Talking Heads
By Justin Hall, Thu Jun 05 07:15:00 GMT 2003

Everyone wants a stronger mobile phone signal, but some people would rather avoid the radio emissions.

From Chicago to China, nearly everyone is beeping, thumbing and talking. Imagine if mobile phones bothered you. Not just the interrupted conversations and situations, but the fact that everyone around you had a small box jammed with silicon and broadcasting constant small pulses of radiation. Now imagine you receive a notice in the mail - they're going to build a large cell tower antenna outside your apartment. So all those small boxes will be signaling in your direction.

Most people don't get that far into debate about wireless devices; because mobile phones are unavoidably convenient. For some, phones save lives, for others they allay boredom or make for a much more dynamic social life. Those people can rest assured that the mobile phone industry releases only those devices and erects only those antennae that are permitted within national health and safety standards.

Those standards are set by groups like the "International Commission for Non-ionizing Radiation Protection." Based in Germany, they survey and conduct research in order to establish a safety margin for radiation levels of phone equipment. Different countries have different standards; last year a government commission in the People's Republic of China caused a stir when they recommended lower than average acceptable handset radiation levels. Such a move would be quite costly to mobile manufacturers, who would have to retool phones for that country and deploy more mobile phone base stations to suit the lower-powered devices.

How Little is Too Much?

The small variations in standards between nations reveal there's disagreement, even amongst people encouraging the proliferation of mobile devices. Anti-antennae activists seek to occupy that space of disagreement, and enlarge it. They want the world to act with caution: pausing, or slowing the full-speed societal charge ahead into mobile omnipresence. If we're not absolutely sure about appropriate levels of radiation, we shouldn't be building cell towers near schools, hospitals or residential neighborhoods, says Doug Loranger, a spokesperson for SNAFU - San Francisco Antenna-Free Union. He's been campaigning against antennae since they tried to put one outside his apartment. Besides answering phone calls from journalists, he directed the documentary: "Bad Reception: the Wireless Revolution in San Francisco" which follows activists fighting the proliferation of mobile-phone infrastructure.

Activists like Loranger point to scientific data proving that phones might cause brain tumors, or at least proving "that low-intensity RFR [radiofrequency radiation] is not biologically inert." That's a fundamental tenant of Henry Lai's paper "Biological Effects of Radiofrequency Radiation from Wireless Transmission Towers." Lai is a Research Professor in Bioengineering at the Bioelectromagnetics Research Laboratory at the University of Washington in Seattle. His four simply stated conclusions, advocating caution about phone radiation, seem reasonable to an untrained reader.

But Lai's research, and that of other activist-recommended researchers, was recently thrown out of a court in Delaware, in the United States. Newman v. Motorola was designed to make mobile manufacturers appear to be as bad as tobacconists, alleging they had knowingly purveyed deadly devices. A neurologist discovered he had a brain tumor, and wanted to sue his mobile handset maker for damages. His claim was supported by research, including Lai's, showing a link between mobile phone radiation levels and certain forms of cancer. But the judge found the science lacking.

The Scientific Debate

Dr. Peter Polson has been studying the effects of microwaves on the human body for three decades. "Literally thousands of studies have been conducted on the effects of microwaves on the human body," he speaks definitively, "When you do a critical review of the literature, the weight of the evidence shows that there are levels below which there are no effects. That is the basis for safety standards that have been established worldwide."

Polson is a good storyteller with years of experience talking to small town councils about the biological effects of radiation. Once he saw a woman with a history of cancer come to a community meeting to fight a planned wireless Internet base station. She explained that she had moved to this area to escape exactly the kind of irradiation she expected from that antenna. Just after her, her neighbor stood up - he was a ham radio operator, and he was worried that the new antenna would disrupt his radio signals. Polson laughs, "He was living across the street from this woman and irradiating her without her knowledge!"

The arguments put forward by the mobile industry have more scientists, more data, and also more money. Henry Lai e-mails to mention a "war game" smear campaign by a well-known mobile manufacturer designed to discredit him. It's impossible to get this deep into the discussion over mobile phone radiation without having to choose who to believe. And it's hard not to believe Polson, with his hourly e-mails providing additional facts and research agreed upon by cool heads and multinational non-government organizations.

How to reconcile an abiding passion for machines with human compassion and an inclination to side with citizens on consumer rights? Machines demand a network of faith - you trust the engineers who built your car, the technicians who tested it for safety, and the science that established the standards they used to make their decisions.

But even with the immense knowledge network undergirding science and technology, our computers still crash. The systems are not foolproof. Sometimes there is deliberate corporate malfeasance, where science serves as a smokescreen obscuring legitimate concerns over lazy engineering. Other times, sensitive citizens continue to fight what has been accepted as a public good by the vast majority.

How do we honor the concerns of those minorities? We should continue full disclosure and maximal information. Post the SAR levels of phones and antennae, explain what they mean, and let consumers decide based on the available, peer-reviewed science. And we should recognize that discussions about radiation and mobile phones are an expression of mistrust of science, corporations and the pace of technological change. Anti-antennae activists want to have some social and environmental control over new disruptive devices; their voice will no doubt continue to fuel the debate.

It's Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Week on TheFeature! Check back daily for reports, analysis and in-depth articles on the future of mobility.

Justin Hall has been writing about digital culture for over a decade now, mostly on his web site He splits his time between Japan and the United States, west of the Mississippi.