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Breaking Down Barriers
Cornell Daily Sun
Journalist: Danny Pearlstein
November 21, 2003

In last Sunday's Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, a little-noticed story in the health section addressed what ought to be a concern for over half of the population of the United States and over one billion other people around the world. Unfortunately, as the days passed, major national news outlets like the New York Times did not pick up the story. Perhaps Times editors were so sure that they had taken all necessary safety precautions in this age of terrorism that they gave no credence to the specter raised by "Feds to launch $10 million investigation of cell phones, wireless technologies."

Of greatest concern to public officials is that cellular telephones emit low-level radiation similar to that produced by radar and consumer electronics devices. In this respect, the no cell phones sign at Moosewood, which asks, "Would You Put Your Head in a Microwave?" is not so outlandish. The radiation from a single phone can be detected several miles away and, unsurprisingly, also enters the user's head. Hundreds of studies now suggest that radiation from cellular telephones may cause red blood cells to have nuclei when they typically do not. Cellular radiation may -- like other forms of radiation -- also cause problematic breakages in DNA strands. Other studies have linked cell phone use to subtle brain cell damage and sleep problems.

Perhaps the most chilling effect of cellular telephones is that they appear to shrink the cells in the blood-brain barrier. The barrier is a group of tightly packed cells at the top of the spinal cord. The narrow junctions between these cells prevent most large molecules from passing from the blood into the brain, where many compounds normally found in the other parts of the body could wreak havoc. Our mobile communication devices are not content merely to link us up with friends and family far away. Cell phones insist on connecting body parts that nature never meant to introduce to one another.

All of these reported results of cell phone use deserve far more than the $10 million Congressional Democrats were able to wrest away from tax cuts and military spending. It should come as no surprise that the Bush White House would choose to bury its graying head in the sand when it comes to negative repercussions of cell phone use. After all, Bush and his aides have steadfastly refused to create any sort of rational science or health policy.

The folks who deny global warming and do injustice to women's reproductive rights think they will be long dead by the time their mobile phones do serious damage. Then again, perhaps cell phones are to the Bush administration what lead pipes were to the Roman Empire. Let us hope that we can avoid medieval times redux and go straight to a renaissance of rule by landline.

I am serious. The benefit of casual cell phone use does not outweigh its risk. Nobody wants nucleated red blood cells, abnormally cleaved DNA strands, radiation-induced insomnia, or a weakened blood-brain barrier. Compare these real hazards to the delight of talking to grandma on the way to class. Grandma wants you to be healthy well into your old age and to be sentient long enough to enjoy having grandchildren just like you. She can wait for a phone call from your bedroom in the evening or on the weekend.

But we need not ban cell phones entirely. After all, most activities, technologies, and substances can be dangerous if misused and yet in a liberal society we should grant people the right to do many things that can hurt them. Instead, we need to redefine appropriate use of cell phones. For long car trips taken alone, cell phones make sense from a safety perspective. In other kinds of emergencies, they may even save lives. But, as Swedish scientist Lief Salford told the Sun-Sentinel, cell phones represent "the largest biological experiment in the history of the world." I, for one, will not be a lab rat.

Skeptics are free to argue that modern technology has always posed health and safety risks. And, in most cases, technological advances have saved many more lives than they have taken. However, radiation has always been harmful to life. And we cannot equate ubiquity with benignity.

Just because something is everywhere does not make it safe. For instance, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 42,815 Americans died last year in car crashes. We live in a society that has determined that living relatively far apart from one another justifies tens of thousands of automobile deaths each year. Apparently, we also live in a society that prioritizes instant communication, regardless of the health risks posed by radiation.

I could make an argument against cell phones from the philosophical claim that people need quiet contemplation which cell phones rob from us. I could say that the prospect of constant interruption -- however important the reason for it -- will diminish the number of deep thoughts produced and put to good use by our civilization. But instead, with hundreds of studies to back the claim and alarmingly little research on the effect of cellular radiation on developing brains, I paraphrase the old adage about war: cell phones are not good for children and other living things.

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