Alan Stahler: Handle phones with care |

Alan Stahler: Handle phones with care

If we could somehow see radio waves, they would appear well above the red part of the rainbow; x-rays, well below the blue.
Wing-Chi Poon, Creative Commons |

The devices that allow us to talk to one another — wi-fi, cell phones, cordless phones — communicate via short-wavelength radio waves: microwaves. Surrounded by phones and laptops, tablets and routers and towers — and, of course, microwave ovens – we’re immersed in an ocean of microwave radiation — a.k.a., electromagnetic smog.

Can electromagnetic radiation interact with our bodies?

Electromagnetic radiation embodies both electricity and magnetism. It’s constantly changing, getting weaker and stronger, and reversing direction, over and over. The shifting electric and magnetic fields push and pull on atoms, and on the sub-atomic particles of which atoms are made, making them jiggle.

Electrons — the sub-atomic particles in a spark — are the “glue” that bonds one atom to another. X-rays and gamma rays jiggle electrons violently, knocking the electrons off their atoms. The atoms become ions, and the bonds between them are broken. Ionizing radiation causes cancer by breaking the bonds in DNA and other molecules.

Farther down the electromagnetic spectrum, visible light, infrared (heat energy), radio waves – cannot knock electrons off their atoms. Yet light and infrared energy can interact with our bodies – we see things when light waves jiggle clumps of atoms in our eyes; we feel heat when infrared energy jiggles atoms in our skin.

What about radio, especially, short-wavelength radio waves: Microwaves?

When microwaves meet water molecules, the waters don’t just jiggle – the microwaves set the waters spinning. Irradiated in a microwave oven, water molecules spin like tops, rub against other molecules in the food, and – much as you warm your hands by rubbing them together — make the food warm.

The energy coming out of a cell phone, though, warms you less than you warm yourself by doing jumping jacks. No one has implicated jumping jacks as a carcinogen.

To affect our physiology, microwave radiation would have to — somehow — throw a switch, perhaps, turning some process on or off in a cell; or open a pore to allow an atom to enter or leave the cell.

Could microwaves throw switches in our bodies, to turn hormones on or off, at the wrong place, the wrong time, and trigger, say, cancer?

The National Institutes of Health last week announced the results of experiments in which rats, exposed to microwave radiation, developed rare brain and heart cancers. NIH felt the results robust enough to trigger classification of microwave radiation as a possible human carcinogen – a possible cause of cancer.

Few of us read the online agreements we sign, but there’s one bit of fine print we should read. With an eye to developing research, many cell phone manufacturers advise users to not let the phone touch the body — keep it at least some fraction of an inch away from the head. (Since a phone periodically emits radiation, even between calls, one should probably also keep the phone away from one’s crotch.).

A simple earpiece allows one to keep the phone far from the brain; so does texting. There is, sadly, no reason to believe amulets offer any protection.

Al Stahler teaches nature classes for students of all ages, kid to adult. His science programs can be heard on KVMR-FM, and he may be reached at

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