Sunday, October 23, 2005

Snake Oil in the Shopping Mall

I had occasion recently to go to Stonestown Mall here in San Francisco, to take my computer in for service. While I was waiting for the tech to run some diagnostics, I wandered out into the rest of the mall. The booth that caught my eye was selling various devices to protect me against the terrifying risk that my trusty cell phone might give me brain cancer.

In a nutshell, the claim is that the radio waves that the cell phone uses to communicate with the cell tower might somehow fry your brain. After all, the radiation coming out of the antenna of that cell phone is very similar to the microwaves that reheat yesterday's leftovers, so of course it stands to reason that they might cause genetic mutations and deadly cancer. Well, except for the minor little fact that it isn't true.

First of all, the power output from your cell phone is dwarfed by an ordinary night light. Then there's the fact that the microwaves from the cell phone couldn't possibly mutate your DNA even if they were amplified a millionfold. It's kind of like trying to smash a grain of sand with a Nerf football. You could break a window with a Nerf football, but not a grain of sand, no matter how hard you try. Let's put it another way: every moment of every day, your body is bombarded with high-energy neutrinos. They come from the center of the Sun, they come from nuclear reactors and nuclear bombs, and they come from distant galaxies. However, all of those high-energy neutrinos just pass right through your body (and the whole planet Earth, for that matter) as if it were empty space. They just don't hardly interact at all. Likewise, the 1.8 Gigahertz radio waves from your cell phone — or the 2.4 GHz from your WiFi, or the 5.8 GHz from your new cordless phone, or the 0.9 GHz from your old cordless phone — don't even notice any DNA molecules, nor vice-versa.

Well, "science doesn't know everything," you might well be saying. True enough. So let's suppose that you don't buy my airtight proof that cell phones cannot cause brain cancer. What should you do? There is one astonishingly simple solution: the hands-free kit. By using an earphone and holding the actual body of the cell phone whole centimetres away from your skull, you reduce whatever radiation does reach your brain a million times over. That's right, way more than 99.9999% reduction in radiation (which may or may not already be harmless anyway).

Let's compare that to one of the products that this booth was selling. It's a little metallic sticker that you put over the earpiece of your cell phone. It succeeds very well in muffling the sound from the cell phone, and if you don't have it stuck on properly it might get glue in your hair, but that's really all it will do. It doesn't reduce the radiation from the cell phone by even so much as 0.0001%, much less 99.9999%. It doesn't do anything more than take money out of your wallet and put it into the cash register. At that one task, it is quite effective.

These devices are nothing more than modern-day snake oil. That's why the Federal Trade Commission occasionally gets around to prosecuting some of the vendors for consumer fraud.

If you believe that a foil sticker on your cell phone will protect you from brain cancer, just ask yourself why the infomercials at 3 a.m. sell the exact same product as a signal booster. Either that or go all out: the portable tin-foil Faraday cage. Just completely surround yourself with conductive metal (preferably lead), attach the cage to an iron spike driven into the earth, and keep the cell phone outside the cage. Sure, it might be a little hard to hear, and you'll probably get strange looks even in San Francisco, but you can live free of the worry that your cell phone will give you brain cancer. Don't you feel much better now?