Article — From the May 2010 issue
- Current Issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
ALERT: Usernames and passwords from the old Harpers.org will no longer work. To create a new password and add or verify your email address, please sign in to customer care and select Email/Password Information. (To learn about the change, please read our FAQ.)
Article — From the May 2010 issue
Morgan was in the vanguard of what, fifteen years later, is a growing movement of activists who believe we are witnessing the advent of a catastrophe: a brain-cancer epidemic that would be the largest public-health crisis in the history of the human race. Since Morgan’s “eureka” moment, the market for cell phones—which emit low-frequency electromagnetic radiation—has grown to 4.1 billion people, more than 60 percent of the earth’s population. This figure continues to rise, thanks to recent expansion in two high-growth sectors: the developing world and children under eleven. Fears about EMF safety have been the subject of two recent congressional hearings and have spurred the European Parliament to pass, with a near-unanimous vote, a resolution urging stricter exposure limits on mobile-phone radiation; France has gone so far as to propose outlawing the sale of cell phones to children. Since these measures have provoked derision from physicists and biologists across the globe, a brief review of the science is in order.
Electromagnetic radiation is as old as the universe. We spend our lives immersed in it. Until the twentieth century, the greatest emitter of electromagnetic radiation known to man was the sun. Today, however, man-made EMFs overwhelm natural ones in developed areas. Every object that generates an electric charge creates an electromagnetic field. Radio and television signals are forms of electromagnetic radiation. Whenever you walk down the street you pass through innumerable overlapping fields, as obliviously as a bird crosses national borders or an airplane passenger enters new time zones.
Electromagnetic radiation is not only everywhere; it is forever. It diminishes in strength the farther it travels from its source, but it never disappears. Long after the sun devours the earth, man-made electromagnetic waves will continue their march through the universe at the speed of light. At the time of this article’s publication, for instance, Orson Welles’s 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast will be streaming over the star Epsilon Cygni, seventy-two light-years away.
Not all radiation is created equal. High-frequency electromagnetic radiation—nuclear radiation, X-rays, even the ultraviolet rays of a tanning booth—is powerful enough to break chemical bonds, creating highly unstable atoms called ions. Ionizing radiation harms the cells of living tissue: it damages DNA and increases the risk of cancer. These facts are no longer disputed, though it took sixty years of poorly regulated X-ray use, and corresponding spikes in cancer-incidence rates, before scientists fully understood the dangers involved.
Today’s controversy focuses on the lower part of the electromagnetic spectrum. These waves—frequencies below 300 GHz—are considered too weak to damage human tissue. If they indeed cause biological damage, then they must do so in ways unexplained by conventional science.
First in 1976, and then in 1989 and 1990, The New Yorker published a series of chilling articles by Paul Brodeur presenting evidence that exposure to extremely low-
frequency electromagnetic radiation—from power lines, radar antennae, and video-display terminals—increased the risk of cancer. The mainstream medical and scientific community dismissed these studies, and Brodeur himself came under attack. Yet there was a turning point in 2000, when a team of eminent epidemiologists concluded, based on the studies to date, that high exposure to these EMFs doubled the risk of childhood leukemia. The following year, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organization, made the decision to classify extremely low-frequency EMFs, such as those emitted by power lines, as a Group 2B agent: a possible human carcinogen. This was a major triumph for those concerned about such radiation. It is worth noting, however, that Group 2B also includes such agents as carbon black (an ingredient of photocopying toner), acetaldehyde (produced when the body metabolizes alcohol), pickled vegetables, and coffee.
The farther one is from the source of a field, and the less time one spends in it, the weaker its effect. So anyone worried about exposure to low-frequency radiation could avoid buying a home situated near a power line, stand away from the microwave oven, sit at a reasonable distance from the television, and avoid resting a radar gun on one’s lap. But by the late 1990s, it had become increasingly difficult to avoid direct exposure. In fact, it became common practice to press an EMF emitter to your brain for many minutes, and even hours, every day, for the rest of your life.
Nathaniel Rich is the author of The Mayor's Tongue. He is at work on his second novel, which is about worst-case scenarios.
More from Nathaniel Rich:
Postcard — January 21, 2013, 10:30 am