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

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

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.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

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.