MadSci Network: Cell Biology

Re: Can the radio waves affect the structure of a human cells?

Date: Thu Jan 21 11:15:57 1999
Posted By: Mike Conrad, Post-doc/Fellow, Microbiology, UNC
Area of science: Cell Biology
ID: 908888444.Cb

You have asked a question which is the subject of much controversy and has
even been on some evening news shows recently.  An alternating electric
field emits electromagnetic radiation.  A power line alternating at 60
cycles would give out a 60 cycle (hertz) radio wave.  That's a wavelength
of about 5000 km (or about 3000 miles).  By comparison, an AM radio
station at 600 kHz has 500 meter wavelength (500 yards) and 106 MHz FM has
a 3 meter (3 yard) long wave.

Very short wavelength radiation is definitely harmful.  X-rays are very
energetic and can literally "break up molecules" and can cause
cancer.  Concentrated microwaves carry enough energy to literally cook you.
But low level microwaves have had some medical use (diathermy) for tissue
warming as in physical therapy.  And very long wave lengths like radio
carry very little energy and their interaction with matter is to cause a
very very very slight warming when absorbed and they don't break up any
molecules at all. There have been ideas proposed that radio waves can
cause molecular damage but I haven't seen any convincing evidence of that.

But has it been demonstrated that long wavelength radio waves cause

At this time there is no strong evidence for cancer.  You can see the
external links to discussions of cell phones and power lines as a cause of
cancer at the U. Penn 

There have been many studies. Some studies show no link and some show a
weak link to cancer.  But these sort of epidemiological studies (a
statistical study of who gets what diseases and where and when) are
notoriously hard to conduct and to interpret.

Certainly not everybody near power lines are getting cancer immediately.
That would have been noticed right away.  But maybe a small percentage
are getting somewhat more cancer.  But that could be because people near
power lines are generally near roads which have more pollution and car
exhaust as compared to people who live away from power lines.  So you get
lots of arguing between scientists and health groups and industries.

With all things being equal it may be better to use a remote phone
(lower power) instead of a cell phone (higher power) because of the slight
risk.  And it might be better to live out in the country away from it all
because of the slight risk in the stuff of civilization.  Remember that
big hazards (asbestos, smoking, radiation, or even driving a car - there's
a risk in that, too) get seen pretty fast.  With little hazards, risks of
one in thousands or even millions, you need to make decisions about what
life style you want and what sacrifices you need to make to avoid the
potential risk.  On a societal scale we can't protect everybody from
everything and some "scares" like for Alar, were probably overblown.

And although they don't like to admit it, the government (and I think
rightly so) often puts a price tag on what's practical.  They'll approve
the spending of thousands, or perhaps tens/hundreds of thousands for
"every life saved" but not tens of millions.  Of course personal injury
lawyers will argue for the ultimate to be done for any individual case,
and if it happens to you, you may tend to agree with them.  But that's
enough philosophy for now, Mike.

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