Log in

No account? Create an account
mobile phones, they cook your head? - helen-louise
mobile phones, they cook your head?
A few weeks ago when I had a cold, I sent Richard out to buy a new mammal thermometer, as the Feverscan forehead thermometer in the cupboard had an expiry date of 2005. For some reason he wasn't able to buy a new Feverscan thermometer - the only ones they had in Boots said they were only suitable for kids "up to age 12". So he bought a ridiculously sophisticated Braun in-the-ear thermometer that cost about £40, which is basically a home version of the type of thermometers they use to check your temperature in hospital. Just like the house thermometer we have, it is battery-powered and records temperatures to the nearest 0.1 degrees C. Unlike the room thermometer, it has a memory which stores the last N temperatures recorded, and came with 25 disposable plastic caps for hygiene between different users. Of course, we are geeks & technophiles, so it will probably be unsurprising that I've become completely obsessed with checking my temperature :)

So I can tell you that my normal waking temperature is 36.9 degrees C; my normal daytime temperature is 37.0 degrees C; and my normal just-before-sleep temperature is 36.6 degrees C. This confirms to me that the hospital was crazy to start panicking and feeding me paracetamol every time my recorded temperature was 37.0 on one of those thermometers - I'd thought it was entirely within the range of normal. Should I ever be unlucky enough to be in hospital again, I doubt they'll believe me if I tell them "37.0 is normal for me", but whatever.

It's an in-the-ear thermometer, right? So the results are influenced by anything hot I might have been placing close to my ear, like mobile phones. Now, the possible cancer-causing effects of mobile phones are highly controversial - basically because if it's true, it screws up a lot of basic wave physics. The danger of an electromagnetic wave is, as far as we know, directly proportional to the amount of energy it carries - which is directly proportional to the frequency of the wave. High-frequency e.m. waves like gamma rays and X-rays can penetrate the body and cause mutations in the DNA of cells. Ultraviolet can only penetrate skin, but the higher frequencies of UV are strongly implicated in aggressive skin cancers, like malignant melanoma. Gamma rays, X-rays and UV are all high enough energy to be able to knock electrons out of molecules in cells, and are therefore called ionising radiation. The e.m. waves that mobile phones use to communicate with satellites are in the microwave region of the spectrum - almost as low energy as you can get, and most definitely not ionising radiation.

There does seem to be some correlation between people who have used a mobile phone against the head for 2-3 hours a day every day and people who develop brain tumours, but proving cause and effect is difficult, as is getting an unbiased sample. (Bearing in mind the existing news reporting and human psychology, it's difficult to ask people diagnosed with brain tumours about their mobile phone use and be sure their answers are true.) The one thing that most researchers do agree on is that mobile phones cause heating of the head. The phones themselves get very hot after only a few minutes' use. Heat energy is infrared, another type of electromagnetic radiation, and this can travel as waves into the head. Also, any stray microwaves that don't get transmitted to the satellite can travel into the head - and as everyone knows, microwaves are used in cooking.

This is the point where the real world apparently disagrees with my memory. I was under the impression that microwave ovens used microwaves of wavelength 3.0 cm, while mobile phones used microwaves of wavelength 0.3 cm. Actually, the wavelength of both are closer to 0.3 m. The standard two frequencies of GSM in Europe are 900 and 1800 MHz, while Wikipedia claims the standard frequency of domestic microwaves is 2450 MHz. Some maths based on:
wave speed = frequency x wavelength

plus the knowledge that the speed of light & all other e.m. waves in a vacuum is
3 x 10^8 m/s

gives us:
wavelength in m = 3 x 10^8 / frequency in Hz
Applying this to the quoted frequencies gives:

 900 MHz = 9.00 x 10^8 Hz  -->   0.333 m = 33.3 cm
1800 MHz = 1.80 x 10^9 Hz  -->   0.167 m = 16.7 cm
2450 MHz = 2.45 x 10^9 Hz  -->   0.122 m = 12.2 cm

The frequency of cooking microwaves (2450 MHz or 2.45 GHz) is apparently slap bang in the middle of the band used for such things as Wireless LAN and Bluetooth. However, the power output by such devices varies tremendously. Typical domestic microwaves are rated at 600-900 W, whereas the power output by a wireless card in a PC is around 50 mW, 18000 times less. Hence our wireless devices aren't likely to cook us (unless, I suppose, you have 18000 of them all directed at you in unison... is that even possible?!). Mobile phones have a typical maximum power output of 125 mW, but the average value will typically be less than a tenth of that - around 12.5 mW. Also, even were we to assume maximum power output by the mobile phones, and minimum power output by a domestic microwave oven, that's 4800 mobile phones in a poor reception area to cook your head.

This is still (!) extremely over-simplified, because we need to take distance into account. The average distance of a magnetron in a microwave oven from the food would be about 20 cm. The average distance of the antenna in a mobile phone to your brain might be 2 cm. Power intensity varies according to 1 / distance ^2. So reducing the distance between the point source and the recipient cells by 10 would increase the intensity of radiation by 100, possibly meaning it would take a "mere" 48 mobile phones to cook your head.

However (!!), not all of the power output by a device is absorbed by human cells in proximity to it. The Specific absorption rate (SAR) is a measure of that. If you go out & buy a new mobile phone, the SAR for it will be specified all over the place. SARs have been dropping for modern phones because of adverse publicity. Also, it's believed that the skulls of older people that have finished growing are able to absorb a lot of radiation and stop it from reaching the brain. The skulls of children are softer and much less able to shield the brain, so if there is a danger from mobile phones, children are more likely to be at risk.

Why was I thinking about all this anyway? Well, I measured the temperature in my left ear, that had been against a hot phone for 20 minutes, and it was 37.6 degrees C. The corresponding temperature in my right ear was only 37.3 degrees C. Two minutes later, these had dropped to 37.3 degrees C (left ear) and 37.1 degrees C (right). Temperature, even quoted in kelvin, isn't on an absolute scale --> doubling the temperature doesn't mean there's twice as much heat energy present, so it's hard to know these numbers mean; let alone what difference an increase in my ear's temperature of 0.6 degrees C over 20 minutes could make to the long-term health of my cells. I still need to do a control run where I simply lie in bed with one ear pressed against the pillow for 20 minutes, as lying on one side is something the manual of the thermometer says will make a difference to recorded temperature. But it was enough of a difference for me to notice & sit here doing bad maths on for several hours.

I wanted to get you some references for all of the stuff mentioned below the cut, but Wikipedia's Electromagnetic radiation hazard and Wireless electronic devices and health both referenced the page The Dangers Of Electro Magnetic Radiation (EMF), which I am finding impossible to take seriously. Somehow, I tend not to trust "science" when it's spouted by a so-called medical professional in combination with such wonders as "You may choose not to wear a quartz-analog watch because it radiates pulsating EMFs along your acupuncture meridians." Riiiiight. Apparently, "Eyeglass frames should ideally be made from plastic with no wires in them, otherwise they can serve as an antenna to focus the radio and cellular phone waves directly into your brain." Uh-huh. I recommend aluminium foil helmets to anyone concerned about such things.

I do trust the World Health Organisation, but their factsheet Electromagnetic fields and public health: mobile telephones and their base stations dates from June 2000 and there's been a lot of new research since then. Wikipedia's Mobile phone radiation and health has more recent references, but I'm really far too tired to plough through them to see which seem reliable tonight.

Also, I can't believe I've been working on this since 9pm instead of posting any of the LJ entries I "owe" you, such as:

  • what Ludy & I did in Manchester - including a review of vegan eating & museums
  • a BiFest review
  • a Polyday review
  • a writeup of my Polyday workshop (an expanded version of the "crib sheet")
  • something or other about Sims 2 that's dropped out of my head
  • the question about my body temperature and allergies that sparked off all this temperature-measuring in the first place!

I am a nerd.

Tags: , ,
Current Mood: geeky geeky

9 comments or Leave a comment
jinian From: jinian Date: 17th October 2006 01:09 (UTC) (Link)
Yes, you are a most excellent kind of nerd.
xiphias From: xiphias Date: 17th October 2006 01:25 (UTC) (Link)
It would seem evident to me that sticking a piece of non-heat-conducting plastic near one's ear for a long period of time would reflect radiant heat back at the ear, so that said ear would have less cooling for that period of time, and would therefore have a slight raise in temperature in comparison to the ear without said piece of plastic.

Also, electronics give off heat. You've got batteries in a cell phone -- those are going to give off waste heat.

So you'd want to make a comparison vs. a simple block of plastic the same size as the cell phone, and also a block of material which is radiating heat to the same degree as the cell phone, but no electromagnetic radiation (other than the unavoidable black-body radiation).
From: hattifattener Date: 17th October 2006 02:49 (UTC) (Link)
That's my thought, too (and I assume it's what she's talking about when she's talking about measuring her ear after pressing it to a pillow for 20 minutes).

The alleged/supposed/hypothesized danger from cell phones isn't from heating, anyway; it's said to be something to do with microwaves, and sometimes specifically pulsed microwaves (digital phones emit their RF in a series of fairly short pulses). It doesn't seem absurd to me that there could be a mechanism for biological damage that's unlike heating, just like the damage due to gammas and other ionizing wavelengths is unlike heating. On the other hand, since nobody's come up with either a plausible proposed mechanism, or a convincing study showing that something is happening, I'm not too worried.

The earpiece warning makes perfect sense to me. If the earpiece happens to be resonant, it'll change the radiation pattern of the phone a lot, and could direct more RF into your head.

Th reason that microwaves and 802.11/bluetooth/zigbee/etc are on the same band is that the band was originally allocated for messy, high-power uses, mostly heating (the 'medical' in ISM's 'industrial, scientific, and medical' is presumably radio-diathermy). The spillover from those uses made the band pretty much useless for anything else. However, packetized digital radios came along, and they can deal with pulsed interference much better than analog radios can, and since it didn't require a license to put random low-power emitters on that band, a bunch of new technologies showed up to use it. (The alternative is to get an official band allocation for your new technology, which is difficult and expensive.)
baratron From: baratron Date: 17th October 2006 19:27 (UTC) (Link)
How about using a cell phone that is not currently switched on for the control? Everything would be the same except for the emitting of heat and microwave radiation.

Not very sure about the block of material which is radiating heat to the same degree - I understand what you're saying but I'm not sure how I could obtain such a thing to measure from. With the assistance of another person, I could measure the temperature of the external cell phone case itself over a period of time where the phone is actively transmitting and then attempt to find another object of the same size and heat it to the same temperature, but starting at the same temperature is no guarantee that the second object would continue to emit heat at the same rate as the mobile phone for the duration of the experiment. I think that one might have to be left to the experts :X Which is a shame, as I'd quite like to do it :D

In other news, Richard found an experiment to calculate the speed of light with marshmallows.
xlerb From: xlerb Date: 17th October 2006 07:08 (UTC) (Link)
I didn't think temperatures got any more absolute than Kelvin.
moo58 From: moo58 Date: 17th October 2006 14:43 (UTC) (Link)
My normal temperature hovers around 96°-97°F. So, a temp of 98.6° - which is "normal" for most people - means I have a slight fever.

A regualar temp of 96°F might also explain why it is so difficult for me to lose weight, too.
From: artremis Date: 17th October 2006 15:19 (UTC) (Link)
i am also a geek - when i first got an in-the-ear thermomter i assigned probe-condoms to all of my local freinds and family had diffrent markings on each of them!
redbird From: redbird Date: 18th October 2006 01:36 (UTC) (Link)
I thought 37 was considered absolutely normal if not normative human body temperature. No?
rhialto From: rhialto Date: 21st October 2006 10:50 (UTC) (Link)
Yes, as far as I know, anything between 37,0 and 37,5 is considered normal. I just did a measurement (with a traditional mercury thermometer, not used orally or aurally ;-) and got 37,1.
9 comments or Leave a comment