The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘environment’

New York Post: Sloppy Journalism in Report of Cellphone-Cancer “Link”

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 26, 2009

In another media *facepalm* moment, the New York Post is reporting of a supposed “link” between cellphone use and cancer…

Study: Cell Phone Cancer Link

A groundbreaking, $30 million study into cell phones has found a link between long term use and brain tumors.

The World Health Organization is about to reveal that its decade-long investigation has found the devices can lead to cancer — and the internationally-respected body will soon issue a public health message with its findings, London’s Daily Telegraph reported today.

The conclusion goes against years of assurances by cell phone companies and scientists that cell phone use is safe.

But last month, Sen. Arlen Specter (D – Pa) organized Senate hearings to examine health implications of talking on-the-go.

CAN YOU KILL ME NOW? -- A groundbreaking, 10-year study will show that long-term cell phone use can lead to brain tumors.

elizabeth lippman/N.Y. Post
CAN YOU KILL ME NOW? — A groundbreaking, 10-year study will show that long-term cell phone use can lead to brain tumors.

The WHO’s Interphone investigation’s results showed, “a significantly increased risk” of some brain tumors “related to use of mobile phones for a period of ten years or more,” the Telegraph reported today.

The study’s head, Dr. Elisabeth Cardis, said, “In the absence of definitive results and in the light of a number of studies which, though limited, suggest a possible effect of radiofrequency radiation, precautions are important.”

The project carried out studies in 13 countries, talking to tumor sufferers as well as healthy cell phone users, It interviewed 12,800 people.

The results will be officially published before the end of the year, according to the Telegraph.

This is a perfect example of how some in the media misuse science to make headlines, while at the same time spreading misinformation.  Notice that the article is citing research which hasn’t even been published yet! So, if the research isn’t yet published for scrutiny, how in blazes do the morons at NY Post know what the research says?  I always thought that a good journalist was supposed to check their facts before reporting a story, not the other way around.  Apparently, the folks at the NY Post live in an alternate universe.

In addition, some other tidbits that pop up in this article:

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Posted in environmental hysteria, media woo, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Website Rates Best & Worst Cellphones… by Radiation Output

Posted by mattusmaximus on September 28, 2009

While cruising around the Internet I stumbled upon this website over at where they ask people to rate their cellphones – by the amount of (spooky word here) RADIATION output!

The irony here is the fact that a website which seems to advertise itself as tech-savvy would appear to embrace such a stupidly pseudoscientific concept as cellphone radiation being dangerous.  As has been outlined repeatedly in the scientific literature – as well as in my Electromagnetic Fields & Cancer Myths blog entry – there is NO danger from cellphone radiation… none!

As for the Engadget article, note the scale they show and the subsequent commentary…

You’re surely aware that your cellphone bleeds radiation into your face the whole time you’re on the phone with your mom, best friend or lover, right? Yes, it’s a fact we try not to think about most of the time, but now there’s a tool out there on the internets for the more reality-facing folks among us. The Environmental Working Group’s launched a website dedicated to rating cellphones on their radiation output alone. Ranking highly (meaning they put out the lowest levels of radiation) are the Motorola RAZR V8, and AT&T’s Samsung Impression. In fact, it seems that Samsung is cranking out the healthiest phones these days! Phones with poor showings includes T-Mobile’s myTouch 3G and the Blackberry Curve 8830. So hit the read link and tell us, how does your phone rate?

The scale leaves out one important fact… that all of these phones likely operate at the same frequencies of radiation.  The only thing this scale is studying is the intensity, which is entirely different!  For example, the frequency of a photon of electromagnetic energy is what determines how energetic (and therefore how dangerous in the context of causing cancer) the radiation is.  Low-frequency radiation like that from cellphones simply cannot cause cancer, as far as we know, because it is nonionizing radiation. The fact that these goofs at can’t even get this basic bit of physics right will ensure that they won’t be getting any of my business.

I don’t know about you, but I know how I’d rate this website for scientific validity.  I give it a rating of FAIL.

Posted in physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

FDA: Mercury Fillings Safe; Mercury Militia Goes Nuts

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 29, 2009

Good for the FDA!  🙂  After that last blog post it’s nice to see some good news.  Of course, this research simply affirms what we (you know, the folks who follow science as applied to medicine) have known all along.  But to the “mercury militia” or other purveyors of anti-science-based “medical” nonsense, it will do little to sway them.  I can’t wait to see the backlash from the alt-med woosters on this one…

Mercury in dental fillings not risky, officials say

The U.S. government declared Tuesday that silver dental fillings contain too little mercury to harm the millions of Americans who have had cavities filled with them — including young children — and that only people allergic to mercury need to avoid them.

It was something of an about-face for the Food and Drug Administration, which last year settled a lawsuit with anti-mercury activists by posting on its Web site a precaution saying questions remained about whether the small amount of mercury vapor the fillings can release were enough to harm the developing brains of fetuses or the very young.

On Tuesday, the FDA said its final scientific review ended that concern. Still, the agency did slightly strengthen how it regulates the fillings, urging dentists to provide their patients with a government-written statement detailing the mercury controversy and what science shows.

Waiting for the alt-med “Big Government, Big Pharmaconspiracy-mongering machine to start up in… 3… 2… 1…

Anti-mercury activists accused the agency of bowing to the dental industry and said they would go back to court to try to force a change.

“FDA broke its contract and broke its word that it would put warnings for children and unborn children,” said Charles Brown of Consumers for Dental Choice. “This contemptuous attitude toward children and the unborn will not go unanswered.”

Whoops, too late.  Yup, that’s right folks, the FDA is out to kill children!  Aaagghh!!!

Give me a break… reasoning with nutbags like this is like pulling teeth.

Posted in environmental hysteria, medical woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Electromagnetic Fields & Cancer Myths

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 2, 2009

Every year when I teach my students about electromagnetism, I take some time to discuss with them the physics of electromagnetic waves (a.k.a. “light”). EM-waves go by another name common to scientists, electromagnetic radiation, and it’s that second word – radiation – which scares the hell out of so many people and makes them vulnerable to all manner of woo.

Case in point, there is a lot of bunk out there concerning EM-radiation and cancer. Specifically, there is a group of folks who try to push the idea that cell phones, power lines, and wi-fi are emitting radiation (called EMFs, or electromagnetic fields) which will give people exposed to them all manner of cancers. I’m here to tell you that this is just plain b.s. – people who make these pseudoscientific arguments do not understand the physics of EMFs, at all.

First off, the physical mechanism which creates an electromagnetic wave (or “EM-radiation” or “light” or “EMFs” – they’re all the same thing) is basically wiggling an electric charge back and forth. This process generates a self-reinforcing set of electric & magnetic fields which form the wave, and the frequency of these waves (which matches the frequency at which the charge is wiggled) is what determines exactly what kind of EM-radiation is created. Depending upon the frequency of the wave, it will fall along what is called the electromagnetic spectrum…


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Posted in environmental hysteria, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments »

CFLs and Mercury Militia Hysteria

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 6, 2009

Yesterday I taught my students about the dissipation of energy in electrical circuits. As part of the lesson we calculated how much energy it takes to use a compact fluorescent lightbulb (CFL) in comparison to a standard incandescent bulb. CFLs are great: they provide the same amount of visible light for about 1/4 the energy input, they don’t produce much waste heat, and while they are a bit more expensive to buy they last about 10 times longer than incandescents. So replacing old incandescents with CFLs is a great way to save both money & energy, the latter of which helps to combat carbon emissions and global warming.


So, given all of these great benefits of using CFLs, you would think that everyone would be falling all over themselves promoting the technology, right? Sadly, the answer is no, and the following story illustrates why not.

Later in the day I was hanging around in my science office, talking with some of my colleagues. I brought up the subject of my lesson with a couple of them and how I was encouraging the kids to replace old bulbs with CFLs. One of my colleagues, a science teacher, went a little nuts and said she’d never put CFLs in her house. The reason why not: the mercury in CFLs… argh!

While mercury can be a toxic substance (if a lot is inhaled while in it’s vapor form), the levels of mercury found in CFLs is very small. According to the Energy Star program (a joint effort of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy)…

CFLs contain a very small amount of mercury sealed within the glass tubing – an average of 4 milligrams. By comparison, older thermometers contain about 500 milligrams of mercury – an amount equal to the mercury in 125 CFLs. Mercury is an essential part of CFLs; it allows the bulb to be an efficient light source. No mercury is released when the bulbs are intact (not broken) or in use.

Most makers of light bulbs have reduced mercury in their fluorescent lighting products. Thanks to technology advances and a commitment from members of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, the average mercury content in CFLs has dropped at least 20 percent in the past year. Some manufacturers have even made further reductions, dropping mercury content to 1.4 – 2.5 milligrams per light bulb.

So, the amount of mercury contained in these CFLs is extremely small, far smaller than what would be needed to harm a human. But if you happen to break one, what do you do? Well, it’s pretty easy to clean up a broken CFL, according to the EPA – it pretty much consists of ventilating the room for about 15 minutes and cleaning up the broken parts.

Why is it that some people, even supposedly well-educated folks with a background in science, get so damned freaked out by mercury? Well, many whackjobs in the environmental movement have been making pseudoscientific hay about mercury for many years – these folks are what I like to call the “Mercury Militia”. They glom onto mercury as the cause of all manner of nastiness, regardless of dosage levels & concentrations, including blaming mercury amalgam fillings for teeth for various health problems and insisting that some vaccines containing minute amounts of mercury cause childhood autism. And none of that nonsense is true!

And then, of course, another reason why some people get roped into the anti-mercury hysteria is because of bogus stories like this one from WorldNet Daily, which scares the hell out of people who might use CFLs in their house. Unfortunately, just because someone forwards a scary sounding “news” article to your email doesn’t mean it has any real validity. For example, has a great analysis & debunking of many claims made by the anti-mercury crowd in that WND article.

But the fear-mongering by some extreme nutjobs is worse than just spreading a lack of critical thinking, because it actually results in more mercury being released into the environment – that’s right, more mercury! According to this fact sheet from Energy Star…

EPA estimates the U.S. is responsible for the release of 104 metric tons of mercury emissions each year. Most of these emissions come from coal-fired electrical power. Mercury released into the air is the main way that mercury gets into water and bio-accumulates in fish. (Eating fish contaminated with mercury is the main way for humans to be exposed.)

Most mercury vapor inside fluorescent light bulbs becomes bound to the inside of the light bulb as it is used. EPA estimates that the rest of the mercury within a CFL – about 14 percent – is released into air or water when it is sent to a landfill, assuming the light bulb is broken. Therefore, if all 290 million CFLs sold in 2007 were sent to a landfill (versus recycled, as a worst case) – they would add 0.16 metric tons, or 0.16 percent, to U.S. mercury emissions caused by humans.

So, long story short, by not using CFLs we are actually pumping more mercury into the environment because using a less-efficient incandescent bulb wastes so much more energy that is mostly generated by coal-fired power plants in the United States. And those coal-fired plants spew way more mercury into the environment than all the CFLs on the planet could ever come close to doing!

Thus, the Mercury Militia and those whom they have frightened into buying their bogus b.s. are actually making the situation worse. It is not only costing people more money to use wasteful incandescents, but it is also contributing to higher mercury emissions!

The irony is so thick you could cut it with a knife.

Posted in environmental hysteria | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

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