intrigued to learn that my deep sleep is usually just about an hour. Also I will miss the vibrate to awake function.
Daytime usage does not bother me as my wrist is away from my head and the step counter is a strong motivator to leave my desk, and take a walk every now and then. Anyway, it’s better than always keeping the cellphone on my body to use its motion sensor (if it has one) to track my every step. Basically when I’m awake, the pros of wearing the band outweigh the cons.
Or maybe, I’m just looking for excuses to keep playing with my new toy.
Are wifi, cordless phones, bluetooth, GPS safe?
The short answer is no. Gadgets like cordless phones, wifi routers, bluetooth devices all emit electromagnetic waves, and are usually turned on 24/7.
In cordless phones, both the handset and the base station of a cordless emits radiation equal or more than a cellphone, and they do this even when they are not being used.
A Class 1 bluetooth device emits the same amount of radiation as a cellphone. Class 2 is less and Class 3 the least. Sadly, bluetooth device makers rarely mention what Class it is. Secondly a bluetooth headset gives you a double dose of radiation as your cellphone is usually close to you. Using bluetooth speakers in a car is even worse as the effect is multiplied by the radiation reflecting off the car walls like a microwave oven. As for all those bluetooth speakers, keyboards, trackpads, mice… I know, I know, I own so many myself that I am almost in tears.
The GPS radio in your cellphones periodically transmit data to update your location. The good thing is this lets you track a lost phone. The bad is it also means another radio in the phone emitting more radiation. GPS navigational devices in cars also emit radiation. In some cases, they were found to be so excessive that the companies were blacklisted.
As for wifi, many countries are now questioning its safety in schools. I found a website maintained by UK scientists that has a whole collection of studies on the effect of wifi radiation on children. These studies suggest that wifi radiation can be linked with impaired concentration, loss of short term memory, headaches, fatigue, sleep disorders, digestive problems, depression and anxiety. Another recent study in Denmark had Danish students taking 400 cress seeds (cress is a very fast growing herb) and splitting them between two rooms. Both sets of seeds received the same amount of care, except that in one room, the seeds were placed next to two Wi-Fi routers. 12 days later, the seeds that were in the room with the Wi-Fi signals had failed to sprout while the others sprouted in the normal fashion. It’s surprising there is not more public debate on these studies.
Switching off the waves
Some changes in my lifestyle appear inevitable. My cellphone, my cordless base station, and the wifi are all switched on 24/7.
I now switch off my cellphone’s data connection at bedtime. That turns off most of its electromagnetic waves. I won’t receive messages and email except SMS, but I can receive calls, and I can live with that. I also keep the cellphone away from me, under my bed at night to avoid close contact.
I have also unplugged the cordless, and packed it away. My landline is upstairs but if need be, I can always get a wired extension.
My Mac has a wired (ethernet) connection to my broadband router. One press of a button on the router, and the wifi switches off. If I do need to use a gadget, I turn on the wifi. When the gadget goes off, the wifi gets turned off again. No big deal. At night, everything stays unplugged.
Statistics can prove anything
I often see ‘experts’ interpreting the statistics on existing studies to prove cellphone radiation does not harm us.
To which, I give you my favorite quote on statistics: ‘Do not put your faith in what statistics say, until you have carefully considered what they do not say. ~William W. Watt
Whose responsibility is it?
What would my reaction be if a car manufacturer asked me to prove their car is unsafe by driving it and crash testing it?
I would laugh and say, “Sorry, I will buy the car only if you prove it’s safe.”
The cellphone industry’s own studies prove cellphone radiation is safe, but it’s unreliable as it hasn’t been verified by independent agencies. In effect, they are turning around and asking me to prove cellphones are dangerous.
So why am I still buying cellphones?
Because the industry knows I’m addicted to my toys, and won’t give them up.
The post cellphone era
Why are the big guys like the Apples and Googles not funding such studies in a big way? Or maybe the right question is what are they doing about it?
Google doesn’t build cellphone hardware. Did it conflict with their ‘Do no evil’ philosophy? There are several ongoing class action lawsuits against cellphone makers. If these succeed, Google won’t be affected.
Apple however will be affected. Is that why they have more liquid funds than any other company? Apple is reported to be moving into the electric car industry. Is it their way forward in a possible post-cellphone era?
When research and truth go to battle
While reading up for this piece, I discovered an unseen but epic battle going on between research and truth. Take the story of Professor Henry Lai of the University of Washington who with a fellow researcher, ‘N.P.’ Singh, studied the effects of the supposedly safe cellphone type of radiation on the DNA of rats. They found the DNA in the brain cells of the rats being damaged or broken by exposure to this radiation.
The cellphone industry stood to lose billions in medical payouts, and basic changes in cellphone design. Not surprisingly, they went all out to discredit Lai’s work, and came up with new studies to counter his findings. They even tried to get him fired and succeeded in stopping the funding for his research.
In 1993, the cellphone industry was finally pressured by Congress to invest $28 million to study cell phone safety. This was due to the massive publicity of a lawsuit filed by businessman against cellphone manufacturer NEC; his wife had died of a brain tumour which he blamed on her cellphones.
Based on this, Dr. Carlo PhD, JD, was hired by the Cellular Telephone Industry Association in 1993 to lead a 7-year research program to determine if cell phones were safe. When his work revealed preventable health hazards associated with cellphone use, the industry that hired him turned against him, and he was asked to quit. Like Dr Lai, his work was discredited, his character questioned, and even his house was mysteriously burnt down. You can google up Dr Carlo to read the whole story.
Better safe than sorry
My beloved cellphone has been banished to a safe distance of 7 inches.
The results of the many independent research studies convince me that cellphones affect our cell DNA and cause other health issues. After all, the researchers had nothing to gain but a lot to lose by sticking out their necks.
(see references below).
‘If you can’t convince them, confuse them’ seems to be the philosophy of the cellphone industry. On one hand, they have successfully funded studies to contradict independent research. On the other, they’ve cut off funding and discredited all studies that highlight harmful effects of cellphone radiation.
The truth is the cellphone industry is conducting a global laboratory test on four billion guinea pigs to check the effects of electromagnetic waves.
I am not a guinea pig. Are you?
Cell Phone Dangers | Dr. Devra Davis @ National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS)
Consumer Reports |Does Cell-Phone Radiation Cause Cancer?
By David Schipper
UW Scientist Henry Lai Makes Waves in the Cell Phone Industry
Mobile Phones and Cancer — George Carlo
Electromagnetic Radiation Safety | Joel M. Moskowitz, Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley
Working for Safe Technologies for Nurseries, Schools and Colleges
Bluetooth Radiation: Let’s be clear on the dangers
Commercial site: (Dr Carlo’s story; the site sells protection from radiation)
The Hidden Dangers of Cell Phone Radiation Part 1 and 2
Video: Radiation of 4G data compared to 3G data
Fact: In 2011, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer evaluated high frequency radiation as ‘potentially carcinogenic’ for humans.
Source: International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a division of the WHO, May 2011
Fact: A Swedish study confirmed the WHO results, and upgraded it to ‘carcinogenic.’ The Swedish research group led by Professor Dr. Lennart Hardell found a 7.7-fold increased risk of developing brain tumors with long-term use of cellular and cordless telephones.
Source: Hardell L, Carlberg M, Söderquist F, Hansson Mild K (2013) Case-control study of the association between malignant brain tumours diagnosed between 2007 and 2009 and cellphone and cordless phone use.
Fact: In its annual risk report, the Swiss reinsurance company Swiss-Re classifies mobile communications as high risk for insurers.
Source: Swiss Re SONAR, Emerging risk insights, 2013
Fact: An Italian court ruled that a manager’s extensive cellphone use was the cause for his brain tumour.
Source: Corte di Cassazione, Italy’s Supreme Court in Rome, October 2012
Fact: In schools with wifi in France, children and adolescents frequently suffer from concentration loss, headaches and intermittent vertigo. France now provides internet access in schools and day nurseries via cable instead of wifi where possible.
Source: Le Parisien.fr / AFP, 19. März 2013