If you cast your mind back a couple of years then you might remember everyone was panicking about the potential dangers of using cell phones with fears of it causing brain damage or cancer. What’s happened to these concerns? Is it still a problem? And what was everyone worried about?
Specifically the problem that people were concerned about was that cell phones could cause brain damage as a result of ‘EMF’ or ‘Electro-Magnetic Fields’ caused by the phones. These electromagnetic fields are a simple result of using any electrical appliance and are created by electric currents. The two forces of magnetism and electricity are strongly linked and magnets being moved correctly cause electric currents and electricity causes magnetic fields. Any existing positive or negative charge will create an electric field, and when this moves it then cases the magnetic field (the motion of electric fields is what causes the magnetic field and the higher the current the greater the strength of the field). An electric field is strongest closest to the source and rapidly tapers off, but the magnetic field extends outwards indefinitely. Because an electromagnetic field extends outwards indefinitely this is what we use in order to broadcast signals (such as radio waves) and because it can pass through solid objects this is what we used for X-Rays. These also travel at incredible speeds (light speed), but are limited by the fact that they can only travel in straight lines. This is one of the ‘fundamental forces of nature’.
In fact we rely on electromagnetic fields for many things – including the generation of electricity which we achieve through the use of turbines. We can even witness electromagnetic fields in nature as a result of electrical charges in the atmosphere and the ground – and this is how compasses work using the Earths’ own electromagnetic field in order to direct a metal arrow.
So then, if electromagnetic fields are everywhere, and even the earth has one – why is it that cell phones specifically have come under so much fire? Well there are two reasons.
The first reason that cell phones are particularly alarming is that the electromagnetic fields created by them are particularly strong – much stronger for instance than those that come from the Earth’s own electromagnetism. To understand this more fully it is important to think of electromagnetic fields as having their own ‘wavelength’ or ‘frequency’. This is essentially the way the strength varies and oscillates/cycles (a shorter wavelength is a result of a higher frequency). The higher the wavelength the more powerful the electromagnetic field. These waves are carried by something called ‘quanta’ and the higher the frequency the more energy is carried in the quanta. When these quanta are very powerful, this then has a risk of breaking the high energy bonds that fix molecules together. These are the ‘radioactive’ wavelengths, or ‘ionizing radiations’ that can do damage to bonds. At slightly lower frequencies, these wavelengths may still generate a lot of heat thereby exciting particles, such as ‘MF’ – Microwave Frequencies (which is of course how a microwave cooks food).
Phones come under so much fire then because they create high frequency magnetic fields. These frequencies aren’t enough to create any immediate measurable physical changes, but they are enough to excite the molecules and to cause some potential damage. In fact these high frequencies are a form of microwave too, and some thermal effects have been measured as well as non-thermal effects.
The other reason that phones of course come under so much pressure is the fact that they are used so close to the head. Remember that the electric field caused by devices is strongest near the head – and this then means that by holding the phone right close to your head you are likely to make the problem worse.
How This Affects the Brain
So how does this affect the brain? Well as we already mentioned, EMFs of a high frequency cause radiation and that then means that your cells will come under more attack in much the same way that skin cells can come under attack from ultraviolet light waves. This then could theoretically increase your chances of cancer and indeed some studies have seemed to demonstrate an increased likelihood of brain cancer for those who very regularly use mobile phones – though findings are conflicting. It has been suggested that rather than increase the likelihood of brain tumors, the use of mobile phones may in fact only speed up the development of pre-existing tumors. The thermal effects meanwhile can heat up molecules in the brain theoretically and this has been used to explain studies demonstrating damages to the blood-brain barrier and to suggest possible retinal damage that could occur.
At the same time it is possible that because the brain creates its own electromagnetic fields and neurons communicate via electrical impulses, that these could potentially even be disrupted by the presence of other frequencies. If you hold a magnetic to a watch for instance this will damage it by affecting the electromagnetic fields that cause the tiny crystals to oscillate thereby altering the time. Likewise if you use a phone on an airplane or in a hospital then it’s possible that the waves could alter some of the effects of the devices there and so ‘airplane mode’ exists on most phones to turn this off. There is possible that some similar disruption could occur when using phones near the brain and this has been suggested to affect everything from our sleep patterns to our cognitive abilities. One study demonstrating slower response times in spacial cognitive reasoning tasks. However that said, thermal microwaves caused by mobile phones could also increase blood flow to the brain and this could hypothetically actually improve cognitive performance.
How Serious Is the Problem?
While there is some correlation that has been demonstrated in studies, it is important to note that this correlation was normally found for those who used phones a great deal. At the same time findings regarding tumors and cancers have been mixed. Most of us these days use mobile phones and yet life expectancies overall continue to improve rather than diminish.
Another thing to bear in mind is that microwaves as stated exist everywhere – and things from mobile phone towers to wireless broadband routers means that it is practically impossible these days to completely avoid EMFs (though the frequencies caused by these are generally lower). Many things in our diet, as well as many things in the atmosphere, increase our chances of cancer and cause other problems.
The message is, like anything, to avoid the over use of mobile phones and to take precautions where possible. Try using hands-free kits, or putting your phone on speakerphone, and try turning the volume up and holding phones slightly away from your ear. Most importantly remember to reject the occasional call – because if you’re at everyone’s beck and call 24/7 then this can have other effects on your health and happiness too.