Andy is a friend and internationally recognized expert on all things radiation. He’s the former in-house radiation/nuclear expert for NYPD’s Counter-terrorism unit and travels all over the world giving lectures on all things radiation and nuclear. I will include his impressive bio at the end of this piece, as well as a link to his website.
As some of you know, this is a controversial topic. I link to cautionary articles on my site, namely under ZENBands, and interviewed the Chief of Ob/Gyn at Yale who conducted a controlled experiment on pregnant mice and cell phone exposure, the results of which encouraged him to advise his pregnant patients to keep the cell phone away from their abdomens. What do I do? I don’t use Bluetooth and I recommend minimizing cell phone use and putting it on Airplane mode as much as possible. At night, I keep it out of my bedroom and turn it off. While this isn’t ionizing radiation, the “heat” generated from EMF-emitting devices “could” be one possible mechanism for cellular damage. I don’t know. I don’t think the “EMF protection” products work and believe they are a scam. Andy probably doesn’t agree with that, and the reason I’m posting his thoughtful piece is because it’s important to hear all sides of an issue and arm yourself with as much information as possible, so you can make an informed choice. That’s really what wellness/healthcare should be: Minimizing bias, including personal biases, as much as possible and being open to all information, not just the info. that supports your side, so you can make the best choices for you. That said, here is Andy’s guest piece:
There’s been a lot of concern about “radiation” from cell phones, electrical lines, wireless networks, and the like. Many millions of dollars have been spent on products designed to mitigate these perceived dangers, and people have gone to some fairly significant extremes to try to reduce their risks – conflating the risks from electromagnetic radiation with those from nuclear radiation. The thing is, to a physicist, “radiation” is pretty much a catch-all term – it refers simply to energy given off by an object and transmitted through space. In the case of nuclear radiation (technically called “ionizing radiation because it can strip electrons from atoms, creating ions), the radiation can harm our cells, causing genetic damage that might one day lead to cancer. But it takes a threshold amount of energy to cause ionization – radiofrequency radiation (what cell phones, wireless networks, radars, and microwave ovens emit) lacks the energy to cause this sort of damage. So there is no known mechanism for this sort of non-ionizing radiation to cause cancer. OK – so with that as a bit of an overview, let’s look at a couple of specific areas where this question has arisen:
Several years ago, my father was trying to sell his house. I got a phone call out of the blue; it was my Dad telling me that he had just lost a sale because the buyers saw some high-voltage power lines about 200 meters from his home. The buyers were worried about stories they’d read in the newspaper about getting cancer from electromagnetic fields. These buyers had already backed out of the deal, but Dad wanted to know what he could tell other potential buyers.
I dug into the literature and couldn’t really find anything definitive in the medical literature – every paper that seemed to show an effect in one direction was matched by another paper showing no effect at all. There just didn’t seem to be anything significant, so I tried to approach the problem from another angle. So let’s go back to the overall cancer rates for a moment….
The age-adjusted cancer rates in the US have been dropping steadily for the last century. Overall cancer numbers have been rising, but this is mostly due to an aging population – as a population ages, we expect to see more cancers. When we account for this, we find that each age segment of the population is less likely to die of cancer than they were a century ago, and that the non-smoking cancer rates have been dropping steadily for that whole time.
So what has changed in the last century? A century ago, electricity was limited to small parts of the major cities in the US. There were no electric razors, no electric kitchen utensils, no wiring inside of our walls, no power lines outside our homes, no power generation stations outside every city. Homes were lit by gaslight, sunlight, whale oil, and the like. Things are a little different now and, in the US, only the Amish (a purposely low-technology society) and the extremely isolated go without electricity. Even the poor have television sets and electric lights – virtually everyone in the US is exposed to electromagnetic fields on a regular basis. What this tells me is that electromagnetic fields probably don’t cause cancer – if they did, we should have seen cancer rates increasing along with the increase in electric power consumption. The fact that our exposure to electromagnetic fields has increased dramatically over the past century without a corresponding rise in age-adjusted cancer rates suggests to me that electromagnetic fields are not likely to cause cancer. There is more, of course, and the book Voodoo Science (written by Robert Park in 2001) discusses some of the science behind electromagnetic fields and cancer from a more formal perspective – it’s a good read and worth reading if you’re interested in this topic.
This logic is not airtight, of course. For example, I don’t know that I would want to use only this line of thinking to draw any conclusions about radar guns because concentrated radiofrequency radiation can cause heating (that’s what happens in a microwave oven). But for something as pervasive as electromagnetic fields, or mobile phones it seems a reasonable first approximation.
Recent study on cell phones by CDC
There has been some press in the last month about a study that claims to show that call phone emissions can cause cancers of the heart and brain. This sounds worrying – but it also has to be taken with a boulder-sized grain of salt. All that this study really shows is that laboratory rats that were exposed to unrealistically high levels of radiofrequency radiation from cell phones had noticeable increases in two types of cancer. But there is no indication that these results will stand up to further scientific scrutiny, or that they are at all applicable to humans. In fact, even fellow scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had their doubts about this study and its conclusions. What’s really interesting about this preprint is the 40–50 pages of reviewers’ comments that follow it – they’re worth reading since they were written by skilled scientists who were asked to review and comment on the work. In particular:
• More than one of the reviewers point out that the study has low statistical power, giving a relatively high possibility of false positive results.
• It was also noted that nothing showed up at lower levels of exposure – only at the highest – and at exposure times that correlate to 9–18 hours of cell phone use per day.
• At least one reviewer stated that they were unable to accept the authors’ conclusions.
• One reviewer concluded that, in their opinion, neither tumor appeared to have “Clear Evidence” of being caused by cell phone radiation (one was assessed as showing “Some Evidence” and the other as showing “Equivocal Evidence”).
• And then, of course, there’s the whole thing about rats not being humans (pointed out by yet another reviewer).
I could go on – but you get the picture. As the title states – this was a preliminary study. It involved subjecting rats to high levels of radio waves for prolonged periods of time. It also proposes no mechanism by which non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation might cause genetic changes that could lead to a cancer. The correlation between this study and actual cell phone use by humans is far from proven.
So – do mobile phones and electromagnetic fields cause cancer? I sincerely doubt it. But, if they do, it’s a very small risk – and I’m not going to worry about it.
With all of the above, you can probably guess my stance on the various products designed to “protect” you from the ill effects of electromagnetic radiation. I’ve seen underwear, belly bands, gizmos to clip or stick to your phone, and all sorts of other wacky stuff. Each one carefully explains the “dangers” of cell phone or wireless or electromagnetic radiation (usually getting the science pretty wrong), and then each one goes into a technical-sounding explanation as to how their product is going to “protect” you. The thing is – I’m a scientist, and I can’t make heads or tails of most of these explanations. They make about as much sense as Star Trek technobabble, and they should be given about as much credence. If you want to spend money making yourself safer, don’t buy that stuff – spend it on a health club membership (and actually make use of it!) or on buying healthier food. You know – things with proven benefits.
Something else to keep in mind, of course is that, even if these items are very weakly carcinogenic, do we really want to do without them? Without high-voltage power lines, I would be sitting in the dark right now, or working by candle light. Our esteemed Dr. Eeks would receive a handwritten manuscript in her mailbox, perhaps a few weeks or months from now, with a corresponding impact on her eyesight and sanity. My mobile phone lets me ask my wife what sort of rice she wants me to pick up, or to call for help if I have automobile problems on the road. Even if I were to find that these items were weakly carcinogenic, I would be inclined to accept their benefits rather than to do without them – I am willing to accept a minor risk in return for electric lights, computers, modern communications, and everything else we gain from these advances.
And, ultimately, this is what we all have to do – to decide for ourselves if the benefits of any technology are worth the risks (or suspected risks). We do this when we drive, when we eat fast foods, and when we have a drink or two. In other words, risk-benefit is something we can do consciously, and it’s also something we do without thinking about it.
Andrew Karam, Ph.D., CHP is a nationally and internationally respected board-certified radiation safety professional with particular expertise in issues related to radiological terrorism, the safe use of radioactive materials, and practical aspects of managing radioactive materials programs. He is the author of over 20 peer-reviewed papers, three book chapters, and over 200 non-peer-reviewed technical presentations and publications. Other experience includes military radiation safety, radiation safety program management, and occasional work as a consultant to the International Atomic Energy Agency. You can learn more about his work and consulting endeavors on his website.