By DAVID KATZ, MD
Tis the season to, well, buy stuff. Increasingly, the stuff we buy is electronic. In fact, not only that, but increasingly the stuff we buy with is electronic, too. We are using gizmos to shop for gadgets, or possibly gadgets to shop for gizmos.
In any event, we are ever more frequently in the company of the energy fields our electronic devices, and in particular our smart phones, generate. This deserves more attention than most of us accord it.
Don’t get me wrong — I am not suggesting we return to the pre-cell phone days when we lived in dark caves. We are fully ensconced in the electronics era, and there appears to be no going back. I am as fully dependent on electronic devices as anyone, and maybe more than most, living much of my life these days online. Like so many, I am both beneficiary and victim of the attendant efficiencies. On the one hand, I can’t recall how we ever got anything done in the days before instantaneous communication and push-of-a-button document transmission.
On the other, I do long for the freedom of the time before an unending stream of emails became my manacles. I did sleep better in the days before bedtime meant checking one last time to see who in the world needed what, and/or finding out that someone in cyberspace thinks I’m a moron. Oh, well.
Some of the risks related particularly to mobile phone use are well known. The dangers of distracted driving are common knowledge, with cell phone use now implicated in at least 25 percent of all car crashes. There is some evidence that ambient levels of empathy — our ability to understand and connect to one another’s emotional state — are declining, and possibly due to the frequency with which technology comes between us. A recent study among college students finds that more frequent use of cell phones correlates with impairment of academic performance, and increased anxiety — although the study could not prove cause and effect.
But the greatest and most insidious risk of cell phone use pertains to the electromagnetic fields of non-ionizing radiation they produce. What makes this risk insidious is our potential to dismiss it altogether, in part because it is convenient to do so, and in part because it’s hard to take seriously a potential menace that is totally invisible. I suspect we are all at least somewhat prone to a “what I can’t see, feel, taste, smell or hear can’t hurt me” mentality.
But of course, that’s clearly wrong, as we all have cause to know. Anyone who has ever had an X-ray has experienced first hand the power of an invisible force, in this case ionizing radiation, to penetrate deeply into our bodies. Anyone who has had a MRI has experienced the capacity of non-ionizing electromagnetic fields to do the same. What we can’t see or feel can, in fact, reach to our innermost nooks and crannies, both to produce vivid images of our anatomy — and exert other effects.