Cell phones, Electromagnetic Radiation and cancer

By John Nixon 01/11/2010 11

Oh my gosh! What a flurry of comments after my last post. Some clearly medically-trained people took me to task for suggesting that there MAY be a link between EMR and cancer.

Then quite by chance, I opened my new issue (October 2010) of the Scientific American magazine, and read on page 77 an article entitled “Can you hear me now? Physics shows that cell phones cannot cause cancer”.

So I thought “hey that’s nice to know, you have to believe Scientific American, so I won’t worry about that any more”….

Ah, but wait , there’s more!

At the end of the printed article it says “Comment on this article: www.scientificamerican.com/oct2010”

So, curious about what comments might have been made, I went and had a look.

Please, please, if you are interested in this subject, go visit http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=can-you-hear-me-now, and scroll down to read the reader comments.

The article is torn apart, the author is rubbished. Scientific American is lambasted for not vetting the stuff it publishes.

So again in my mind, the jury is still out. Science (and medecine) give just a snapshot of what we know right now. There is still so much we don’t know.

But to revert to the original theme, fibre optics data networks radiate nothing except from the tiny extremity of the fibre! And this is contained entirely within the network.

Even if you were silly enough to unplug a fibre cable and point it at your eye, it would not do damage.

International standards limit power levels in consumer FTTH applications to well below the threshold of human physical damage.

But I wouldn’t recommend that you give it a try… because we really aren’t sure, are we?

11 Responses to “Cell phones, Electromagnetic Radiation and cancer”

  • OK, I’ll bite :)

    No, I’m not ‘medically trained’ – but I am a scientist and I do tend to read things with a critical eye. And the first thing I note about the responses to Shermer’s article (which could certainly have been better titled; scientists are usually very careful not to say they are 100% sure about something) is that by-&-large they’re anonymous. I’d tend to give them more weight if they were obviously written by someone with qualifications in the relevant field. (This isn’t to say that they aren’t; we just can’t tell.) And no, Shermer’s not a physicist or medical researcher – but then, his column’s headed ‘Skeptic’ :)

    In addition, various commenters:
    * refer to work that’s not accessible because it’s published (eg) in Russian, so statements about what these studies may have shown are hard to check;
    * make sweeping statements without referring to particular papers to support them. A Google Scholar search using ‘cell phone’ & ‘DNA breakage’ turns up only 1-2 papers that appear to be immediately relevant. One on the possible relationship between sperm quality & cell phone use doesn’t offer a plausible mechanism & in any case looks only at men attending an infertility clinic, with no control group – in other words, a poorly-conducted study. More papers show up on PubMed but these are almost entirely the results of in vitro studies – interesting, but not conclusive evidence of what may or may not happen in vivo;
    * bring so-called ‘electromagnetic sensitivity’ into the mix – the examples provided by one commenter make me wonder about the power of auto-suggestion as much about the reality of this supposed syndrome. This commenter states that the World Health Organisation ‘recognises’ electromagnetic hypersensitivity syndrome. However, the WHO itselt also says this: EHS has no clear diagnostic criteria and there is no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to EMF exposure. Further, EHS is not a medical diagnosis [my emphasis], nor is it clear that it represents a single medical problem.http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs296/en/index.html;
    * suggest that Shermer’s misrepresented the study on which his article is based – yet I’ve gone to that article & he has stated its conclusions quite clearly.

    So – Shermer’s article may be overblown (& poorly titled). But many of the comments are the same, & offer no better science in support of their claims. (If readers are interested in the ‘electromagnetic hypersensitivity’ thing, Ben Goldacre has had a critical look at this over on badscience.net.)

  • I’d be wary about getting my scientific information from the comments of any website. By this logic the science behind evolution and vaccination is also on shaky ground.

    Here’s one:
    “The author talks about photons, as if most people used their mobile phones primarily as flashlights. Why is that?”

    He sounds knowledgeable.

  • I’ll admit, I commented on the previous post. I’m primarily a scientist with training in the medical field but my comments were not from a medical viewpoint.

    As a species, we’ve been using radio frequency electromagnetic radiation for longer than any of us individuals have been alive. (Anybody – during which century did we start using radio?)

    There has been plenty of time since then to measure any increase in cancer due to radio frequency EMR. Clusters would have been found around radio transmitters over a century ago and investigated. Low frequency EMR from power lines would show clustering around them since we started using electricity, but it doesn’t. There’s been no clustering of cancers around TV transmitters or around radar stations since they started up in the late 1930s. If there is a link between radio frequency EMR and cancer it is simply too small to have been detected despite hundreds of millions of people being exposed to it.

    The individual quanta of EMR (call them photons if you wish) have to possess enough energy to disrupt the atomic bonds within the DNA molecule in order to potentially cause cancer. Quanta of radio frequency EMR, like those from cellphones, simply don’t have enough energy to damage DNA, although enough of them delivered together can cook you.

    Ionizing EMR, such as x-rays and gamma rays, does have the energy to disrupt the atomic bonds of DNA and so does cause cancer. Marie Curie was probably the first well known documented case and there have been many, many others since.

    For sure, the ultimate answer is that science cannot prove there isn’t a risk of cancer from radio frequency EMR, just as I can’t prove right now that I won’t be hit by a meteorite in the future.

    All science can say is that there is no known mechanism for radio frequency EMR, including that from cellphones, to cause cancer. An addition is that in more than a century of searching for a connection between radio frequency EMR and cancer, no relationship has been found.

    I still agree with you that fibre-optics are the way to go for data networks. Just on that principle I don’t use my cellphone for net access but prefer to use landlines. I’m looking forward to getting fibre both at home and at work.

  • Short comment, along the lines of putting money where my mouth is:

    My teenage son has brain cancer. I have no problem with him using a cellphone; he actually has two. He is also the main user of wi-fi in our home network. Again, I have no problems with that.

  • Oh Stuart – this must be really hard for you & your family – best wishes to all of you.

  • I can flesh out some of Shermer’s arguments…

    Every second of every day, we are kept warm by sources of electromagnetic radiation no more than a few metres away and emitting in excess of 100 kW at frequencies near 30 THz (say, 1000 times the frequency of a typical rf source) – we would rapidly freeze to death without it. This is the infra-red radiation emitted by every object at temperatures above absolute zero. The photon energies and flux densities of this radiation are far higher than anything produced by small radio devices.

    Photon energies
    Electromagnetic radiation is absorbed one photon at a time. To do damage to a molecule, such as DNA, or a protein, the energy must be sufficient to break chemical bonds. UV radiation is well-known to be dangerous in this respect. The photons in visible light have about half the energy of typical UV photons, and have barely enough energy to cause very slow bleaching of some pigments – especially reds which absorb radiation at the high energy (blue) end of the visible spectrum. As noted by Shermer, the energy of visible radiation is sufficient to cause structural changes (folds) in the molecules that make up the sensing pigments in our eyes. The energies for most radio frequency photons are 10,000 to 1,000,000 times smaller than those of visible light;.

    Flux levels
    You might think that it has to do with power levels. Cell phones emit about 1-5 mW of electromagnetic radiation, that might be absorbed over areas of the order of 1 sq cm to 100 sq cm i.e., flux levels of 0.1 to 10 watts per sq m. Bright daylight is more than 500 watts per sq m, about 500,000 times greater. The infrared radiation from objects at room temperature (made visible by thermal imaging systems) is also about 500 watts per sq. m centred on frequencies about 30 THz. This flux density occurs not just at the surface of an object but throughout its volume. All objects near room temperatures both absorb and emit this amount of radiation so there is no net change in temperature. Stand outside on a frosty night and you’ll rapidly feel the effects of the radiation that is emitted by your body and lost to a cold sky.

    Photon Numbers and Kinetic effects
    You might think that it has to do with the numbers of photons. With 1 mW of 1 GHz microwave radiation absorbed in our brains, say, about 1 in 10,000 of the atoms in our brains are hit each second – approximately one impact per atom every 3 hours. The average kinetic energy of every atom in our bodies is more than 50,000 times the energies of radio frequency photons and is exchanged continuously through intermolecular collisions and molecular vibrations many billions of times every second – it’s barely enough to trigger the chemical reactions occurring as part of our metabolism. When microwaves are absorbed the energy is very rapidly dispersed via the inter-atomic collisions as heat. It takes a fairly sizeable microwave transmitter in close proximity to cause appreciable heating – a microwave oven in fact.

    The novelty of EM radiation
    It’s often claimed that we have been living with electromagnetic radiation for a few decades. Bollocks! Almost everything happening in the environment around us happens though the exchange of photons; the only exceptions are gravitational effects and radioactivity. As Bill Bryson noted, you just need to turn the TV onto a blank channel to be able to watch a snowy picture caused in part by electromagnetic radiation emitted at the time of the big bang.

    It seems that the likelihood of typical personal rf devices causing cancer is indistinguishable from zero, and that the main effect of rf sources is to cause heating. By any measure, the EM radiation from a light bulb or a candle on a birthday cake is far more dangerous than a cell phone or a cell phone tower.

  • Thanks rodw. My brain tends to think in English and doesn’t remember the actual physics, so thanks for the elaboration.

    Alison, thanks. My son knows he was random chance and there’s nothing and no-one to blame. He’s accepted it happened to him and just gets on with life. Currently >95% probability of cure, he’s back to being a normal teenager, normal interests and sporting activities, and off to Waikato University next year.

  • Stuart, that’s good to hear. And Waikato – if he’s in the sciences I will probably see him at some point :)

  • Alison, he’s definitely a scientist, but aiming for social sciences.

    He did the literature search himself, at 15, to see if cellphones were the cause of or contributory to his cancer, satisfied himself that they weren’t. He then went on to see if sCAM could help him in addition to the treatment he was already having. He had a huge laugh at his findings – he couldn’t believe any adults could be so credulous:)

    Before his research I was neutral about RF EMR, cellphones and sCAM simply because I hadn’t done any reading myself and knew none of the evidence. Since then I’ve gone through the literature myself and I agree with him totally.

    John, sorry, wandering off topic a little.

  • Thanks for all your comments, I certainly read them all with interest.

    With respect I think we will close off comments on this subject now.

    Kind thoughts and wishes for your son’s success Stuart,

    John Nixon

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