The Media and Cancer Risks

The old saying goes, "where there is smoke, there's fire."  I think we all are at least subconciously suceptible to thinking this way vis a vis the cancer risks in the media.  We hear so much about these risks that, even if the claims seem absurd, we worry if there isn't something there.  After all, if the media is concerned, surely the balance of evidence must be at least close - there is probably a small risk or increase in mortality.

Not so.  Take cell phones.  We have heard for decades concern about cancer risk from cell phones.  But they are not even close to dangerous, missing danger levels by something like 5 and a half orders of magnitude.

Cell phones do not cause cancer. They do not even theoretically cause cancer. Why? Because they simply do not produce the type of electromagnetic radiation that is capable of causing cancer. Michael Shermer explains, using basic physics:

...known carcinogens such as x-rays, gamma rays and UV rays have energies greater than 480 kilojoules per mole (kJ/mole), which is enough to break chemical bonds... A cell phone generates radiation of less than 0.001 kJ/mole. That is 480,000 times weaker than UV rays...

If the radiation from cell phones cannot break chemical bonds, then it is not possible for cell phones to cause cancer, no matter what the World Health Organization thinks. And just to put the "possible carcinogen" terminology into perspective, the WHO also considers coffee to be a possible carcinogen. Additionally, it appears that politics and ideology may have trumped science in the WHO's controversial decision.


  1. Daublin:

    I thought you were kidding about the World Health Organization, but no:

    "Radiation from cell phones can possibly cause cancer, according to the World Health Organization. The agency now lists mobile phone use in the same "carcinogenic hazard" category as lead, engine exhaust and chloroform."

    This part is also interesting, in light of the global warming fiasco:

    "A team of 31 scientists from 14 countries, including the United States, made the decision after reviewing peer-reviewed studies on cell phone safety. The team found enough evidence to categorize personal exposure as 'possibly carcinogenic to humans.'"

  2. Smock Puppet, 10 Dan Snark Master:

    >>>> It appears that politics and ideology may have trumped science in the WHO’s controversial decision.

    What? NAwwwww...


    This is a scurrilous rumor spread by the same people who want to deny the veracity of the IPCC's wonderful AGW bulletins, the ones that warn us about all the snow being gone from the earth by 2020, all the rainforests turned to desert by 2030, and all the world oceans turned to steam by 2040.

    It is the height of racist and pernicious verisimilitude to challenge the pristine motivations of WHO and all the other UN bodies. These beatific people work for the good of all mankind, daily, selflessly, and with no other agenda.

    Ahh, yeah.

    Yeah, that's the ticket.

  3. Scott:

    Regarding media and cancer risks, I have two related theories in this area:

    1- Mention of gender related cancers are vastly over represented in the media (hollywood movies/tv shows/news specifically). If this is so, I suspect it could be because they make better story telling. Something about the crisis of a woman or man losing part of what makes them so.

    2- Because they're over represented in media coverage for story telling effect, they end up getting more attention in screening, fundraising efforts, and research.

  4. John Moore:

    A couple of comments...

    Cell phones are nowhere close, as you point out, to generating ionizing radiation. However, cell phones produce a small amount of localized heating. In theory, this could increase (or decrease) the incidence of cancer. Ionizing radiation is not the only cause of cancer, after all. Of course, the effect (for cell phones) is so tiny as to not be a concern. I suspect the main way cell phones may increase cancer is by increasing stress hormones in motorists frustrated by cell-phone abusing drivers.

    A recent article (no link available) suggested that it is rational to fear cancer risk more than, say, car accident risk - in the sense that a death by cancer is worse for most people.

  5. Chad Pettigrew:

    According to the WHO, peanut butter causes cancer. You see scientist have taken a species of mold that grows on peanuts, super concentrated it and injected in massive quantities in lab mice until the got cancer. The fact that the exposer rate is equivalent to eating like 10,000 pounds of peanut butter a day is of no regard.

  6. DrTorch:

    Except you forgot that Michael Shermer is a moron. And he's wrong about the EM spectrum. A single photon from a cell phone probably won't do anything...but there are multi-photon phenomena. That's why they have things like microwave digestion.

    That's not to say that cell phones cause cancer. It is to say that Shermer repeatedly lacks most fundamental understandings of both logic and science.

  7. Mark:

    @John Moore,

    Should we use hair dryers? Double heating whammy there, one from the heat, and one from the generated magnetic fields.

  8. Ted Rado:

    The journalists as group are technically and scientifically illiterate. Yet they run their mouths on all sorts of things they no nothing about with reckless abandon. They quote someone and run with the story with no ability of their own to judge its merits. This would be fine if they printed opposite views at the same time, but they don't.

    On one of the TV news shows a while back, the subject of the media harping on the global warming thing without giving time to opposing views was discussed. One of the panelists stated that error has no right to be heard. Since (in her view) the skeptics are wrong, they should not be heard. Great. Some idiots in the media decide which scientific theories are valid and that other points of view are to be buried. It is almost as bad as Obama picking business winners and losers (read Solyndra). Josef Goebels would have been proud of our current propagandistic media.

  9. DMac:

    @Ted Rado, these are the same journalists who are economically and historically illeterate, so I guess it's no surprise. At least they are consistent.

  10. Geoff Weil:

    I did some back of the envelope calculations on the possible penetration of RF energy from a cell phone into the brain. There are two problems here-- The bulk resistance of tissue is around 10 to 50 ohms, the energy from the phone is arriving at the impedance of free space, which is 377 ohms. So, first problem is that most of the energy reflects from the surface of the head, and doesn't cause any heating at all. The next problem is that the skin depth at 2.5GHz, where most phones operate is only a few tenths of a centimeter, therefore any energy which does deposit on the head, rather than be reflected, is absorbed in the surface layer of skin and muscle, and never enters the brain.

    Along with the miniscule amount of energy as cited I think this whole issue is nonsense and more scare tactics from the Luddite left.

  11. blokeinfrance:

    Oxygen also ionises. Perhaps we should ban that too? After all, oxygen breaks chemical bonds, though without breaking chemical bonds we'd already be dead.

  12. I Got Bupkis, Critic Extraordinaire:

    >>> If the radiation from cell phones cannot break chemical bonds, then it is not possible for cell phones to cause cancer

    This isn't quite accurate -- there may be unknown mechanisms by which other radiations may cause cancer... but this fact does, beyond any shadow of a doubt, shift the burden of proof away from the "might maybe could" arena into the "show it to me, mother f***er" arena.

    DrTorch -- this goes the same for your comment: "Show it to me. Demonstrate it can happen even once in human experience by experimental proof, THEN we can talk about how often it happens at all." And THAT is what skepticism is about, so Shermer is spot-on.

    >>> from the Luddite left.

    I posit the term "EcoLuddite" to refer to these green idiots.

  13. I Got Bupkis, Critic Extraordinaire:

    DMac: these are the same journalists who are economically and historically illeterate

    Yeah, anyone here knows about the MegaUpload thing, notice that some idiot journo type came up with the term "cyberlockers" to refer to what pretty much every other person in the entirety of the internet refers to as "filehosts"? And that apparently a whole other bunch of equally ignorant journo types picked it up and repeated it -- apparently because they -- not a one of them -- never, ever actually talked to anyone who used these things in the entire "research" portion of their story development?

    And then they wonder why people consider them to be losing all credibility...

  14. Ted Rado:

    As analytical methods improve, it is possible to detect contaminants at a lower and lower level. Our wonderful folks at the EPA then immediately lower the allowable concentration of toxic materials to match. Just about every element in the periodic table is present in minute concentrations everywhere; in water, in the soil, in the food we eat. Some common sense is required, utilizing sound toxicological investigation, not hysteria.

    Many things that people go bananas over (asbestos) were in common use a couple of generations ago. Only recently have they been determined to cause medical problems. Now we overreact. It used to be good to go out in the sun (vitamin D). Now it is a cancer risk.

    I would bet my last dime that many items in common use today will be found to be hazardous twenty years from now. When that happens, let's not panic and overreact as we seem to delight in doing.

    One can carry this fear of risk ad absurdum. A tiny percentage of women die in childbirth. Therefore, the USG should outlaw reproduction.

  15. DrTorch:

    Bupkis- Your comment doesn't apply to me. I said essentially the same thing. Just like you said, Shermer ignores all other possible mechanisms, which is an error. He makes these mistakes frequently, which in turn is solid proof he's a moron.

  16. caseyboy:

    It is not about health risks. It is about control. What can government do to take care of us and protect us from the big bad world.

  17. Horspool:

    Although I doubt that cell phones cause cancer, Shermer and you are still wrong, just as wrong as the semi-famous physicist who published an article in Scientific American ~30 years ago (I remember it but don't have an exact citation handy) explaining that stray EMR from power lines could not affect people because it was too weak to do anything to living tissues, because, he wrote, it was too weak to heat tissues to the point where chemical bonds would break(!).

    As I pointed out at the time, if the only way to affect something is to heat it enough to damage it, radio receivers are impossible, since the radio waves reaching your car on the Hollywood freeway from KROQ-FM's mountaintop transmitter are way too weak to heat up your nifty Alpine stereo.

    Lots of living cells respond to EM too weak to roast them (your retinal cells do it all the time: when stimulated by light they display dramatic electrochemical changes along their axons). You can disorient bees by overriding the Earth's magnetic field with an artificial local field far too weak to heat the bees up (they have compasses in their brains). It may well be possible to interfere with, e.g., DNA transcription using EM too weak to "break chemical bonds.

  18. Dale:

    There was another study not too long ago that indicated that cell phone use was very effective in preventing Alzheimers. I didn't go into specifics as it was just one study without replication, yet. Still, the story just didn't catch on.

  19. I Got Bupkis, Critic Extraordinaire:

    >>> Bupkis- Your comment doesn’t apply to me. I said essentially the same thing. Just like you said, Shermer ignores all other possible mechanisms, which is an error. He makes these mistakes frequently, which in turn is solid proof he’s a moron.

    No, you didn't. You claimed that he was ignoring things not in evidence. You declined to provide any evidence, just a possible avenue. What **I** said was that you have to actually DO the latter, before you can claim the former.

    I only acked the possibility of the latter to be intellectually honest. I doubt if there is any reasonable likelihood of a causative connection, and that is the quite firm ground Shermer is standing on: "This can't work that way. If there's some other way, then you'll need to show actual evidence of that applying before you get to claim any justification for Pascal's Wager in this context".

    There's a distinction, and Shermer is not a moron for demanding it be observed.

    Your position strongly supports the foolish attention all too often given to junk science:
    The Scientific Method & Its Limits - The Decline Effect

    In other words, positing another possibility -- "A single photon from a cell phone probably won’t do anything…but there are multi-photon phenomena." -- is not proof of a reason for concern. It's only offering an avenue for investigation.

    The most obvious problem with your argument is that said photons have to penetrate flesh while still having a high probability of interacting with those internal cells, in a cascade-to-threshold condition. So not only does this photon have to penetrate flesh but not reliably enough to just pass through, but it also has to hit a single cell -- out of millions of candidates -- repeatedly to pass over a threshold energy level to cause an issue.

    In other words, my own bet is that it -- your claimed avenue for cancer causation -- is unlikely. But I'm open to studies that prove or disprove that assertion.

  20. I Got Bupkis, Critic Extraordinaire:


    Your capacity to rattle off random answers that generally involve SPECIALIZED CELLS (i.e., retinal cells with light, bee homing cells with magnetism) is hardly argument for cancer causation.

    And in the example you provide, it's been pretty much completely debunked that power-line EM fields do squat to people.

    Moreover -- Michael Crichton, in "Fear and Complexity and Environmental Management in the 21st Century", IIRC, points out the fadish component of "magnetic fields" as flip flopping between danger and healthy faster than John Kerry at an Iraq War rally, and Kerry's a quantum bit field, aka "Schroedinger's Cat", on most subjects.

  21. Horspool:

    Bupkis, my arrogant quick-firing friend, I didn't write that EM fields cause cancer. I only wrote that the nay-sayers' argument from insufficient heating is obviously bogus. As for whether only "specialized cells" can possibly respond to EMR, you should read up on some basic modern cell biology. The genes for everything some organism's "specialized cells" do are present in most of its cells, and such genes may be expressed to some extent, or by error, in cells other than the ones you expect, including by reason of pleiotropy or by pre-cancerous changes in a cell. If some pre-cancerous change makes a cell react more strongly to EMR that might cause it to develop into a cancer cell. We may predict that such changes would be rare, so there would be only a weak and statistical association of EMR exposure and cancer, but it's still pretty easy to posit a relationship which doesn't depend upon heat. (Separately, why would you think "specialized cells" would never become cancerous?)

    Before you write another intemperate reply, I repeat that I don't think EMR causes much cancer, I don't believe that "cancer clusters" are anything but random noise, and I do think most people making up scare stories about cell phones and cancer are either NIMBY's trying to block construction of cell towers or scientific fakers.

  22. I Got Bupkis, Critic Extraordinaire:

    You still did not deny my case, which is that showing interaction with EMR in cells which have specifically evolved to interact with low levels of EMR isn't adequate justification for any claim that EMR at low levels has any effect on general cells not designed specifically to interact at low levels. I'm not claiming such exists or not, only that your specialized cases are inadequate to the task you claim for them. Of course THEY are going to do it, they specifically evolved to do that.

    Further, "It may well be possible to interfere with..." is mere speculation. Yeah, it might. Until you show evidence of it happening, proper skepticism is to claim "horsepucky" in the absence of it. I maintain my case is still the more valid of those presented.

    Equally critically, not only does the cell have to respond to such radiation, it has to be radiation not present in its "normal mileau" -- slight variances in heat, inside the brain case, for example, is hardly going to be likely to trigger cancers in cells there. It would be counter-evolutionary for it to happen -- anyone with that flaw would die of cancers at an early age, and/or be much more likely to be sickly or otherwise operating at reduced function. So it would have to be radiation in forms not normally present, and most EMR either doesn't actually penetrate skin to more than a few layers, or they completely pass through with largely no interaction.

    Ultraviolet causes skin cancers and some rare eye cancers, but it's generally going to be responsible for bladder cancer. Because it does not penetrate the skin.

    This is the basis to the other end of the skepticism on this -- the only wavelengths that would matter are ones which only partly interact with the cells inside the body -- perhaps passing through 99,999 out of 100k, and striking a cell the 100kth time (I'm making those numbers up, of course). THEN, and only then, could you justifiably posit any cascade effect reaching a cancer-causing threshold level.

    This isn't to say there can't be ANY other possible mechanism, but you do need to show how that's at least likely to work in the first place, and some kind of evidence to suggest that it does, before you start making any claims.

  23. I Got Bupkis, Critic Extraordinaire:

    but it’s generallynot going to be responsible for bladder cancer