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.

Not many people drive all the way to the top of Sandia Crest, 10,678 feet, to hang out by the Steel Forest—the thick stand of blinking broadcast and microwave antennas that serves as a communications hub for New Mexico and the Southwest. But I went there on a dare. For the past few months, I’ve been trying to understand the thinking of some anti-wireless activists who have turned my town, Santa Fe, N.M., into a hotbed for people who believe that microwaves from cell phones and Wi-Fi are causing everything from insomnia, nausea, and absent-mindedness to brain cancer.

“Spend an hour or two in front of the antennas,” I was advised by Bill Bruno, a Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist and self-diagnosed “electrosensitive” who sometimes attends public hearings wearing a chain-mail-like head dress to protect his brain. “See if aspirin cures the headache you’ll probably get, and see if you can sleep that night without medication.”

So while carloads of visitors took in the high mountain air and breathtaking views of the Rio Grande Valley, I wandered around with a handheld microwave meter to make sure that I spent no less than two hours basking in high-frequency electromagnetism at an intensity of up to 1 milliwatt per square centimeter. (That is the threshold set by the FCC for safe exposure over a 30-minute interval.) The device also measured the magnetic fields buffeting the mountain, which spiked at 100 milligauss, about one-five-hundredth as strong as a refrigerator magnet.

My head felt fine as I drove back to Santa Fe, and I slept soundly that night, reinforcing my doubts that the growing presence of wireless communication devices can be blamed for anything worse than sporadic outbreaks of hysteria, which has been defined in the psychiatric literature as “behavior that produces the appearance of disease.”

In a 1997 book, Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Media, which I’d brought along to pass time on the mountain, Elaine Showalter, a literary critic and medical historian, describes how indeterminate feelings of malaise can become named, reified, and packaged into quasi-official illnesses.

“Initially,” she wrote, “patients are people with a bewildering set of troubling symptoms and a wide range of explanations for them.” Once persuaded that they have, say, chronic fatigue syndrome or anorexia nervosa, their malady finds an anchor in the medical world. “They may become addicted to their symptoms, and embark on the career of being a particular kind of patient,” she wrote, “with a self-supporting network of friends, activities, doctors, and treatments.” Showalter doesn’t dispute that for the sufferers the symptoms are real and debilitating. But that doesn’t mean that they are not also psychological.

The same may well be true for the microwave scare—a contagion of the modern mind. Recently, a Maine legislator and the mayor of San Francisco called for putting warning labels on cell phones. Last June, during the national transition from analog to digital television, Arthur Firstenberg, a leader of the wireless opposition, placed an advertisement in a weekly Santa Fe newspaper, the Reporter, soliciting accounts of adverse health reactions. The result, he reported, was a tsunami of complaints: sleeplessness, agitation, nausea, heart palpitations, headaches, exhaustion. Dogs and cats were acting strangely, and mother birds became so apathetic that they abandoned their nests.

“The quality of life here has been permanently diminished,” he wrote in an e-mail to followers. “I would not be surprised if mortality temporarily rose in Santa Fe or nationwide during the past two weeks.”

Corey Pein, a journalist for the Reporter, decided to investigate. It turned out that local stations had begun digital broadcasts long ago. All that happened in June was that the old-fashioned analog signals were switched off.

Undaunted, Mr. Firstenberg has gone on to sue his next-door neighbor for violating him with waves from her iPhone, cordless phone, iPhone charger, Wi-Fi, laptop computer, desktop computer, scanner, dimmer switches, and compact fluorescent lights. Denying him a preliminary injunction, a District Court judge recently suggested that perhaps his symptoms are psychiatric. The case is awaiting trial.

There is no doubt that ionizing radiation (ultraviolet light, X-rays, and gamma rays) can cause serious biological injury by breaking molecular bonds. And if you jumped over the fence at the Sandia Mountain antenna farm, shimmied up a tower, and stayed there for awhile, the vibrations from lower-frequency microwaves might heat your tissue enough to be dangerous.   The question is whether the vastly weaker nonionizing, nonthermal emanations from mobile phones or Wi-Fi transmitters can induce illness by disrupting—maybe through some kind of self-amplifying resonance effect—the delicate ionic signals in neurons and other cells.

It would not be all that surprising if, as some studies suggest, wisps of electromagnetism can ripple the flow of ions—which, after all, are charged particles—or have other subtle biological influences. (A good source for what experiments show, pro and con, about the effects of microwaves on EEG patterns, melatonin secretion, permeability of the blood-brain barrier, and so forth is the University of Ottawa’s RFcom site.) But reviews of the research by scientific organizations in the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Canada, France, Spain, and other countries have found no compelling evidence that any such effects are harmful. Most epidemiological studies of cell phones and cancer are equally reassuring.

“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.

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). review of the literature published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that cell phone studies funded by the telecommunications industry were indeed “substantially less likely to report statistically significant effects … that may be relevant to health.” But, the authors added, that doesn't tell you which studies are the most accurate: “If researchers with an environmentalist agenda are more likely to be funded by public agencies or charities, then their bias may result in an overestimation of effects."> 

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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