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Is there a link between wireless gadgets and cancer?

Is there a link between wireless gadgets and cancer?
Jack Rice from Bedfordshire (Age 5-14)

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5 Responses

  1. There have been quite a few studies that have tried to link wireless gadgets, mostly mobile phones, to cancer but so far there has been no real link. The greater likelihood is that you could hurt yourself whilst operating a gadget because you are not looking at what you are doing.

    The energy dissipated is quite low so on it’s own a gadget may not cause a long term problem but as we get more and more then a cumulative effect might be felt in the long term. It’s too early to tell for certain but it’d be a brave person to say definitely not.

  2. Wireless gadgets emit radiation in the form of radio waves. This is not the same as ionising radiation or radioactivity which has been show to cause cancer. The radiation from wireless gadgets is much lower energy and there is currently no evidence that it is dangerous.

  3. This is very hard to answer with certainty. Some people suffer from symptoms that they blame on wireless gadgets but it may be entirely coincidence – perhaps they developed some other problem at the same time as they became exposed to the gadget.

    What we can say is that exhaustive tests have failed to show either that people exposed to wireless gadgets are more likely to suffer from illness or that there is a significant way in which our bodies would be affected by the waves that they emit. There are billions of people in the world using mobile phones and even the largest trials have failed to detect any significant difference in rates of illness between those who use them and those who do not. The radiation levels from WiFi and mobile ‘phone base stations are much less intense than from a mobile phone pressed to your ear.

    We can’t say definitely that they don’t cause harm but that’s true of every new development. We can say that, if they do, it either takes a very long time to develop (we’ve been using wireless gadgets for tens of years) or they are very much less harmful than many other everyday activities. And if we reject wireless gadgets, we miss out on everything from texting your mates to buying more books for the school library with the money made from renting out the roof for a base station.

    Your question raises another one, for the social scientists rather than the engineers: why do so many people believe that wireless gadgets cause harm when there’s no evidence that they do? We seem to be programmed to look for and believe bad news!

  4. There is no proven link between cancer and mobile phones. The subject has been studied very carefully because of the rapid growth of phone use and the fact that almost the whole population now has a mobile phone. The rapid increase in use means that it is impossible for long term studies to rule out completely any hidden ill effects to have been finished.

    We do know that mobile phones transmit and receive radio waves in the UHF (ultrahigh frequency) region. As with all radio frequencies, very high energy signals at these frequencies would cause what is known as the heating effect. This is how a microwave oven cooks!

    For mobile communications, including phones power is limited to very low levels, well below safety limits for human exposure. At these low levels there is no recorded heating effect on the human body.

    There have been many studies of other possible effects on the body, but no link to ill health, apart from psychological health has been proven.

    Government Advisors through the Stewart Committee have recommended that while mobile telephony is still a relatively new service it is advisable to limit children’s usage because if an ill effect is ever found it may be more of a problem for children than adults because of their developing bodies.

    The greatest exposure to radio frequency energy comes from the phone and not from the cellular base station, since you hold your phone to your ear.

  5. There are two ways, both important, to find an answer to this question:
    (1) look at the physics of electromagnetic radiation, and the biology of cells, and try to work out if there’s any theoretical way that wireless gadgets could cause something bad to happen to our cells, such as the DNA mutations that can lead to cancer.
    (2) look at the statistics (over many years) of how often people use mobile phones, and how often they get cancer. This is the science of “epidemiology” and it’s very tricky, because there are all sorts of factors that could make a connection seem to exist where there is none, or could hide a connection where there is one.

    Let’s look at the first approach. We know that it’s possible for electromagnetic radiation to affect cells: it’s been shown in test-tube experiments that you can at least make cells warm up a bit by applying radiation. But can it happen in actual humans, when the wireless gadgets only emit a low-powered radiation? And would the heating (or other effects) apply to specific bits of the body/head or would the effect be diffused over many cells? It’s very difficult to know, and there’s no clear picture of what the “best guess” is – more research needs to be done.

    So let’s look at the second approach. Mobile phones have been around for a couple of decades now, and they’re extremely popular – so surely if there was some cancer risk then we’d be able to spot it in the cancer statistics? As I said, it’s tricky to analyse these kind of statistics but it can be done. There’s a very large research study called “Interphone” which is looking at this issue, and they’ve just recently published an interim report of their findings:
    http://www.iarc.fr/ENG/Units/INTERPHONEresultsupdate.pdf
    To roughly summarise what they say: most of the studies they’ve done so far have not found any dramatic increase in cancer risk. The studies are relatively small and *if* there is any *tiny* increase in cancer risk then it would require larger studies, or a careful combination of many small studies, to be sure it existed. They’re currently doing more work and when their final results come out I’m sure it’ll be in the news. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is also doing a very big worldwide study, in a slightly different way, and when that is done it’ll be very helpful in helping us work out if there’s any danger.

    So what’s the conclusion? If there is any risk then it’s very likely to be very small (nothing like the connection between smoking and cancer, for example, which is very easy to demonstrate using statistics). But since wireless gadgets have only been around for a couple of decades, we don’t yet have a definite answer.

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