The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Electromagnetic Fields & Cancer Myths

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 2, 2009

Every year when I teach my students about electromagnetism, I take some time to discuss with them the physics of electromagnetic waves (a.k.a. “light”). EM-waves go by another name common to scientists, electromagnetic radiation, and it’s that second word – radiation – which scares the hell out of so many people and makes them vulnerable to all manner of woo.

Case in point, there is a lot of bunk out there concerning EM-radiation and cancer. Specifically, there is a group of folks who try to push the idea that cell phones, power lines, and wi-fi are emitting radiation (called EMFs, or electromagnetic fields) which will give people exposed to them all manner of cancers. I’m here to tell you that this is just plain b.s. – people who make these pseudoscientific arguments do not understand the physics of EMFs, at all.

First off, the physical mechanism which creates an electromagnetic wave (or “EM-radiation” or “light” or “EMFs” – they’re all the same thing) is basically wiggling an electric charge back and forth. This process generates a self-reinforcing set of electric & magnetic fields which form the wave, and the frequency of these waves (which matches the frequency at which the charge is wiggled) is what determines exactly what kind of EM-radiation is created. Depending upon the frequency of the wave, it will fall along what is called the electromagnetic spectrum…

EM-spectrum

So everything from radio waves to visible light to x-rays is a kind of EM-radiation. The only difference between these kinds of radiation is the frequency of the wave.

Here’s where the trouble starts. As I mentioned earlier, some folks think that the EM-radiation emitted by cell phones & power lines causes cancer. The problem with this argument is that the radiation emitted by devices such as cell phones is not what is called ionizing radiation – which is EM-radiation that is energetic enough to smash into DNA, break it apart, and cause cancer.

According to quantum physics, all EM-radiation is emitted in bundles of energy called photons. And the energy of a photon of light is determined by its frequency by the following formula…

E = hf

where E is energy, f is frequency, and h is called Planck’s constant. Note that as the frequency of the photons increases, so too does the energy – and this is the critical detail.

In order for EM-radiation to break the chemical bonds of DNA molecules (and thus cause cancer), there must be a certain minimum level of energy provided by the incoming photons. It ends up this is not physically possible for photons of energies less than the ultraviolet (UV). Note that when you hear warnings about getting skin cancer, it is because you may be getting too much UV from sunlight; when you go to the dentist for an x-ray, they make you wear a lead apron to dilute the x-ray exposure; and you don’t even want to mess with gamma radiation, which is so high energy that sufficient exposure will kill you due to radiation poisoning.

Looking at the diagram posted above (the EM-spectrum), note that all of these nasty forms of dangerous, ionizing radiation exist on the high frequency, high energy section of the spectrum. This is important because when you talk about the emissions coming from cell phones, power lines, wi-fi, and so on, these forms of EM-radiation are in the radio wave region, which is the low frequency, low energy band. And because of the formula governing the energy of photons (shown above), it doesn’t matter how many of these low-energy, radio-frequency photons emitted by cell phones hit you in the head, you still won’t get cancer.

In addition, if you want to go past the fact that there is no known physical mechanism by which cell phone, power line, and wi-fi radiation could cause cancer, there are the medical studies. For example, as the Skeptic’s Dictionary states…

Many people fear that EMFs cause cancer; however, a causal connection between EMFs and cancer has not been established. The National Research Council (NRC) spent more than three years reviewing more than 500 scientific studies that had been conducted over a 20-year period and found “no conclusive and consistent evidence” that electromagnetic fields harm humans. The chairman of the NRC panel, neurobiologist Dr. Charles F. Stevens, said that “Research has not shown in any convincing way that electromagnetic fields common in homes can cause health problems, and extensive laboratory tests have not shown that EMFs can damage the cell in a way that is harmful to human health.”*

To add a bit of humor to the topic, skeptics Penn & Teller did a funny bit on this topic on their show “Bullshit”…

In closing, I wanted to leave those who still fear cell phone and similar radiation with this thought: you are constantly bathed in electromagnetic radiation of higher frequency & energy every time you turn on a lightbulb or take a walk in the sunlight. It’s called visible light (wavelength 400-700nm), and if you are honest in your fear of EM-radiation, then you might want to be certain to live the rest of your life in the dark. You know, just to be safe in keeping with the Paralyzing Precautionary Principle.

radiation2

20 Responses to “Electromagnetic Fields & Cancer Myths”

  1. Rafi Erlitzki said

    I’s be skeptic about this article. IMHO, it is based on a BELIEF that non-ionizing EMF is safe, rather than being based on facts.

    > … because of the formula governing the energy of photons (shown above), it doesn’t matter how many of these low-energy, radio-frequency photons emitted by cell phones hit you in the head, you still won’t get cancer.

    I suspect that the author would not dare putting his hand into a working microwave oven, which produces non-ionizing radiation at a frequency near 2.45 GHz.
    Indeed, cancer would not be the consequence. There’s another mechanism at play, with severe impact on one’s health.

    > … there is no known physical mechanism by which cell phone, power line, and wi-fi radiation could cause cancer …

    Not knowing of a mechanism does not mean that one does not exist.
    As one great skeptic said — “lack of evidence is not evidence of lack”.

    > The National Research Council (NRC) … found “no conclusive and consistent evidence” …

    Just two months after NRC published their report, they’ve sent a letter (publicly available) to the Department of Energy saying:
    “… we conclude that neither the press release nor the Executive Summary of the report adequately reflects the conclusions to be found in the body of the report … Continued research with adequate funding is essential to resolve the uncertainties about EMF health effects …”
    (http://www.wave-guide.org/archives/waveguide_3/nemfac.html)

    Neglecting to mention the body of research from the past ten years, since the NRC EMF report, is not the “skeptic way”; it implies a biased attempt to “prove a point” by providing half-truths.

    > … you are constantly bathed in electromagnetic radiation of higher frequency & energy every time you turn on a lightbulb or take a walk in the sunlight.

    Yes, at frequencies and energy levels that evolution has made us fit for. But are we fit enough to survive the unprecedented levels of exposure to microwave, radio and ELF? Maybe. Maybe not.
    Wait long enough and we shall adapt, through natural selection…

    > … just to be safe in keeping with the Paralyzing Precautionary Principle.

    The Precautionary Principle has been adopted in many cases, so it cannot be generally dismissed as “paralyzing”. With regards to non-ionizing EMF, the Precautionary Principle is supposedly paralyzing only because of the inconvenience and cost of reducing exposure.
    But adoption of the principle should be based on risks, not on profits of interest groups.

  2. Ian Stone said

    I have read your comments with interest I was wondering can you explain all the frequencies band that our Brain can receive and send energy information.

    Are you aware that humans transmitting information using some of these frequency can induce many measurable electrical changes and visible physical changes in another human with no physical contact.

    Maybe it could be that the EM-radiation emitted by cell phones & power lines themselves is not the cause, but the disturbances or distortions they cause to the subtle movements of Energy within and around the body which then become disturbed by extensive exposure of the EM-radiation emitted by cell phones & power lines could affect the natural balance which then may contribute to the manifestation of cancer.

    With Love
    Ian Stone – Metaphysician & Founder of HEART Energy Healing System,
    Human Energy Assessment Release Treatments
    Metaphysical Institute
    Metaphysical Institute Blog
    Facebook Add as a friend

  3. BillyJoe said

    Ian, my dear: and pigs can fly

  4. Hey, nice tips. I’ll buy a glass of beer to the man from that chat who told me to go to your site🙂

  5. If you ever want to see a reader’s feedback🙂 , I rate this article for four from five. Decent info, but I have to go to that damn msn to find the missed pieces. Thank you, anyway!

  6. rohedi said

    When calculating the frequency (f) or period (T) of Electromagnetic Waves you need the right pi number. In order to create the number pi, Rohedi invites you all to look and reading The Newest Pi Exact Formula at this link:

    http://eqworld.ipmnet.ru/forum/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=148.

  7. Kim said

    I DIGG the article very much, but Rafi Erlitzki is my hero for his reply.🙂 Also- Can you explain please how Uri Geller made spoons bend? I think you must know the answer.🙂

  8. […] dangerous.  As has been outlined repeatedly in the scientific literature – as well as in my Electromagnetic Fields & Cancer Myths blog entry – there is NO danger from cellphone radiation… […]

  9. […] dangerous.  As has been outlined repeatedly in the scientific literature – as well as in my Electromagnetic Fields & Cancer Myths blog entry – there is NO danger from cellphone radiation… […]

  10. […] Posts Wisdom in a Cookie2012 Isn't Seen as End-of-the-World by Real MayansElectromagnetic Fields & Cancer MythsThe Large Hadron Collider – Where Does Science End & Pseudoscience Begin?"Proof" of the Loch […]

  11. […] they, you guessed it, might cause brain cancer.  Ugh – I have posted about this topic before (in my post “Electromagnetic Fields & Cancer Myths”), and I cannot state strongly enough that there is no evidence that cell phone use causes cancer!  […]

  12. […] For reference, the entire study is available here in PDF format. Now of course I’m not surprised in the least by these results, seeing as how, based upon the laws of physics as we know them, there is no plausible mechanism by which such low-energy emissions from cellphones could cause cance… […]

  13. […] out of a lot of people when they reported a link between cell phone use and cancer.  Of course, as I’ve mentioned in the past, we know of no plausible physical mechanism by which cell phones (or low frequency EMFs in general) […]

  14. […] fields).  These posts – and the lessons associated with them – range from addressing claims of low-frequency EMFs inducing cancer to ghost-hunting woo (and the companies that promote such […]

  15. […] https://skepticalteacher.wordpress.com/2009/04/02/electromagnetic-fields-cancer-myths/ […]

  16. […] I’ve said it before, and no doubt I will have to say it again, but here goes… there is no causal connection […]

  17. […] Electromagnetic Fields & Cancer Myths […]

  18. jacqueline said

    Why is it several young women in there early 20’s in Ca. have cancerous tumors right in the spot where they carried their cell phones in their bra???? Why is it I feel totally exhausted when I am around lap tops for more than 10 minutes???? I will continue to protect myself. There is a LOT on money in all these electronic devices. Don’t take any chances. There is a lot of evidence out there to the contrary.

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