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EMF Studies

07 September 2013

Understanding the Health Risk of Google Glass Electromagnetic Radiation Emissions

Having these technologies in such close proximity to brains
and eyes is untested for medium- and long-term health
effects and represents use-cases not considered by
existing FCC regulations on wireless devices.
"Google is selling a product that is untested as to the long-term human health effects."

Understanding The Health Risk of Google Glass EMF Emissions
by R. Blank, 22 July 2013 in Technology

The first part of this article describes how cell phone radiation exposures are measured. It then goes on to answer these other questions:

What are the risks of cell phones?
How do EMF emissions from Glass compare to cell phones?
What is the relative risk of using technology like Google Glass compared to an iPhone?

Regarding the risks of Google Glass: the device is strapped to the head. Its computer is very close to the temple and eye, two parts of the head that are the most vulnerable to damage from EMF radiation. Finally, the form factor and supported use-cases of Glass encourage one to keep the device on for hours at a time. Since there is no airplane mode (or other means to disable wireless communication) that means users are receiving continuously variable doses of microwave radiation, to their brains and eyes, for hours at a time.

Click here for article in full.

What are the Risks of Cell Phones?

Well, first, it is important to reiterate that, because of varying levels of radiation and exposure, there is no way to know what your exposures are (and thus, what your actual risk might be), just from saying “I use my iPhone to make calls for an hour a day.”

As well, individuals respond individually to doses of EMF radiation. Some individuals are known as electrohypersensitive (EHS), and are particularly responsive to even extremely low doses. Other individuals have very healthy systems capable of repairing the damage that results from EMF exposures. And there is a wide spectrum in between. So outcomes will vary not only based on varying exposures, but also the health and well being of the individuals exposed.

It is also important to note that some of the most concerning health outcomes that are linked to cell phone radiation exposure (such as brain tumors) can take decades to form. Just because you’ve used a cell phone for 10 years now without developing a tumor, doesn’t mean you won’t in another 10 years, even if you never touch another cell phone. Neither does it mean you will. It’s just how disease works. While doses of some forms of electromagnetic energy (such as gamma rays) can kill you almost instantly, the types of health effects linked to cell phone radiation generally take much longer to manifest.

Still, the known science can help inform your understanding of the risks associated with cell phone usage. (And there is a lot of it. It is not the purpose of this post to review the vast body of science in this arena. If you are interested in learning more, I would encourage you to download and read the BioInitiative Report. It is a peer-reviewed publication from an international group of scientists that surveys thousands of scientific studies on the bioeffects of EMF exposure.)

.For the purposes of this post, let’s look at a single study, published in 2007 by a group including Dr. Lennart Hardell that examined the incidence of malignant brain tumors among thousands of individuals. This study is among the first epidemiological studies on this question, following such a large number of subjects over an extended evaluation period.

Hardell and the researchers found that, not only does cell phone use increase the risk of forming malignant brain tumors, but that the risk increased with latency time (i.e., how much time had passed since the cell phone exposure) and cumulative use.

The published results include a fair bit of data. I have extracted this portion (from Table 4 in the published results) to demonstrate the dose-response relationship between cell phone exposures and the risk of forming malignant brain tumors, over different time frames.

[View Table 4 in original article:  Risk (OR) of Forming Malignant Brain Tumor Compared to “Unexposed” Population (Who Do Not Use Cell or Cordless Phones)]

It’s worth noting this is time spent speaking on the phone, not browsing the web or sending text messages. So this refers to doses of radio frequency and microwave radiation from cell phones to the brain. And the data reveals increased risk from supposedly “safe” doses, but that the risk increases both with the dose, and the amount of time that passes.

So, while I can not actually answer the question “what are the risks of cell phone use” (brain tumors are but one class of the bioeffects that are documented to result from exposures to cell phone radiation), I have included this one study to note that high-quality peer-reviewed science has identified such risks, and that such risks are demonstrated to increase in a dose-response relationship. The known body of science on the subject of human exposure to cell phone radiation has reached the point where the World Health Organization has identified radio frequency EMF as a Class 2B Carcinogen. Another indicator that this risk is real: a leading Lloyd’s of London underwriter has, since 1999, refused to issue policies to cover cell phone manufacturer’sagainst claims of harm of their consumers’ health.

The more you use the tech, the greater your cumulative exposure; the greater your cumulative exposure, the greater the risk of forming malignant brain tumors. And the risk continues to increase with time, even if your cumulative use remains unchanged!

Before moving on, you may ask, “Those are some terrifying numbers! Why don’t I see more of my friends with brain tumors?” To that, I would remind you these types of bioeffects take many years or decades to form, and we have only recently reached the point where large numbers of people have been using cell phones for over a decade (I got my first Nokia in 1999). As well, we are discussing small affected populations to begin with. Doubling, tripling or even sextupling the number of individuals who develop malignant brain tumors, will still result in a relatively small number of people.
How do EMF Emissions from Glass Compare to Cell Phones?

Now that we have at least some sort of crude gauge for the risk of cell phone use, the obvious next question is, how does the EMF from Glass compare to that from a cell phone?

There are different ways of answering that question.

Let’s start with SAR [Specific Absorption Rate which is the measurement of the rate at which electromagnetic radiation energy is absorbed by, generally, human tissue]. According to Google, Glass has an official SAR value of 1.11 W/kg. That places it at the higher end of EMF emissions, compared to cell phones on the market today, but still within FCC limits of 1.6 W/kg. So, per their official SAR values, Glass emits roughly equivalent (though slightly less) EMF radiation than an iPhone 5.

Using SAR as the only metric, however, obscures a key distinction between technology like Glass and cell phones: they utilize different technologies for communication. Cell phones use cell phone frequencies (3G, 4G, etc.). Glass uses WiFi and Bluetooth. Both WiFi and Bluetooth contain more energy (i.e., operate at higher frequencies) than cell phone data.

(Yes, it is true that today many cell phones also have WiFi and Bluetooth. But, when the cell phone is held directly against the head, generally the dominant data connection is the cell phone data connection, because the user is on a phone call. Generally, WiFi and Bluetooth are utilized more actively on phones, when the phone is not being held against the head.)

So, on the one hand, theoretically (according to lab data and FCC filings for Google and Apple), using Glass leads to similar exposures as using an iPhone. On the other hand, these are exposures in a different set of frequencies, that are higher energy than those from an iPhone. What difference that makes is not known, but I will say that the currently known science demonstrates different sets of bioeffects resulting from exposures to different technologies that radiate different frequencies of EMF (e.g., power lines, FM radio, radar, television, microwave ovens, cell phones, etc).

What is the Relative Risk of Using Technology like Google Glass compared to an iPhone?

So, let’s assume that Google’s SAR value is accurate as an indicator of risk relative to other phones, and, for the purposes of this discussion, WiFi and Bluetooth radiation present no different risks than those from cell phone radiation.

There are still some fundamental and inescapable differences between Glass and an iPhone.

First, you can use tethered headsets with cell phones, to keep the cell phone (and thus the source of the radiation) much further away from the head. With Glass, no such mitigating step is possible, because the device is strapped to your head. There is no way to use Glass without strapping it to your head.

Second, not only is Glass attached to your head, the computer itself is very close to your temple and eye. These are two of the spots on the head most vulnerable to damage from EMF, because there is no bone to shield from the exposure. The eye, itself, is unshielded by anything. I never see anyone holding their iPhone up to their temple or eyeball. Glass enables a more direct exposure to the more vulnerable parts of the head.

And third, not only is the EMF exposure from Glass in a more vulnerable location, but Glass is there a lot. The form factor and supported use-cases of Glass encourage you to keep the darn thing on for hours at a time. Since there is no airplane mode (or other means to disable wireless communication) that means users are receiving continuously variable doses of microwave radiation, to their brains and eyes, for hours at a time. (In my tests, even when Glass is “idle” from the user’s perspective, there are frequent periods of significant EMF emissions, as the device syncs data wirelessly.) This means that the average duration of individual doses from Glass will be longer than for cell phones, and the cumulative exposures will accumulate more rapidly (i.e., you will reach 2,000 hours on Glass more rapidly than 2,000 hours on a cell phone).

Finally, it is important to note that EMF exposures from Glass are generally additive to those from cell phones. Virtually everyone who uses Glass has and uses a cell phone. In fact, much of Glass’ functionality only works when paired with a nearby cell phone. And so, Glass exposures are in addition to what wearers are already receiving from their phones. (As the Hardell data indicates, EMF exposures are cumulative.)

For these reasons, I believe that Glass represents a tangible risk to the health of those who wear it — a risk quite likely greater than (and in addition to) that represented by those individuals’ existing cell phone usage.

But, to be clear, the actual risks of technology like Glass can not today be accurately known. To my knowledge, there have been no long-term studies on the different bioeffects that may result from holding a WiFi transmitter against your brain and eyeball, for hours at a time, on an almost daily basis.

And that’s precisely the point: Glass represents a completely different set of exposures than what’s been studied thus far. As you see from the Hardell study, you need many years of data for the results to be meaningful. So it’ll be awhile before anyone can tell you what the risks are that can result from using Glass, and other similar wearable technologies. All you can do is make best guesses based on the available data.

Google is selling a product that is untested as to the long-term human health effects.

Caveat emptor.

R Blank is an entrepreneur, technologist and author who has specialized in the creation of outstanding digital experiences on connected devices for over twenty years, for a wide array of blue chip clients including Apple, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Tiffany’s, IKEA, Mattel, Toyota, Microsoft, Viacom, Reebok, Honda, as well as premier agencies including Chiat/Day and McCann-Erickson.

Currently, R serves as Director at VideoRx, a software development firm focused on creating enterprise-grade solutions for video encoding, hosting and delivery for large-scale clients including Nike, Walt Disney Pictures and lynda.com.

He is also the Lead Product Designer at EM Shield, which creates products designed to reduce human exposures to genotoxic radiation from cell phones and laptops.


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