Radiation isn't really a problem, but cell phones can still kill

Credit: Photo credit:mrJasonWeaver/Flickr

And IT people will have to answer questions about them; here's a good resource on the answers

Last Friday Computerworld published the only article I've seen that contributed something both new and useful to the foggy, pointless discussion about whether cell phones cause cancer, and the World Health Organization's tentative, maybe-yes, maybe-no, better-to-be-cautious non-decisive analysis of the question.

(The discussion is pointless because, even with proof cell phones did cause cancer, would you give them up? Or would you do something stupid like put it in a lead box and try to use it anyway, by jamming in the wires for a headset and makeshift antenna? Forget it. The phone still won't get a signal and the lead box will ruin your clothes.)

The medical community hasn't actually reversed itself on the question of whether cell phones cause brain cancer, but the subtleties of interpretation are lost on (or at least really boring to) those who listened to the overwrought debate over cell-phone radiation dangers a few years ago.

The bottom line is that any kind of radiation could affect your brain and cause it cells to grow or behave abnormally. The type and amount of radiation coming from a cell phone is unlikely to cause problems for the overwhelming majority. (They put out radio waves and electromagnetic radiation; so does the radio in your car. The monitor you're looking at right now probably puts out more of both than your cell phone does. Put it out of your mind except when it becomes useful as a way to torture those who don't understand the interaction of matter and energy and believe you do.)

That doesn't mean cell phones won't kill you. Text while driving; talk too loud for a long time in an elevator, airplane or subway car; chirpily tell co-workers every 30 seconds about the cool little thing your cool little app on your cool little phone just did. All those things will get you dead much faster than radiation from even the most unregulated, hulk-mutating, plutonium-skinned phone manufactured in the secret factories under Chernobyl.

Still, some people worry. Some have reason to worry, some just worry.

Others (this is a site for IT people) have to answer obsessive questions from those who just worry.

Computerworld's Sharon Machlis did a nice little summary of the debate, with lots of links to more detailed info and a very useful little app that lets you type in your phone model and get the amount of radiation the phone puts out. (Less fun but possibly faster is the chart on page 2 with much the same information.)

The information for both comes from an environmentalist-but-scientifically balanced research organization called the Environmental Working Group that provides a lot of hype-busting, calm-inducing information on cell-phones and how to survive the hellish radiation they put out. There's a list of tips to limit exposure, the ten least radioactive phones, and a quick guide on how to escape the giant carnivorous monsters that were your pet turtles until cell-phone radiation mutated them.

Oddly, the headline on the text portion of the EWG's guide is "EWG's Guide to Reduce Cell Phone Radiation Exposure," which couldn't be less expletively overwrought if it tried.

The heading on the page itself is "Is My Cell Phone Dangerous," which just means even the EWG understands SEO.

The answer is No. Except that texting while driving thing. That'll kill you.

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