High Tech World Triggers a Modern-Day Syndrome

By Keith Kloor | June 13, 2013 10:32 am

Oh, for the days:

Those were worried Australians in the mid-2000s, so it wasn’t all that long ago.

In the United States, people were really, really worried in the 1980s and 1990s about getting cancer from power lines, thanks in large part to a crusading journalist who had latched on to the story, which I’ve previously discussed. Naturally, there was a big cover-up, too. (More about that here.)

Since then, we appear to have moved on to fretting about Wi-Fi (nuked sperm!) and cell phonesOn the latter, some are now wondering: “Do cell phones cause cancer–Or just brain tumors?”

Alas, there’s no way to know, because despite there being no evidence that cell phones and WiFi cause cancer or brain tumors, like some claim about GMOs, no evidence of harm is not the same as evidence of no harm.

That’s why some parents don’t want their kids in a WiFi zone (at home or school), and why it is suggested that you not sleep with a cell phone under your pillow and women not carry cell phones in their bras.

But if you really want to guard against exposure to phone radiation and various electro-magnetic harms, a company will sell you this special “biofield” protecting pendant (cost ranges from $99.95 to $1199.95).

Works like a charm, according to the website:

Doctors who tested the QLink Pendant with Sympathetic Resonance Technology™ found that it very quickly amplifies healthy energy states — and decreases energy drains caused by a wide variety of stressors. It is the premier product for strengthening you against direct and ambient sources of EMF [electromagnetic field], including EMF from computers and cell phones.

Electromagnetic sensitivity is not a recognized medical condition, but it is a distinctly modern-day syndrome that probably isn’t going away anytime soon.

  • Psyclic

    Keith – Skepticism requires judgement, not rants to fill a by-line.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Keith Kloor

      Perhaps you can be a little more specific and give me some idea as to how this post qualifies as a “rant”?

      • harrywr2

        A more thoughtful discussion of the pro’s and con’s of the Linear No Threshold theory might be in order.

        Your last couple of pieces seemed to be aimed squarely at the LNT crowd without actually identifying that it’s the LNT theory that gets us to the place where power lines and cell phones cause cancer.

        I.E. If exposure X causes cancers 100% of the time then 1/100th of that exposure will cause caner 1% of the time and 1 millionth will cause cancer 1 millionth of the time.

      • Psyclic

        1. Pick a topic which is controversial, but demonstrate objective foolishness in your selection of examples.

        2. Make sure that the tone of your article invites many emotional comments which demonstrate how “objectively scientific” we all are.

        3. Throw in some non-scientifically related themes to demonstrate the widespread existence of “kooks who believe unscientific things” – eg: GM, nuked sperm – to underscore the absurdity of “these people”.

        4. Proceed as though your selection is going somewhere, even though it isn’t.
        cf: LNT – http://radiology.rsna.org/content/251/1/13.full

  • bobito

    Wow! The website says the QLink Pendant “uses third-generation Sympathetic Resonance Technology”. And here I was thinking it was a crackpot idea to make money off of the gullible.

  • mem_somerville

    I’ve said this before, but I really think it would be great if someone went back to look at claims of harm from new tech, and what the actual outcomes were. Follow up with some of the activists and other participants. Look at scientific and sociology reviews of the issues.

    That’s a book I’d read.

  • Skeptico

    Some things never change. I wrote about this piece of junk eight years ago: http://skeptico.blogs.com/skeptico/2005/10/qlink_if_you_wa.html The pendant consists of a piece of small circuit board encased in plastic. It is not connected to anything – not even a power supply.

    The manufacturers claim that the device works using forces that can’t be observed or measured by any known instrument. As I wrote back then, if they cannot be observed or measured by any known instrument, then how do the manufacturers know they even exist?

    Randi offered them $1Million if they could show it works. You know how that went.

    • Buddy199

      The manufacturers claim that the device works using forces that can’t be observed or measured by any known instrument.

      —-

      Sounds like their business ethics.

  • Matt B

    My wife & I were a freezing young couple in update NY, no money to pay for any decent amount of oil heat so the only thing that kept nighttime halfway tolerable was our electric blanket. The she talked to her idiot brother who told her that we would get cancer from the EMF so that was it! I didn’t matter that my degree is in physics & her brother is a nitwit……

  • Buddy199

    Lack of conscience + pseudo-scientific sales pitch + neurotic hypochondriacs + 24-hour toll free number = Ca-ching!!!

    • bobito

      Shyster is the 2nd oldest profession in the world. It was a direct result of requiring the means to access the oldest…

  • Ketan Joshi

    You might find this article interesting – Green Bank, West Virginia is a haven for people expressing concerns about the impact of electromagnetic fields – known as ‘wi-fi refugees':

    http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/town-for-wi-fi-refugees

    The radio-telescopes necessitate a federally mandated absence of electromagnetic and radio broadcast equipment. It’s a weirdly beautiful combination of the forefront of scientific endeavour combined with a pathological fear of scientific output.

    Refugeeism is a theme that constantly pops up in wind energy, too, presumably because of the inherent emotional impact of the term, and the fact that most aren’t required to qualify, explain or justify their use it:

    http://www.epaw.org/multimedia.php?lang=en&article=g28

  • jh

    “Naturally, there was a big cover-up…”

    What was it that Ben said? I think it was:

    Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.

    Alas, for an age of simple wisdom. *sigh*

  • Tom Fuller

    It’s nice to see a post about the state of Western education every once in a while–thanks!

    People are afraid of things they don’t understand. They don’t understand how this stuff works. They don’t have time to go back to school. Nobody in the media is willing to understand it well enough to explain it in simple English. And scientists, technologists and companies for some reason I cannot fathom do not want to do so either.

    Keith–can you explain in simple English why power lines cannot cause cancer (unless you eat the cable shielding–I’ll bet that might do the trick)?

    • Matt B

      I’ll try!

      1. It has been proven that high-energy radiation can alter chemical structures, so therefore high-energy radiation can alter a person’s chemical structure. These alterations (to DNA, RNA, etc) can cause cancer.
      2. It has also been proven that low-energy radiation, no matter how large a dose you receive, cannot alter chemical structures.
      3. The energy of electromagnetic waves emanating from power lines is related to the current passing through the wires and is easily and reliably calculated. Even under the “most dangerous” conditions of extremely high current, the energy of the radiation produced by power lines is much lower than is needed to cause chemical changes.
      4. Ergo, power lines do not and cannot cause cancer.

      • Tom Fuller

        Hi Matt,

        I was hoping you would talk about the orders of magnitude decrease in a Gaussian field, but that’s not bad…

        • Matt B

          It’s not apparent at all that distance from the lines does much to increase your risk….. but you’re right, that was brief & of course that argument would not sway anyone who already has a “belief”…there is a very good post by the Medical College of Wisconsin that discusses all issues power-line related in excellent detail:

          http://www.mcw.edu/radiationoncology/ourdepartment/radiationbiology/Power-Lines-and-Cancer-FAQs.htm#2

          The money quote which is the end summary of all their work:

          “Public controversy about electricity and health will continue until:

          1. Future research shows conclusively that the fields are hazardous, or
          2. Until the public learns that science cannot guarantee absolutely safety, or
          3. Until the public and media gets bored by the subject.

          Neither of the first two outcomes are particularly likely, but the third may happen”.

  • David Gillies

    These stupid, stupid Luddites make me so angry.

    A photon at microwave frequencies where WiFi and mobile phones work has an energy around the ten microelectronvolt range. That is the same order of magnitude as hyperfine transitions, and to the best of my knowledge no-one is claiming that hyperfine transitions play any biological role. Power levels are minute, too. At the point where your phone is showing one bar and coverage is getting spotty, received power is in the femtowatt region. If you integrated that power for a week it wouldn’t equal the kinetic energy of a falling snowflake. At that point the phone itself will be dialled up to max radiated power, around 2W for a GSM phone and less for newer technologies. This is isotropically-radiated power (or azimuthally symmetric, anyway) so only a portion intersects the user. Not much is absorbed, otherwise your phone would cut out when your head was between it and the base station.

    The wifichondriacs are being bombarded on a regular basis by devices emitting EM radiation of thousands or millions times greater power density, and with photon frequencies all the way up in the 2 or 3 eV range where biologically significant things start to happen. They’re called lightbulbs.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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