Detailed guides to painful problems, treatments & more

Cancer risks from gadget radiation are super low to nil

 •  • by Paul Ingraham
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Weekly nuggets of pain science news and insight, usually 100-300 words, with the occasional longer post. The blog is the “director’s commentary” on the core content of PainScience.com: a library of major articles and books about common painful problems and popular treatments. See the blog archives or updates for the whole site.

Can you catch cancer from your wireless gadgets? Bottom line: super unlikely. Showering is probably more likely to kill you. Driving definitely is.

This post was inspired by a discussion with a worried friend. She was anxious about the risks of a “powerful” new Wi-Fi router in her home. So I decided to dig a little further into this dark topic.

Only a little! This is not a comprehensive analysis; there are no citations to primary research, because I am well out of my lane here. But I did run it by an expert, Dr. Rob Tarzwell, a nuclear medicine specialist who has forgotten more about radiation than I will ever know, just to make sure I didn’t make any obvious mistakes. (And I got a hearty thumbs up.)

So this is a high-level position statement on this topic for PainScience.com. I don’t expect it to move anyone who is already convinced that gadget radiation is dangerous, but I sincerely hope that it can reassure some folks who don’t already have that strongly held opinion.

Does this cancer stuff have any relevance to pain?

Oh, hell yes — it’s not the focus here, but people who worry about the cancer risks of this kind of radiation also are prone to fear about electromagnetic sensitivity, an “energy allergy” that invariably includes pain as a symptom. So this topic is a useful addition to PainScience.com’s electromagnetic sensitivity page.

The phone fear

Many people are afraid that cell phones cause cancer, along with other ubiquitous wireless gadgets like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth headphones.

People had similar fears about power lines and light bulbs more than a century ago, for whatever that perspective is worth. Tech spooks people! Always has, probably always will. Nor is that even a particularly irrational fear; in the big picture, it makes sense to be cautious with things we don’t understand.

Vintage electrical equipment actually was rather hazardous! So although this is a fun comparison, with some relevance, it’s also a kind of bullshit.

Non-ionizing radiation is wimpy radiation

X-rays are a very high energy form of radiation: high enough to not just pass through tissue, but to leave a trail of broken molecules along their path.

That’s “ionizing” radiation, because it knocks electrons off of atoms, which ionizes them (turns them into ions, charged particles). And ions are kinda volatile in biology.

Modern consumer electronics produce extremely low-energy radiation only, even by the standards of non-ionizing radiation — which is already a weaker form of radiation by definition. It just doesn’t have the juice to knock the electrons off anything, so it has no atomic/chemical game — it cannot change anything in living tissue. And you cannot hurt what you cannot change.

The epidemiology of electronics radiation

Gadget usage is vastly more common than tumours, so a predictably high percentage of people who get brain cancers are also going to be, say, chronic Bluetooth headset users — and those inevitable statistical collisions are great nightmare fuel for people. The friend who asked me about this had just such anecdote.

But they mean nothing. If you know someone who was a hardcore headset wearer and died of brain cancer, that does not mean they were killed by their headset. It just doesn’t.

If our gadgets were actually causing brain tumours, there would have been a truly mighty wave of cancers over the last 10-20 years, and that simply has not happened. The epidemiological data shows no clear signal — and that is the main way that we know these devices cannot be very dangerous.

But didn’t 250 scientists sign a petition warning us about the dangers of EMF?

Yes, 250 foolish scientists did that — thanks a lot, foolish scientists! Not helping!

That many scientists signing a petition doesn’t mean much of anything in itself; it does not represent a scientific consensus. You can find 250 scientists who will sign a petition taking the contrary position on almost any controversial subject. There is a long, inglorious history of scientists signing petitions of highly variable value.

The science was not on the side of the scientists in this case.

Dr. Novella gets the last word on this

Dr. Steven Novella summarized the cell phone radiation issue expertly in 2010. That’s quite a while ago now, but very little has changed since then (and I know that Dr. Novella has kept up with the topic and would certainly acknowledge any troubling developments):

Cell phones are an increasingly common tool of modern society. It is certainly necessary and valid to carefully study their safety and monitor for possible adverse health outcomes from their regular use. I am reassured by the current evidence, however, that there is no large risk from cell phones. There is either no risk or a very small long term risk.

Consider, however, that you are probably at greater risk of premature death from using your cell phone while driving, or from driving at all. So as individuals we always need to balance a small risk against the convenience of new technology. The better data we have and the better we understand that data – the better we will be able to make informed decisions for ourselves.

New Data on Cell Phones and Cancer, 2010