- Is it true that if you rest your laptop on your lap, you could get cancer?
- Is that a laptop on your lap?
- Do mobile phones cause cancer?
- Cell Phones and Cancer Risk
- Why Scientists Think Wireless Technology Can Cause Cancer
- Can my computer or monitor cause cancer?
Is it true that if you rest your laptop on your lap, you could get cancer?
Current scientific evidence indicates there is no link between using a portable (laptop) computer and cancer. Most of the theories about laptops and cancer relate to heat, electromagnetic radiation, or radiation from wireless networks (WiFi). One theory is that men who use laptops on their laps could be at greater risk of testicular cancer because of the heat near the scrotum, which could damage cells. While some studies show heat (from various sources, not just laptops) can affect a man’s sperm and fertility, there is no research linking heat from laptops to cell damage or cancer. There have been cases of “toasted skin syndrome” (mottled skin condition caused by long-term heat exposure) in people who used laptops resting on their legs for long periods. Some claim that such damage could potentially lead to skin cancer, but there is no evidence to prove this. Computers, like many other electrical appliances, produce electric and magnetic fields, however most are in the extremely low frequency range. According to the World Health Organisation, the field strengths are far below international exposure limit guidelines and there is no scientific evidence of health effects from long-term, low-level exposure.
Is that a laptop on your lap?
Every so often, a news headline mentions the safety of routinely working with computers. Recently, the headline isn’t so much about the desktop computer we have at work and/or at home, it’s about the laptop computer and whether it’s safe to use during pregnancy. Fair question – just what do we know about this?
There is no radiation issue associated with using a laptop or any computer during your pregnancy. Since laptops do emit a fair amount of heat, though, not putting them on your abdomen is prudent, but using them on your lap (your thighs) is fine. Consumer protection laws were passed in the 1970’s by the Food and Drug Administration limiting the amounts and types of radiation emissions from these devices.
The term radiation is a broad term that covers a large number of wave energies (the electromagnetic spectrum) to which we may be exposed. On one end of the energy spectrum is ionizing radiation, i.e., x rays. On the other end is nonionizing radiation. Computers emit nonionizing radiation. We are exposed to this type of radiation from numerous sources—cell phones, electric blankets, microwaves, AM/FM radio, etc.
There is no measurable ionizing radiation (x rays) emitted from a computer monitor. The nonionizing radiation or electromagnetic radiation that may be emitted does not represent a reproductive risk either. There are many studies showing that birth defects or miscarriage is not associated with working at a computer.
Although radiation isn’t an issue, one should be aware of the possibility of eye strain, back problems, etc from sitting in front of the screen for long periods. Periodic breaks from the working on a computer are prudent whether you are pregnant or not.
The same is true of watching television during pregnancy – it will not cause harm to the baby as a result of radiation exposure. Televisions are constructed such that radiation exposure, if any, is kept at a minimum. At a distance of several feet from the tube, radiation cannot be measured.
Do mobile phones cause cancer?
We regularly review and evaluate newly published research into the causes of cancer in order to shape our health information. And there are key things we look out for to evaluate any new study.
What type of study is it?
Was the study looking at cells in a dish, animals or people? Studies in animals and cells can help scientists understand the basics of cancer but they cannot replicate how things will work in humans.
So, we focus more on studies in people as they can show with much more certainty how something affects the risk of developing cancer in humans. The best studies also account for other factors that could affect someone’s cancer risk, such as whether they smoke or drink.
How many people were in the study, and how long were they followed for? Studies involving only a handful of people aren’t likely to be as reliable, because results are more likely to happen by chance. And studies that only follow people for a short timeframe can miss any potential long-term effects. Therefore, we mainly look at studies that follow hundreds or usually thousands of people for a long time because they give results we can be surer of.
Who carried out the study and where is it published?
It’s important to see if a study was published in a scientific journal and was carried out by scientists that work for a university or known institute. This is because before researchers can publish their findings in a journal, other experts who were not involved in the study will check it is accurate.
How does the study fit in with previous evidence?
Some studies show conflicting results, but we evaluate any new study within the context of all the available research and give more weight to the most rigorous scientific studies.
How to spot fake news about cancer?
Sometimes news outlets can over-inflate stories about cancer, whether it’s a new treatment, or news on what could lower or increase your risk of developing the disease. You can use the same questions we discussed above to judge a study and news story yourself. For more tips on how to spot fake news visit our blog here.
Cell Phones and Cancer Risk
What has epidemiologic research shown about the association between cell phone use and cancer risk?
Researchers have carried out several types of epidemiologic studies in humans to investigate the possibility of a relationship between cell phone use and the risk of malignant (cancerous) brain tumors, such as gliomas, as well as benign (noncancerous) tumors, such as acoustic neuroma (tumors in the cells of the nerve responsible for hearing that are also known as vestibular schwannomas), meningiomas (usually benign tumors in the membranes that cover and protect the brain and spinal cord), and parotid gland tumors (tumors in the salivary glands) (3).
In one type of study, called a case–control study, cell phone use is compared between people with these types of tumors and people without them. In another type of study, called a cohort study, a large group of people who do not have cancer at study entry is followed over time and the rate of these tumors in people who did and didn’t use cell phones is compared. Cancer incidence data can also be analyzed over time to see if the rates of brain tumors changed in large populations during the time that cell phone use increased dramatically. These studies have not shown clear evidence of a relationship between cell phone use and cancer. However, researchers have reported some statistically significant associations for certain subgroups of people.
Three large epidemiologic studies have examined the possible association between cell phone use and cancer: Interphone, a case–control study; the Danish Study, a cohort study; and the Million Women Study, another cohort study.
How the study was done: This is the largest health-related case–control study of cell phone use and the risk of head and neck tumors. It was conducted by a consortium of researchers from 13 countries. The data came from questionnaires that were completed by study participants.
What the study showed: Most published analyses from this study have shown no statistically significant increases in brain or other central nervous system cancers related to higher amounts of cell phone use. One analysis showed a statistically significant, although modest, increase in the risk of glioma among the small proportion of study participants who spent the most total time on cell phone calls. However, the researchers considered this finding inconclusive because they felt that the amount of use reported by some respondents was unlikely and because the participants who reported lower levels of use appeared to have a slightly reduced risk of brain cancer compared with people who did not use cell phones regularly (4–6).
An analysis of data from all 13 countries participating in the Interphone study reported a statistically significant association between intracranial distribution of tumors within the brain and self-reported location of the phone (7). However, the authors of this study noted that it is not possible to draw firm conclusions about cause and effect based on their findings.
Additional analyses of data from Interphone countries
An analysis of data from five Northern European countries in the Interphone study showed an increased risk of acoustic neuroma only in those who had used a cell phone for 10 or more years (8).
In subsequent analyses of Interphone data, investigators addressed issues of risk according to specific location of the tumor and estimated exposures. One analysis of data from seven of the countries in the Interphone study found no relationship between brain tumor location and regions of the brain that were exposed to the highest level of radiofrequency radiation from cell phones (9). However, another study, using data from five of the countries, reported suggestions of an increased risk of glioma and, to a lesser extent, of meningioma developing in areas of the brain experiencing the highest exposure (10).
How the study was done: This cohort study, conducted in Denmark, linked billing information from more than 358,000 cell phone subscribers with brain tumor incidence data from the Danish Cancer Registry.
What the study showed: No association was observed between cell phone use and the incidence of glioma, meningioma, or acoustic neuroma, even among people who had been cell phone subscribers for 13 or more years (11–13).
Million Women Study
How the study was done: This prospective cohort study conducted in the United Kingdom used data obtained from questionnaires that were completed by study participants.
What the study showed: Self-reported cell phone use was not associated with an increased risk of glioma, meningioma, or non-central nervous system tumors. Although the original published findings reported an association with an increased risk of acoustic neuroma (14), this association disappeared after additional years of follow-up of the cohort (15).
In addition to these three large studies, other, smaller epidemiologic studies have looked for associations between cell phone use and cancer. These include:
- Two NCI-sponsored case–control studies, each conducted in multiple U.S. academic medical centers or hospitals between 1994 and 1998 that used data from questionnaires (16) or computer-assisted personal interviews (17). Neither study showed a relationship between cell phone use and the risk of glioma, meningioma, or acoustic neuroma.
- The CERENAT study, another case–control study conducted in multiple areas in France from 2004 to 2006 using data collected in face-to-face interviews using standardized questionnaires (18). This study found no association for either gliomas or meningiomas when comparing regular cell phone users with non-users. However, the heaviest users had significantly increased risks of both gliomas and meningiomas.
- A pooled analysis of two case–control studies conducted in Sweden that reported statistically significant trends of increasing brain cancer risk for the total amount of cell phone use and the years of use among people who began using cell phones before age 20 (19).
- Another case–control study in Sweden, part of the Interphone pooled studies, did not find an increased risk of brain cancer among long-term cell phone users between the ages of 20 and 69 (20).
- The CEFALO study, an international case–control study of children diagnosed with brain cancer between ages 7 and 19, which found no relationship between their cell phone use and risk for brain cancer (21).
Investigators have also conducted analyses of incidence trends to determine whether the incidence of brain or other cancers has changed during the time that cell phone use increased dramatically. These include:
- An analysis of data from NCI’s Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program evaluated trends in cancer incidence in the United States. This analysis found no increase in the incidence of brain or other central nervous system cancers between 1992 and 2006, despite the dramatic increase in cell phone use in this country during that time (22).
- An analysis of incidence data from Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden for the period 1974–2008 similarly revealed no increase in age-adjusted incidence of brain tumors (23).
- A series of studies testing different scenarios (called simulations by the study authors) were carried out using incidence data from the Nordic countries to determine the likelihood of detecting various levels of risk as reported in studies of cell phone use and brain tumors between 1979 and 2008. The results were compatible with no increased risks from cell phones, as reported by most epidemiologic studies. The findings did suggest that the increase reported among the subset of heaviest regular users in the Interphone study could not be ruled out but was unlikely. The highly increased risks reported in the Swedish pooled analysis were strongly inconsistent with the observed glioma rates in the Nordic countries (24).
- A 2012 study by NCI researchers (25) compared observed glioma incidence rates in U.S. SEER data with rates simulated from the small risks reported in the Interphone study (6) and the greatly increased risk of brain cancer among cell phone users reported in the Swedish pooled analysis (19). The authors concluded that overall, the incidence rates of glioma in the United States did not increase over the study period. They noted that the US rates could be consistent with the small increased risk seen among the subset of heaviest users in the Interphone study. The observed incidence trends were inconsistent with the high risks reported in the Swedish pooled study. These findings suggest that the increased risks observed in the Swedish study are not reflected in U.S. incidence trends.
- An analysis of primary brain tumor incidence data (including some of the first benign brain and central nervous system tumor data that SEER began collecting in 2004) reported that the incidence of acoustic neuromas (also known as vestibular schwannomas) was stable (unchanged) from 2004 to 2010 (26).
- A 2018 national study that examined trends in brain tumor incidence among adults aged 20–59 years in Australia found that incidence rates for brain tumors overall and for individual histologic types, including glioma, were stable over three time periods—1982–1992, 1993–2002, and 2003–2013—including one (2003–2013) during which cell phone use was substantial (27).
- An analysis of U.S. cancer incidence during 1993–2013 found no change in the overall incidence rate of malignant CNS cancers among children ages 0 to 19 years in the United States (28).
Why Scientists Think Wireless Technology Can Cause Cancer
The list of things that may possibly cause cancer is very long and includes almost everything you know and love: alcohol, lipstick, sugar, sun exposure-just to name a few. While some are more worrisome than others (as long as you’re not eating lipstick a tube at a time, you’re safe), one that people are becoming increasingly concerned about are cell phones and other wireless technology.
A new meta-analysis, published in Electromagnetic Biology and Medicine, aims to address those concerns once and for all with a review of all the existing data on the subject. And what they found shows that our phones, laptops, tablets, and unlimited Wi-Fi could indeed be making us sick. (See The Bad Habits that Increase Your Risk for Cancer.)
The problem stems from the fact that all wireless devices emit low-intensity radiofrequency radiation (RFR). Study author Igor Yakymenko, Ph.D., explained in the paper that RFR causes oxidative stress in the body, a reaction which releases free radicals-molecules that can cause cellular damage unless they’re “cleaned up” by antioxidants (yes, the same antioxidants in berries, green veggies, red wine, and tea).
Oxidative stress, at a basic level, is a completely normal part of the aging process. It’s a natural and unavoidable byproduct of breathing oxygen-ironically, the same stuff we need to live is the same stuff that’s aging our cells. But prior research has shown that some things can increase the rate at which oxidative stress occurs and therefore accelerate the damage. Wireless gadgets, Yakymenko wrote, may be one of those things.
His team analyzed existing data from previous studies and found evidence that long-term exposure to the ambient, low-dose RFR emitted by our favorite electronic devices is enough to explain not only the development of cancer, but also other minor problems seen in the studies, such as headache, fatigue, and skin irritation. (Some of these can be early symptoms of cancer too. Find out the Top Warning Signs to Ask Your Doctor About.)
“These data are a clear sign of the real risks this kind of radiation poses for human health,” Yakymenko warned.
But before you start wearing a stylish tin-foil hat and lead vest at all times, there are some things you should know. First, radiation comes in two types: ionizing (x-rays, radon, and cosmic rays) and non-ionizing (radiofrequency and extremely low-frequency or power frequency). Wireless technology only uses the latter-good news, since only ionizing radiation has conclusively been shown to cause cancer. Although many studies have examined the potential health effects of non-ionizing radiation from radar, microwave ovens, cell phones, and other sources, the National Cancer Insitute reports that there is no consistent evidence that non-ionizing radiation increases cancer risk. While Yakymenko’s new analysis did find some evidence that RFR increases cellular damage and therefore has the potential to cause cancer and other illnesses, more research needs to be done to show that direct link.
Plus, even though RFR increases oxidative stress, our bodies are programmed to deal with this because it’s a normal part of living. Not surprisingly, a healthy diet full of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables and exercise have both been shown to minimize and even reverse oxidative damage. (Opt for a diet that does double duty: 6 New Dietary Guidelines Announced for Cancer Prevention.)
So how much of a risk are you really at? The scientific community at large thinks the danger is very small, but as this paper shows, there may evidence that the threat is bigger than previously thought. But there still isn’t a known, accepted threshold for what’s healthy and what isn’t-mostly because we all experience RFR on a daily basis, even from sources besides wireless. It’s not yet possible to quantify how much damage people are doing to themselves or how much exposure warrants worry.
Regardless of whether or not they will give you cancer, it’s important to remember that abuse of electronic devices isn’t healthy. Recent studies have found that social media can make you depressed, binge-watching TV is linked with mental illness and obesity, cellphone addiction can causes social isolation, and the blue light emitted from screens can cause sleep problems.
For better or worse (both, probably), wireless technology is an integral part of modern life, so the question becomes how to use them as safely as possible. According to the FDA, it’s all about taking reasonable precautions and using gadgets as a small part of a healthy lifestyle. In other words, going on that long run this weekend will likely balance out any ill effects from listening to your favorite running playlist on your phone while you do it.
- By Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Does cell phone radiation cause cancer? New studies show a correlation in lab rats, but the evidence may not resolve ongoing debates over causality or whether any effects arise in people.
The ionizing radiation given off by sources such as x-ray machines and the sun boosts cancer risk by shredding molecules in the body. But the non-ionizing radio-frequency (RF) radiation that cell phones and other wireless devices emit has just one known biological effect: an ability to heat tissue by exciting its molecules.
Still, evidence advanced by the studies shows prolonged exposure to even very low levels of RF radiation, perhaps by mechanisms other than heating that remain unknown, makes rats uniquely prone to a rare tumor called a schwannoma, which affects a type of neuron (or nerve cell) called a Schwann cell.
The studies are notable for their sizes. Researchers at the National Toxicology Program, a federal interagency group under the National Institutes of Health, tested 3,000 rats and mice of both sexes for two years—the largest investigation of RF radiation and cancer in rodents ever undertaken in the U.S. European investigators at the Ramazzini Institute in Italy were similarly ambitious; in their recent study they investigated RF effects in nearly 2,500 rats from the fetal stage until death.
Also noteworthy is that the studies evaluated radiation exposures in different ways. The NTP looked at “near-field” exposures, which approximate how people are dosed while using cell phones. Ramazzini researchers looked at “far-field” exposures, which approximate the wireless RF radiation that bombards us from sources all around us, including wireless devices such as tablet and laptop computers. Yet they generated comparable results: Male rats in both studies (but not mice or female animals) developed schwannomas of the heart at statistically higher rates than control animals that were not exposed.
Taken together, the findings “confirm that RF radiation exposure has biological effects” in rats, some of them “relevant to carcinogenesis,” says Jon Samet, a professor of preventive medicine and dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, who did not participate in either study. Samet, however, cautioned the jury is still out as to whether wireless technology is similarly risky to people. Indeed, heart schwannomas are exceedingly rare in humans; only a handful of cases have ever been documented in the medical literature.
When turned on, cell phones and other wireless devices emit RF radiation continually, even if they are not being actively used, because they are always communicating with cell towers. The dose intensity tails off with increasing distance from the body, and reaches a maximum when the devices are used next to the head during phone calls or in front of the body during texting or tweeting.
Launched at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s request 10 years ago, the NTP study dosed rats and mice of both sexes with RF radiation at either 1.5, 3 or 6 watts of radiation per kilogram of body weight, or W/kg. The lowest dose is about the same as the Federal Communications Commission’s limit for public exposure from cell phones, which is 1.6 watts W/kg. The animals were exposed nine hours a day for two years (about the average life span for a rat), and the exposures were cranked up steadily as the animals grew, so the absorbed doses per unit body weight remained constant over time.
Initially leaked in 2016, results from that $25-million study provided the most compelling evidence yet that RF energy may be linked to cancer in lab rodents. The strongest finding connected RF with heart schwannomas in male rats, but the researchers also reported elevated rates of lymphoma as well as cancers affecting the prostate, skin, lung, liver and brain in the exposed animals. Rates for those cancers increased as the doses got higher but the evidence linking them with cell phone radiation specifically was weak by comparison, and the researchers could not rule out that they might have increased for reasons other than RF exposure. Paradoxically, the radiation-treated animals also lived longer than the nonexposed controls. The study results were reviewed by a panel of outside experts during a three-day meeting that ended on March 28. They concluded there was “clear evidence” linking RF radiation with heart schwannomas and “some evidence” linking it to gliomas of the brain. It is now up to the NTP to either accept or reject the reviewer’s conclusions. A final report is expected within several months.
Limited to rats only, the Ramazzini study tested three doses expressed as the amount of radiation striking the animal’s bodies: either 5, 25 or 50 volts per meter. The exposure measures therefore differed from the absorbed doses calculated during the NTP study. But the Ramazzini scientists also converted their measures to W/kg, to show how the doses compared with RF limits for cell phones and cell towers set by the FCC and the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection; they ranged down to a 1,000 times lower. The exposures began when the rats were fetuses and continued for 19 hours a day until the animals died from natural causes.
As in the NTP study, Ramazzini investigators detected statistically elevated rates of heart schwannomas in male rats at the highest dose. They also had weaker findings linking RF exposure to cancer of glial cells in the brain, which were limited to females. Ronald Melnick, a retired NTP toxicologist who designed the NTP study, says a measure of consistency between the two studies is important, because “reproducibility in science increases our confidence in the observed results.”
Just why Schwann and glial cells appear to be targets of cell phone radiation is not clear. David Carpenter, a physician who directs the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany, S.U.N.Y., explained the purpose of these cells is to insulate nerve fibers throughout the body. These are electrical systems, so that may be some sort of factor, he wrote in an e-mail. “But this is only speculation.”
A few epidemiology studies have reported higher rates of tumors inside the skull among people who use cell phones heavily for 10 years or more. Of particular concern are benign Schwann cell tumors called acoustic neuromas, which affect nerve cells connecting the inner ear with structures inside the brain. These growths can in some instances progress to malignant cancer with time. But other studies have found no evidence of acoustic neuromas or brain tumors in heavy cell phone users.
Samet adds a major challenge now would be to draw a biologically relevant connection between acoustic neuromas and other glial tumors in the brains of humans with Schwann tumors in rat hearts. “The mechanism is uncertain,” he says. “There’s a lot of information we still need to fill in.”
Since 2011 RF radiation has been classified as a Group 2B “possible” human carcinogen by the International Agency on Cancer (IARC), an agency of the World Health Organization. Based on the new animal findings, and limited epidemiological evidence linking heavy and prolonged cell phone use with brain gliomas in humans, Fiorella Belpoggi, director of research at the Ramazzini Institute and the study’s lead author, says IARC should consider changing the RF radiation designation to a “probable” human carcinogen. Even if the hazard is low, billions of people are exposed, she says, alluding to the estimated number of wireless subscriptions worldwide. Véronique Terrasse, an IARC spokesperson, says a reevaluation may occur after the NTP delivers its final report.
Stephen Chanock, who directs the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics at the National Cancer Institute, remains skeptical, however. Cancer monitoring by the institute and other organizations has yet to show increasing numbers of brain tumors in the general population, he says. Tracking of benign brain tumors, such as acoustic neuromas, was initiated in 2004 by investigators at the institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results program, which monitors and publishes statistics on cancer incidence rates. According to Chanock’s spokesperson, the acoustic neuroma data “haven’t accumulated to the point that we can say something meaningful about them.”
Asked if brain cancer’s long latency might explain why higher rates in the population have not appeared yet, Chanock says, “Cell phones have been around a long time. We are by no means dismissing the evidence, and the Ramazzini study raises interesting questions. But it has to be factored in with other reports, and this is still work in progress.”
Epidemiology studies investigating cell phone use patterns with human cancer risk have produced inconsistent results. Some studies enrolled people who already had tumors with suspected links to RF radiation, such as gliomas, acoustic neuromas and salivary gland tumors. Researchers compared the self-reported cell phone use habits of the cancer patients with those of other people who did not have the same diseases. Other studies enrolled people while they were still healthy, and then followed them over time to see if new cancer diagnoses tracked with how they used cell phones. All the epidemiology studies, however, have troubling limitations, including that enrolled subjects often do not report their cell phone use habits accurately on questionnaires.
In a February 2 statement, Jeffrey Shuren, director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, wrote that despite the NTP study’s results, the combined evidence on RF exposure and human cancer—which by now amounts to hundreds of studies—has “given us confidence that the current safety limits for cell phone radiation remain acceptable for protecting the public health.” Chonock says that for him, evidence from the Ramazzini study does not alter that conclusion. “We continue to agree with the FDA statement,” he says.
Can my computer or monitor cause cancer?
Updated: 12/30/2019 by Computer Hope
Working by a computer and monitor has created worries for many people as to whether there were any health risks with long-term use and exposure. When looking at this, there are two pieces to this puzzle: the computer and the monitor.
When it comes to the computer itself (desktop computer or laptop), many studies were conducted over the years to determine if there are any health risks. To some degree, there is a bit of radiation that a computer releases, but in quite small amounts (if any). Looking through many research studies, there doesn’t appear to be any link between computer use and any increase in cancer risk. There are studies regarding laptop use, when the laptop is sitting in the user’s lap. Long-term use and exposure is suspected as a possible cause of testicular cancer in males, but there is no scientific proof to back up this suspicion or claim.
In terms of monitors, older CRT (cathode ray tube) monitors could emit X-ray radiation, but in small amounts. The small amount was not considered to be harmful to the human body. Newer LCD (liquid crystal display) and flat-panel monitors do not emit X-ray radiation. Some LCD monitors may emit a very small amount of UV radiation, but the amounts are so small that there is virtually no risk to the human body.
The biggest risk that computer usage poses is more directed at your eyes. Prolonged usage can cause eye strain and potential long-term issues. When using a computer, it is best to take periodic breaks, to allow your eyes to rest and stretch your body in general.
Something worth noting is that all electronic devices actually emit small amounts of radiation. The types of radiation vary, but the important thing is that the amounts are very small. All around us there is radiation, but again in small amounts. The human body is capable of handling small amounts with little to no risk, which is what helps to make the human body so resilient.
- What are all of the disadvantages of using a computer?
- See our CRT and monitor definitions for further information and related links.
- Computer monitor help and support.
Wireless Bluetooth headphones have become popular gadgets—and now, there is a debate about whether they can cause cancer. However, at this point, there is not enough evidence to definitively say that wireless headphones are dangerous.
Some scientists are arguing that these headphones could potentially lead increase cancer risk due to the fact they emit radio frequency (EMF) radiation when they are used. In 2015, a group of scientists around the world signed a petition directed to the United Nations and World Health Organization that expresses their concern about exposure to non-ionizing electromagnetic fields (EMF). The petition, which started circulating around the internet again in early 2019, also says that EMF has the potential to increase the risk of neurological disorders, DNA damage, cellular distress, and changes to the reproductive system.
EMFs are invisible areas of energy that are produced by electricity and are often referred to as radiation. There are two kinds of EMFs: ionizing and non-ionizing. Ionizing EMF is defined as “mid to high-frequency radiation which can, under certain circumstances, lead to cellular and/or DNA damage with prolonged exposure.” Some forms of this type of EMF include ultraviolet rays (UV) and X-rays. Continual exposure from this kind of EMF can cause damage; spending an excessive amount of time in the sunlight, for example, can expose your body to harmful UV rays, potentially leading to skin cancer.
Non-ionizing EMF, however, is low- to mid-frequency radiation that is generally viewed as harmless. Many electronic devices we use—such as cellphones, computers, and yes, Bluetooth devices—all emit a low amount of radio frequency radiation. The main concern regarding non-ionizing EMF is that although it is low frequency, electronics and power lines are essentially always “on” and, oftentimes, all around us.
Unlike ionizing radiation, low frequency, non-ionizing EMF can’t damage DNA or cells directly. However, it’s possible that it can indirectly cause cancer in other ways, such as by reducing the level of melatonin in the body, which is associated with the growth of certain tumors.
Ultimately, when it comes to wireless headphones, its dangers aren’t all that clear. Despite extremely low frequency EMF being possibly carcinogenic to humans, researchers have still not observed a direct connection. Bluetooth headphones specifically have their power density exposures that is 10 to 400 times lower than those of cell phones, according to Dana-Farber’s David Kozono, MD, PhD. Power density is the rate of power that an EMF produces per the unit area.
“I would therefore expect it would be more difficult to observe an association between Bluetooth headphone use and cancer,” Kozono says. “Data are lacking however to conclude with certainty that there is or is not a risk of increased cancer.”
On 28 March this year, the scientific peer review of a landmark United States government study concluded that there is “clear evidence” that radiation from mobile phones causes cancer, specifically, a heart tissue cancer in rats that is too rare to be explained as random occurrence.
Eleven independent scientists spent three days at Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, discussing the study, which was done by the National Toxicology Program of the US Department of Health and Human Services and ranks among the largest conducted of the health effects of mobile phone radiation. NTP scientists had exposed thousands of rats and mice (whose biological similarities to humans make them useful indicators of human health risks) to doses of radiation equivalent to an average mobile user’s lifetime exposure.
The peer review scientists repeatedly upgraded the confidence levels the NTP’s scientists and staff had attached to the study, fuelling critics’ suspicions that the NTP’s leadership had tried to downplay the findings. Thus the peer review also found “some evidence” – one step below “clear evidence” – of cancer in the brain and adrenal glands.
Not one major news organisation in the US or Europe reported this scientific news. But then, news coverage of mobile phone safety has long reflected the outlook of the wireless industry. For a quarter of a century now, the industry has been orchestrating a global PR campaign aimed at misleading not only journalists, but also consumers and policymakers about the actual science concerning mobile phone radiation. Indeed, big wireless has borrowed the very same strategy and tactics big tobacco and big oil pioneered to deceive the public about the risks of smoking and climate change, respectively. And like their tobacco and oil counterparts, wireless industry CEOs lied to the public even after their own scientists privately warned that their products could be dangerous, especially to children.
Outsiders suspected from the start that George Carlo was a front man for an industry whitewash. Tom Wheeler, the president of the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), handpicked Carlo to defuse a public relations crisis that threatened to strangle his infant industry in its crib. This was back in 1993, when there were only six mobile subscriptions for every 100 adults in the United States, but industry executives foresaw a booming future.
Remarkably, mobile phones had been allowed on to the US market a decade earlier without any government safety testing. Now, some customers and industry workers were being diagnosed with cancer. In January 1993, David Reynard sued the NEC America company, claiming that his wife’s NEC phone caused her lethal brain tumour. After Reynard appeared on national television, the story gained ground. A congressional subcommittee announced an investigation; investors began dumping mobile phone stocks and Wheeler and the CTIA swung into action.
You’ve come a long way, baby: a businessman on an early mobile phone. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
A week later, Wheeler announced that his industry would pay for a comprehensive research programme. Mobile phones were already safe, Wheeler told reporters; the new research would simply “revalidate the findings of the existing studies”.
Carlo seemed like a good bet to fulfil Wheeler’s mission. An epidemiologist with a law degree, he had conducted studies for other controversial industries. After a study funded by Dow Corning, Carlo had declared that breast implants posed only minimal health risks. With chemical industry funding, he had concluded that low levels of dioxin, the chemical behind the Agent Orange scandal, were not dangerous. In 1995, Carlo began directing the industry-financed Wireless Technology Research project (WTR), whose eventual budget of $28.5m made it the best-funded investigation of mobile safety to date.
However, Carlo and Wheeler eventually clashed bitterly over WTR’s findings, which Carlo presented to industry leaders on 9 February 1999. By that date, the WTR had commissioned more than 50 original studies and reviewed many more. Those studies raised “serious questions” about phone safety, Carlo told a closed-door meeting of the CTIA’s board of directors, whose members included the CEOs or top officials of the industry’s 32 leading companies, including Apple, AT&T and Motorola.
Carlo sent letters to each of the industry’s chieftains on 7 October 1999, reiterating that WTR’s research had found the following: the risk of “rare neuroepithelial tumours on the outside of the brain was more than doubled… in cellphone users”; there was an apparent correlation between “brain tumours occurring on the right side of the head and the use of the phone on the right side of the head”; and the “ability of radiation from a phone’s antenna to cause functional genetic damage definitely positive”.
Carlo urged the CEOs to do the right thing: give consumers “the information they need to make an informed judgment about how much of this unknown risk they wish to assume”, especially since some in the industry had “repeatedly and falsely claimed that wireless phones are safe for all consumers including children”.
The very next day, a livid Wheeler began publicly trashing Carlo to the media. In a letter he shared with the CEOs, Wheeler told Carlo that the CTIA was “certain that you have never provided CTIA with the studies you mention”, an apparent effort to shield the industry from liability in the lawsuits that had led to Carlo being hired in the first place. Wheeler charged further that the studies had not been published in peer-reviewed journals, casting doubt on their validity. His tactics doused the controversy, even though Carlo had in fact repeatedly briefed Wheeler and other senior industry officials on the studies, which had indeed undergone peer review and would soon be published.
In the years to come, the WTR’s findings would be replicated by numerous other scientists in the US and around the world. The World Health Organisation in 2011 would classify mobile phone radiation as a “possible” human carcinogen and the governments of the United Kingdom, France and Israel issued warnings against mobile phone use by children. Nevertheless, the industry’s propaganda campaign would defuse concern sufficiently that today three out of four adults worldwide have mobile phones, making the wireless industry among the biggest on Earth.
The key strategic insight animating corporate propaganda campaigns is that a given industry doesn’t have to win the scientific argument about safety to prevail – it only has to keep the argument going. Keeping the argument going amounts to a win for industry, because the apparent lack of certainty helps to reassure customers, fend off government regulations and deter lawsuits that might pinch profits.
Central to keeping the scientific argument going is making it appear that not all scientists agree. Towards that end, and again like the tobacco and fossil-fuel industries, the wireless industry has “war-gamed” science, as a Motorola internal memo in 1994 phrased it. War-gaming science involves playing offence as well as defence – funding studies friendly to the industry while attacking studies that raise questions; placing industry-friendly experts on advisory bodies such as the World Health Organisation and seeking to discredit scientists whose views differ from the industry’s.
Funding friendly research has perhaps been the most important tactic, because it conveys the impression that the scientific community truly is divided. Thus, when studies have linked wireless radiation to cancer or genetic damage – as Carlo’s WTR did in 1999; as the WHO’s Interphone study did in 2010; and as the US government’s NTP did earlier this year – the industry can point out, accurately, that other studies disagree.
A closer look reveals the industry’s sleight of hand. When Henry Lai, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington, analysed 326 safety-related studies completed between 1990 and 2006, he discovered that 44% of them found no biological effect from mobile phone radiation and 56% did; scientists apparently were split. But when Lai recategorised the studies according to their funding sources, a different picture emerged: 67% of the independently funded studies found a biological effect, while a mere 28% of the industry-funded studies did. Lai’s findings were replicated by a 2007 analysis in Environmental Health Perspectives, which concluded that industry-funded studies were two and a half times less likely than independent studies to find health effects.
One key player has not been swayed by all this wireless-friendly research: the insurance industry. In our reporting for this story, we found not a single insurance company that would sell a product-liability policy that covered mobile phone radiation. “Why would we want to do that?” one executive asked with a chuckle before pointing to more than two dozen lawsuits outstanding against wireless companies, demanding a total of $1.9bn in damages.
The industry’s neutralisation of the safety issue has opened the door to the biggest prize of all: the proposed transformation of society dubbed the Internet of Things. Lauded as a gigantic engine of economic growth, the Internet of Things will not only connect people through their smartphones and computers but will also connect those devices to a customer’s vehicles and appliances, even their baby’s nappies – all at speeds much faster than can currently be achieved.
Everything including the kitchen sink: the Amazon Echo is just the start of the Internet of Things. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
There is a catch, though: the Internet of Things will require augmenting today’s 4G technology with 5G technology, thus “massively increasing” the general population’s exposure to radiation, according to a petition signed by 236 scientists worldwide who have published more than 2,000 peer-reviewed studies and represent “a significant portion of the credentialled scientists in the radiation research field”, according to Joel Moskowitz, the director of the Center for Family and Community Health at the University of California, Berkeley, who helped circulate the petition. Nevertheless, like mobiles, 5G technology is on the verge of being introduced without pre-market safety testing.
Lack of definitive proof that a technology is harmful does not mean the technology is safe, yet the wireless industry has succeeded in selling this logical fallacy to the world. The upshot is that, over the past 30 years, billions of people around the world have been subjected to a public-health experiment: use a mobile phone today, find out later if it causes genetic damage or cancer. Meanwhile, the industry has obstructed a full understanding of the science and news organisations have failed to inform the public about what scientists really think. In other words, this public health experiment has been conducted without the informed consent of its subjects, even as the industry keeps its thumb on the scale.
Mark Hertsgaard is an author and the environment correspondent for the Nation, which published a different version of this article. Mark Dowie is an author and investigative historian based near Willow Point, California