Update: Cell Phones can cause Cancer

There’s a suppressed science correlating cell phone use with cancer risk.  It is suppressed because the health risks pose a basic threat to the business model of the booming cell phone industry, with looming regulation and a devastating spate of future law suits.  In defense of the scientific community, I hasten to add that there was no reason to suspect in advance that radio waves would have any biological effects whatever, based on well-established and conventional notions of how biochemistry works.  But the epidemiological evidence has been compelling for several years now, and it’s past time for the community to turn around.

(Unlike x-rays and nuclear power, cell phone radiation is not “ionizing radiation”, and cannot break chromosomes or cause mutations.  The mechanism by which it interacts with biological processes remains wholly unknown.)

Last week, data from a major study were released confirming our worst fears.  This was based on rats, not humans, so all the provisos about indirect evidence and correlation vs causation don’t apply.  Rats live just two years, so the exposure time was short compared to humans.

They chronically exposed rodents to carefully calibrated radio-frequency (RF) radiation levels designed to roughly emulate what humans with heavy cell phone use or exposure could theoretically experience in their daily lives. The animals were placed in specially built chambers that dosed their whole bodies with varying amounts and types of this radiation for approximately nine hours per day throughout their two-year life spans.

Despite the short duration of the experiment and despite the fact that there were only 90 rats in each group, cases of rare cancers were reported in the test rats, but none in the controls.

An interesting twist in the results is that there is a hint that rats exposed to cell phone radiation lived longer.  There is precedent for this in many kinds of hormetic experiments.  For example, intermittent, low levels of ionizing radiation cause an elevated cancer incidence, but for those that don’t get cancer, there is a small tendency for increased life span.

Is this a big cause for concern, or a tempest in a teapot?

Quantifying the risks for humans remains very uncertain.  For humans, there are no precise measures of exposure, and for rats, we don’ know how to translate the results to human terms.  This kind of uncertainty combined with huge economic stakes leads inevitably to strong language and exaggerated claims on both sides.

For me as a consumer, this has been a subject about which I’m happy to hide my head in the sand.  When I’ve been forced to think about it, I’ve concluded that cautionary measures are warranted, but I’ve been slow to follow through.  Another big topic which I don’t want to think about is the speculative effect of cell radiation on neural activity–thought in the present moment.  Does cell phone radiation affect concentration?  Productivity?  Headaches?  My best guess is that there are some people for whom these effects are a palpable reality.

…so let me take this opportunity to make a public commitment to do at least the easiest things in precaution.  We can take advantage of the fact that all radiation falls off steeply with distance from the source.  A huge transmitter on a tower half a mile from your home yields much lower radiation levels than a single cell phone transmitter that is half an inch from your brain.

  • Always use cell phone with headphones or on speaker phone, well away from the head.
  • Get the wifi hubs in your home and office off your desk, and keep them on the opposite side of the room from your workspace.
  • Install wired connection for your laptop so the computer that is closest to you doesn’t need wifi for your daily usage.

This much is easy, and it is a minimum.  I don’t for a moment mean to imply that it is irrational to do much more to safeguard our bodies and our families from microwave radiation.

Scientific Mystery

I’ve already said that there are powerful theoretical reasons to believe that low-level radio waves should have no biological effects.  We now know that there’s something amiss in those powerful theories.  For more than a century it has been a foundational assumption of biology that living cells are no more than very complicated chemical reactors, and that the fundamental mechanisms of biochemistry are one with the fundamental mechanisms of inorganic chemistry.  I daresay we now know this not to be true.  Life is playing some special tricks that non-living bags of chemicals don’t play.  It would be overreaching to go back to the 19th Century notion of vitalism; my bets are on quantum processes at the single-molecule level.  I learned just last month that visionary biophysicist Stuart Kaufmann has been writing about this subject.  I predict that Quantum Biology is the next revolution.

14 thoughts on “Update: Cell Phones can cause Cancer

  1. The cited report falls into the category of bad science feeding popular misconceptions. The results are unbelievable and the headline is unforgivably misleading, given the reported drastic rise in rare cancers, the lack of effects on females, the ridiculously high level of exposure (unclear, but limited to 1 degree C of body temperature – which never happens to people using cell phones), the citation of heart problems from frequencies governed by the skin effect, and the reported increase in average lifespan for the irradiated mice. If published at all, the headline should have read: Dubious Data Says Cell Phones Increase Rat Lifespans

  2. Instead of saying something meaningless like, “this is suppressed science”, please read download and critique the paper for its science, methodology, study design and conclusions. I will do that after I have read it. But here is a question reading the study may answer. How do the researchers control for 1.5 W per kg exposure in a human versus a model rodent when the wave length is constant. It is clear that a far larger percentage of the body will be heated as the body approaches wavelength size. And no effects on females? Why? And can we conclude that the RF exposure in results in a longer life as it does in rats? In a few days I will have studied the preprint. http://biorxiv.org/content/biorxiv/early/2016/05/26/055699.full.pdf

    • This is a rare cancer, unknown in rats. With microwaves, a few rats out of 90 contract the disease within just 2 years. Without microwaves, none at all.

      It seems to me that the small numbers are such that the difference between M and F rats could just be statistical noise. But it may turn out to be another piece of biology we don’t know about yet.

      I won’t critique the methodology, in part because this is a preliminary report and it’s not completely described, and in part because this study just adds weight and credibility to many studies that have gone before it.

      It’s true, we have no idea how to scale the findings for high doses to rodents for 2 years to apply to low doses to humans for 40 years.

      What I mean to be saying is that this is a subject crying out for more study, so that we can have a quantitative idea of the risk. But there is a well-funded denialist movement that says “don’t study it – there’s nothing there.”

  3. Biological signaling is not only chemical but electrical (think neural impulses). And it’s basic physics that electromagnetic fields move electrons and displace electric currents; complete ionization not necessarily required. And this is just classical physics … quantum physics not necessarily required either.

  4. Got your book from Audible yesterday, so I’m very new to your blog. Since I’m mostly familiar with the damge accumulation theory of aging, it’s refreshing to hear about the other viewpoints too. This post and the discussion following it however makes me raise my eyebrown a little.

    How do you conclude that F not getting cancer is noise but M getting a rare one is the true result? I agree that hormensis is a plausible explanation behind longer lifespan of the study group of rats, but after only this one study I find it hardly more plausible than just statistical noise.

    I also agree that it’s better to try to replicate the study than ignore it, but I find the proposed link between non-ionizing radiation and cancer unlikely. For me the strongest evidence against it is the lack of increase in cancer incidence after 1990’s (http://seer.cancer.gov/).

    • Thanks for connecting, Jussi. I don’t see this issue as related to programmed aging in any way. I agree there’s a lot of uncertainty about the subject, the more so since we have no fundamental understanding of a mechanism. But I see enough evidence to warrant caution. And I suspect that research in this area is being suppressed by the telecomm giants.
      – Josh

  5. Hi Josh,
    Is there reason to think wi-fi waves would affect humans the same way as cellular waves? Are they both included when you say radio waves? Do you have any information on efficacy of the plethora of devices being sold to supposedly block electromagnetic waves from cell phones and laptops?

    • Yes, wifi and cell phones operate in similar frequency domains. The most practical way to avoid the most intense radio waves is to keep your distance from the source. I’m guessing that blocking radio waves is impractical, but I’m not familiar with the devices that claim to do it.

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