Dealing, as a species, with our environmental challenges is no easy task, especially with our economy dominated by powerful industries that put their profits ahead of our health and safety. To make matters worse, one of the two major political parties in this country seems committed to the zealous denial of all scientific evidence of climate change, and continues to advocate for deregulation across the board (in spite of such pleasant outcomes as the financial crisis and the Gulf oil spill). With our hands full with the problems themselves, the industries vested in their perpetuation, and the propaganda smokescreens obscuring them, it is easy to miss other rising and potentially serious environmental hazards, like the health effects of the global explosion of wireless technology.
Recently, I watched Full Signal, a documentary film that explores the effects of our widespread dependence on wireless technology (cell phones, wifi, satellites...etc.), dubbed "the world's largest biological experiment ever" by one of experts interviewed in the film. Through a series of interviews with scientists, health professionals and affected individuals, as well as extensive review of the evidence, the film makes a compelling case for the need to examine more carefully the effects of wireless technology on our species.
Understanding the Risks:
As noted in film, our planet is home to some 3.5 billion cell subscribers (more than half the earth's population), as well as tens of thousands of antennas and cell towers. This has caused a dramatic increase in electromagnetic radiation on our planet from the natural levels emanating from the earth and the sun. The World Health Organization has identified frequency radiation as a potential human carcinogen, and the threat from cell phones seems particularly acute since it involves holding a transmitter right to our heads for extended periods of time. Tests of cell phone frequencies conducted on animals provide clear cause for concern: not only did extended exposure cause single-strand and double-strand DNA breaks, but exposing rats to only two hours of cell phone radiation a day caused nerve-cell damage in their brains, particularly where memory is stored, after just a few weeks.
But animal-testing is not the only cause for concern. As was also noted in the film, brain tumors have emerged in recent years as a leading cancer killer of young people, coinciding with our increased dependence on cellular wireless technology. CNN covered the results of a major study released last month which, while disputing the link between brain tumors and "average" cell phone usage, concluded the following:
At the highest exposure levels -- using a mobile phone half an hour a day over a 10-year period -- the study found a 40 percent increased risk of glioma brain tumors. With adjustments for statistical biases, that turned into 80 percent.
This finding was downplayed on the grounds that only a small number of people use their phones this much (do you not know many people who are on their phones for half an hour each day?). And while we can cut down on our personal phone usage, we can't control the radiation emanating from cell towers in our neighborhoods. Among many examples, Full Signal highlights a village in northern Israel where a striking correlation was found between new cancer cases and the location of cell towers in the village.
Cell towers are now increasingly being placed in population centers, thanks to the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Pushed for by the telecommunications industry (which made major financial contributions to the Clinton Administration and Congress), the Act reduces regulation of the industry, and impedes the ability of communities to manage the placement of cell towers through democratic means by stating that:
no state or local government or instrumentality thereof may regulate the placement, construction, and modification of personal wireless service facilities on the basis on the basis of the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions.
Of course, no one is seriously suggesting that we abandon our use of wireless technology altogether, as that would require us to surrender the huge benefits, conveniences, and advancements we've made in recent decades through it (and one can imagine how many lives were saved by cell phones). But what we do need is a serious exploration of ways we can minimize the harmful effects of such technology through responsible personal use, and by setting better radiation standards for the industry. We're behind the EU, which strengthened the standards limiting exposure levels to electromagnetic radiation years ago, but San Francisco's move earlier this week to become the first US city to "require cell phone companies to disclose how much radiation their gadgets emit" is a good start.