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01 June 2011

For whom the cell tolls: Why your phone may (or may not) be killing you

Excerpted from Nathaniel Rich's article in the May 2010 issue of Harper’s Magazine.
His article is available, for free, at

For whom the cell tolls:
Why your phone may (or may not) be killing you

There is something gratifyingly diabolical about the notion of man growing reliant on a technology that fosters a feeling of interconnectedness and sophistication at the same time it is destroying the brain. The question now being asked by European governments is not whether cell phones cause cancer but at what point it is sensible to enact precautionary laws, just in case the worst comes to pass. The U.S. government plans for nuclear attacks, the poisoning of the water supply, and the outbreak of exotic sub-Saharan diseases. It installs lifeguards at public beaches, issues advisories on the hazards of mold, and rates the sanitation levels of cruise ships. When does it make sense to order cell manufacturers to supply a headset with every phone? Or to ban such products as the Disney Mobile and the Firefly GlowPhone?

The answer is not obvious. Some of these precautionary measures come at significant cost—initially levied on the telecom industry, but ultimately passed on to consumers. Far greater, perhaps, is the cost of fear. Imagine the public (let alone political) response should, say, the Obama Administration endorse the position that every cell tower and Wi-Fi console, and in fact every electronic device—for it is impossible to single out cell phones, even if they might pose the greatest risk—increases, to some degree, your odds of getting cancer and dying. This would give new piquancy to the old aphorism “Everything kills you.” It would at least prompt a revision: “Everything emits invisible waves, which kill you.”

The existence of killer waves would, however, explain a lot. We’d have a much more comprehensive understanding of how and why we get cancer, for starters. We’d also understand why we sometimes get headaches after using a cell phone for a long period of time; why it seems like we know a surprisingly large number of young people with unusual cancers; why we struggle to remember incidental facts; why we used to be able to do the Sunday crossword but can now make it only through Friday; why our children have so much difficulty sitting still and reading books and speaking in complete sentences; why we get sad for no reason; why sometimes, when we look at our loved ones, for a bizarre split second we don’t recognize them; why it can seem that our lives are guided by some dark, implacable force; and why, when we sit up straight in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep, we feel a dizzying sense of panic at the hopelessness of it all.

Think, too, how satisfying it would be to eradicate the electromagnetic menace from our daily lives. Effective headsets, the longer the cord the better, would be only the beginning. Buy only phones with low SARs (specific absorption rates), such as Samsung’s Eternity and Blue Earth models. Set the phone across the room while you sleep. Don’t carry it in your front pocket. Eschew phone conversations altogether, and spend more time speaking face-to-face with the people closest to you. Hire a professional EMF consultant to map your home’s electromagnetic profile, so you can make certain that your bed is not in a high-radiation zone or that your children are not playing too close to high-EMF sources, such as your flat-screen television or your Wi-Fi router. If you enjoy the rigors of green living, you will love EMF-free life. And if these measures seem insufficient, leave the city altogether, or, even better, establish your own EMF-free refuge—such as the one recently erected by the EMF- activist organization Next-Up in a wooded area of southern France, where “electrosensitives” live in metal-shielded trailers and wear metal-fiber shawls to defend against invisible waves.

The first generation of regular, or obsessive, cell-phone users has now been at it for ten years. The latency period for brain tumors may be as long as thirty years. So by the late 2020s, the debate should be resolved to the satisfaction of all parties: we will either see a stunning increase in the rate of brain cancer or we will shift our paranoia to new worst-case scenarios.

The clattering in Sage’s pocket at the Biltmore was emitted by a device that detects the presence of EMFs. This particular model, the MicroAlert, sells for $95 and is manufactured by a Salt Lake City company called AlphaLab. Seeing my fascination, she suggested I borrow it for a few weeks. She didn’t need it for work, after all—for professional purposes she uses a far more sophisticated sensor, the $2,200 Gigahertz Solutions’ RF-Analyzer HF-59B high-frequency meter. “You’ll have so much fun,” she said, with a mischievous smile, as she placed it into my hand.

She was right: it was fun. The MicroAlert chirped on the highway whenever I drove by a cell tower; it pulsed in regular bursts when I set it beside my laptop and activated the Wi-Fi; it let out an agonized shriek when I passed the AT&T building on Church Street in lower Manhattan. As I walked down the aisle of an airplane it chirped at certain rows, alarming passengers who looked around to see what malevolent device had been smuggled aboard. Sometimes the MicroAlert would sound for no apparent reason. A few seconds would elapse. Then, without fail, my cell phone would ring.

I took the EMF meter out on weekends and conducted my own experiments. Bars, dates, dinners: the MicroAlert is an excellent party trick. Friends would test the electromagnetic radiation of their phones, iPods, and BlackBerries. Men used the meter to administer full-body EMF tests to reluctant women—passing it slowly over their clothes like an airport security guard with a wand. (These tests yielded no positive findings.)

People opened up to me about their secret fears. One friend, an attorney at a major international law firm, disclosed a private theory of his: ever since the first radio broadcast, man-made waves have been making our species stupider; but since all of humanity was equally stupider, no one could tell the difference. Another friend admitted she had begun to use a headset a year ago, when she noticed that her phone was giving her headaches. She thought about buying one of those anti-EMF necklaces, but she didn’t think the available models were particularly stylish.

An orthopedic surgeon, highly skeptical of the whole business, asked me sarcastically whether these cell-phone alarmists I’d met believed that sending text messages could cause brain cancer. I explained that as long as you didn’t hold the phone directly against the side of your head, the radiation was thought unlikely to affect your brain. Laughing, he fired off a text message. My MicroAlert chirped. Then he dropped the phone back into his pants pocket, where it came to rest next to his testicles.

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