I tried to sauté my brain at the base of a cell phone tower. It didn't work.

The state of the universe.
April 21 2010 9:55 AM

On Top of Microwave Mountain

I tried to sauté my brain at the base of a cell phone tower. It didn't work.

See our Magnum Photos gallery on cell phone towers, power lines, and other live wires.

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"Approximately 25,000 articles have been published over the past 30 years," the World Health Organization has reported. "Despite the feeling of some people that more research needs to be done, scientific knowledge in this area is now more extensive than for most chemicals. Based on a recent in-depth review of the scientific literature, the WHO concluded that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields."

The reviews typically call for further inquiry into whether children warrant special protection and caution that mobile phones and Wi-Fi have not been in use long enough to rule out the possibility of long-term consequences. (Results from the long-awaited Interphone Study on cell phones and cancer are so ambiguous that publication has been delayed for years as the authors argue over what is fact and artifact.) A few researchers recommend erring on the side of caution and using a headset. A smaller number have called for lowering cell phone emission standards and even slowing the spread of the technology while still more studies are done. But that is as far as most scientists will go.

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The anti-wireless advocates react to the mainstream view in three ways: They ignore it, dismiss it as part of a telecommunications industry cover-up, or claim that some people suffer from a rare condition called electrosensitivity (which would make for an interesting chapter in a new edition of Showalter's book).  

Those who believe they are somehow allergic to electromagnetism point to a supportive paper, "Electrohypersensitivity: State-of-the-Art of a Functional Impairment," by Olle Johansson of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. But you probably won't see them citing studies in the journals Psychosomatic Medicine and Bioelectromagnetics concluding that no robust evidence for electrosensitivity exists.

With so little support from the scientific establishment, advocates like Bruno, the Los Alamos physicist, see themselves as visionaries on the cutting edge of what historian of science Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm shift.

"Unfortunately, as Kuhn explained in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, there is really no convincing someone who is committed to the old beliefs," Bruno has written. "There are always objections that can be raised to any experiment."

That, of course, can cut both ways. If you believe in your heart of hearts that a theory is true, you can probably find some reinforcing evidence, dismissing the rest as flawed. A few maverick scientists who suspect—but have been unable to prove—that cell phones are unhealthy recently joined with an environmental consultant in Santa Barbara, Calif., who sells "Cell Phone Free Zone" decals and advises clients on how to keep their homes and businesses electrosmog-free, to compile the Bioinitiative Report. Reversing figure and ground, the report picks out disputed findings on electromagnetism and health and treats them as established science. It has been roundly criticized by international scientific groups, including a committee of the European Commission, for a lack of balance and a stubborn refusal to mention facts that contradict what the authors have already decided to be true.

After my trip to the Steel Forest, I trolled my house in Santa Fe with the microwave monitor to see what invisible energies are saturating my brain every day. Though I can get two bars from T-Mobile and have installed three Wi-Fi stations for saturation coverage, I couldn't locate a single spot where the needle budged.

Only when I placed my cell phone right on top of the meter and called it from another phone could I get a reading. The needle leapt past 1 milliwatt per square centimeter (about what I had measured on the mountain). Placing the meter on top of a Wi-Fi station while it was uploading a video gave weaker results. In both cases, moving back a few inches caused the level to drop tenfold. A foot away the needle barely twitched.

That is another thing you don't see mentioned in the anti-wireless manifestos, the inverse square law: The intensity of an electromagnetic field decreases with the square of the distance. And no matter how strong the signal, I found that I could cut it off almost entirely by placing a piece of Reynolds Wrap between the meter and the source. For whatever it's worth, aluminum-foil hats really do make a difference.

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George Johnson is the author of The Cancer Chronicles. He blogs at Fire in the Mind for Discover. You can follow him on Twitter at @byGeorgeJohnson.

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