Newsday recently profiled the issue of cell phone towers.
I want to weigh in to answer a simple question: is there any plausible physical mechanism by which cell phones or cell phone towers could cause cancer? The short answer is no, but to convince you of that, we need to go into a little bit of physics.
By way of introduction, I am an editor, a physicist, and an environmentalist. I am a member of Yes We Can! Long Island‘s Energy and Environment Committee. I should also note that I don’t even know anyone in the cell phone industry. I work for a scientific journal.
I am writing here today because I want the environmental movement to succeed, and because it is essential we make our policy decisions in possession of the scientific facts. There are serious problems facing our planet, and the last thing we need is for people to be able to dismiss environmentalists as being unknowledgeable. I am afraid that this cell phone debate is providing fodder for that. Please allow me to explain, and please consider the facts below with an open mind.
Cell phones use microwaves. Microwaves are a kind of electromagnetic radiation, like visible light, except less energetic. Electromagnetic radiation is made up of little packets called “photons” which are categorized by frequency. The higher the frequency, the more energetic the photons. The various types of electromagnetic radiation and their frequencies are shown in this diagram. The most energetic electromagnetic radiation is gamma rays, followed by x-rays, and then ultraviolet (UV) radiation. These are called “ionizing radiation” because their photons have enough energy to ionize atoms (kick electrons out of their orbits) and break chemical bonds. Next comes visible light, and then infrared radiation, followed by microwaves and on down to radio waves. These are called “non-ionizing radiation” because their photons don’t have enough energy to break chemical bonds. Note that the bond has to be broken in one shot, which is why there is no effect if the photons are below an energy threshold, independent of the intensity of the source (Albert Einstein discovered this threshold property in 1905).
As far as we know, in order to cause cancer, you need to break bonds in genetic material. If heat could cause cancer, heating pads, hats, and other warming devices would have far more effect than any device which does not produce noticeable body heating. Thus ionizing radiation can cause cancer, non-ionizing radiation, like microwaves, cannot. Let me say that again, microwaves can’t break chemical bonds and thus can’t cause cancer. That’s why we put on sunscreen to protect against UV radiation and not indoor light. If the sun, as bright as it is, emitted only visible light, infrared radiation and microwaves, you would not need to put on sunscreen. Light bulbs emit photons which are 1000 times more energetic than those from cell phone towers. One should certainly ban all light bulbs (including incandescent and fluorescent ones) and sit in the dark before banning cell phone towers (light bulbs are safe too–don’t ban them–I am just pointing out that cell phone towers are at least as safe as light bulbs).
Now when there is a serious concern, such as the existence of cancer, there is a tendency to want to find “the cause.” I know, I am a cancer survivor. I would love to know what caused my cancer (if it was due to a single cause). But sometimes people point to something which stands out, something which is alien, even if it could not have been the cause. I am afraid cell phone towers fall into that category.
I just finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and so I can’t help making an analogy. In the book, a man who stands out is accused of beating (and raping) a woman. Whoever committed the crime hit the woman repeatedly with his left hand. But after it is revealed that the defendant has a crippled left arm, and thus could not possibly have committed the crime, most people’s opinions are unswayed. It is hard to give up on one’s preconceived notions.
Cell towers are alien. They are obvious targets. But they are innocent on the grounds of basic physics.
I hope proposed regulations will be considered in light of the science, and I hope that concerns about the environment are redirected to real issues, such as addressing climate change, which is the problem of our time.
-Robert Garisto, PhD