Last week, several media outlets including Forbes.com ran with an alarming-if-true story that equated the low frequency radiation emitted by Wi-Fi equipment and cell phones with lead, chloroform, gasoline fumes, and the pesticide DDT.
The Forbes story and a similar one in Salon cited a new review paper in an obscure Saudi Arabian journal about microscopy. The paper was a collection of previous studies that the authors claimed added up to a case that the radio frequency (RF) waves emitted by the Wi Fi devices and cell phones posed a cancer risk to children:
From an analysis of others studies, the authors argue that children and adolescents are at considerable risk from devices that radiate microwaves (and that adults are at a lower, but still significant, risk).
By the end of the story, readers might be misled into thinking that the scientific community or bodies such as the American Cancer Society are raising concerns about wireless devices. They aren’t. The same small group of researchers keeps trying to claim there’s a danger and the wider scientific community continues to consider it a fringe idea. The new paper doesn’t appear to have changed anything.
“This is not what I would call an academic paper,” said Otis Brawley, chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society. One problem, he said, was that the authors cherry picked the few studies that showed a possible effect and ignored a number of others that failed to find any connection between cell phones, Wi-Fi and cancer. If one of his students turned this in as a research paper, he said, he would fail it.
There was only one part of the new paper that surprised scientists familiar with the issue: An alleged connection between breast cancer and carrying a cell phone in your bra. Some scientists were unaware that anyone would ever carry a cell phone in a bra.
The Forbes version of the story made much of the fact that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IRIC), part of the World Health Organization (WHO), classified RF radiation as a “class 2B”, or possible carcinogens. What the story doesn’t say is that same category includes pickled vegetables (some epidemiological studies link them to stomach cancer), Styrofoam cups, and coffee.
Instead, substances such as lead are mentioned, though its big drawback is that it’s poisonous and can cause brain damage. If your child is exposed to lead, cancer is not your biggest worry.
Still, why not play it safe and limit RF exposure until we know more? That’s the precautionary principle, which has logic to it and is behind the legal obligation to test new drugs or food additives for safety before they are unleashed on the public. Absence of evidence for harm is not evidence of safety.
But with RF radiation, there’s already evidence that it’s an extremely unlikely carcinogen. For one thing, there’s no plausible mechanism by which cell phones or Wi-Fi devices could cause cancer, said Leonard Finegold, a physics professor at Drexel University.
It’s not just that we don’t know exactly how RF waves would cause cancer. It’s that there’s no plausible way for it to happen without rewriting the laws of physics and biology. It’s by the same reasoning that most scientists dismiss homeopathic medicine – at least the genuine kind that’s so dilute there’s nothing in it.
The type of radiation emitted by wireless devices is part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which includes infrared radiation, visible light, UV and x-rays. Electromagnetic radiation can be thought of as waves or as photons of different energies – the shorter-wavelength end of the spectrum carrying more energy per photon.
Only the gamma ray, X-ray and UV photons carry enough energy to damage DNA and cause mutations. That is the known mechanism by which radiation increases cancer risk. Cell phones and other wireless devices emit radiation that lacks the energy to alter DNA. So for the threat to be real, RF energy would have to cause cancer via some exotic mechanism, or the laws of physics are wrong at some fundamental level. If they were that wrong, said Finegold, our cell phones wouldn’t work.
There was a case in which RF waves caused harm, he said. In the early days of radar, exposed workers developed an unusual number of cataracts. That was tied to heat imparted by the RF waves – heat that some parts of the eye can’t dissipate. Heating, however, is not a known mechanism for causing cancer.
Cell phone radiation is more powerful than that emitted by Wi-Fi devices and the predominant concern is brain cancer, since people tend to hold cell phones against their heads. If cell phones caused brain cancer, the scientists say, we should already be seeing an increase in overall cases. We don’t.
The story also claimed that the government has issued warnings about our devices. But the CDC and FDA offer no such warnings and FDA even reassures people on its website:
‘The weight of scientific evidence has not linked cell phones with any health
problems….Over the past 15 years, scientists have conducted hundreds of studies looking at the biological effects of the radiofrequency energy emitted by cell phones. While some researchers have reported biological changes associated with RF energy, these studies have failed to be replicated. The majority of studies published have failed to show an association between exposure to radiofrequency from a cell phone and health problems.
Is there any harm in these kinds of health scares? Yes, said the cancer society’s Brawley, who spoke via cell phone. The problem is that it distracts from more important cancer risks such as smoking. And now an emerging long-term risk factor for kids is having parents who refuse to get them vaccinated against the class of viruses known as HPVs. These are implicated in most cases of cervical cancer as well as some head and neck cancers.
Despite overwhelming evidence linking these viruses to cancer, and evidence that the vaccines work if given before people become sexually active, only 34 percent of eligible kids get vaccinated, said Brawley. “If you overload people with health messages that don’t matter,” he said, “it dilutes reception of health messages that do matter.”