This is a great story of an amazingly innovative solution to a difficult and expensive problem.
From time to time new words are coined in the tech world, and some stick like glue while others evaporate like old political jokes. And often these terms are formed not by the tech community, but by those outside of it. Enter Electrosmog.
Much noise has been made in the press recently about the WHO’s addition of “mobile phone use” to its list of things which it considers can possibly cause cancer. Lawmakers in San Francisco are likely excited by this as the city has been trying to pass ordinances requiring cancer warning stickers on cell phones.
But do they cause cancer? And what did the WHO really say?
Let’s start with what the WHO actually did and said.
There were no new studies performed, but rather this was the result of a 31-person team’s review of past studies. The category they added mobile phone use into is called “possibly carcinogenic to humans”. Note the use of the weasel-word “possibly”. Also, pay attention to the other items on this list, which includes 266 items (Group 2B) such as coffee, nickel, and talc-based body powder.
On their “known carcinogen” list (Group 1) is alcoholic drinks, wood and leather dust, salted fish (Chinese-style), and 104 other agents. Less fearful, their “probably carcinogen” list (Group 2A) includes night shift work, fried food, and 57 other entries. Read the whole list here.
Right now there are five billion cell phone users. That’s right, three-quarters of the world’s population uses cell phones. One might expect that with all these people using cell phones, and if that phone use increases the risk of brain cancer, we’d see an increase in the rate of brain cancer. After all, five billion is a lot of test cases. And the answer? No. There’s been no notable increase in the observed rate of brain cancer. But I’d bet there has been a detectable increase in the rate of people walking into parking meters.
What is happening, though, is groups are talking about the amount of radiation emitted by phones that is subsequently absorbed by your body. CNN published this article listing the ten highest and ten lowest radiators.
What’s not mentioned in this article, however, is that for that coveted piece of technology to perform its function, it must emit radiation – that’s how it communicates with the cell tower. So, if you select a model that’s low on this list for radiation, such as the LG Quantum (AT&T), it’s likely that it won’t connect nearly as well to the network as the Motorola Bravo (AT&T), which generates more than four times as much radiation. The lower performance of the Quantum is confirmed by reviewers here and here, and the higher performance of the Bravo here by the same folks that panned the Quantum.
In short, RF emissions are what a wireless device is all about. Less emissions, less range. Should you worry about cancer? So far the studies don’t support this connection, but if you’re worried, I do have a nice Princess Phone I can make you a deal on.
Ah, today we all basked in the glow of the iPad, Apple’s most recent entry into the world of consumer gadgetry. Though there was much to delight in about it, we noticed that the Airplane Mode setting was conspicuously missing from its feature set. As a result, lucky iPad owners will need to either individually turn off the Bluetooth and WiFi radios, or simply turn the whole iPad off when in-flight.
Well, of course this touched off the whole debate about the use of electronic devices in the plane. Do they really interfere with the navigation instruments? Or, is it a conspiracy to force you to use the ridiculously expensive ($1-2/min) air phone service. It was amazing how passionate people were on their positions.
Let’s take a moment to survey the situation a bit. It’s tricky because both the FAA and FCC have things to say about this one.
Here’s the official word from the FCC as of 2007, with comments on the FAA’s position: http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/cellonplanes.html
And on March 15th, 2006, in episode 49 the local Mythbusters team tackled this one as well: http://mythbustersresults.com/episode49
There are two issues in play. The first is the idea of interference with the navigational equipment on the aircraft. In practice, with clear weather, this is probably a non-issue as even if interference occurs, since a pilot would likely recognize it and recover. However, in IMC (instrument meteorological conditions), the lives of all aboard the aircraft hinge on the successful reception and interpretation of received radio signals, some of which (GPS for example) are incredibly weak and require very sensitive receivers. This is the reason that all electronic devices must be turned off during take-off and landing phases of flight because when we’re close to the ground those signal interruptions could have catastrophic results.
The second issue is one of interfering with ground equipment. This is primarily a cell phone issue since a large number of cell towers (many more than usual) can see your signal when you’re in the air, and you consume far more voice channels that would be normal, thus clogging the system. Good for you, not so good for others.
So, in short, best to follow the captain and make absolutely certain your electronic devices (with wireless radios or not) are turned off during take-off and landing phases of flight (especially in IMC) as these are the most critical moments from a safety standpoint. In good weather, using your cellphone is likely more annoying to other phone users on the ground than it is harmful to you in the air.
In recognition of this, the FCC and other agencies are actively looking for ways to allow users to use cell phones in the air, and enjoy those wonderful gadgets as fully as we enjoy them on the ground. Until then, though, the rules say no, and the captain of the aircraft still has the final say.