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Cancer and radio waves: the doctor is out

Daniel Matthews |

I can remember it well. On the same day in 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced two new potential causes of cancer: pickles, and cell phones. People may not eat pickled veggies all the time, but we use cellphones constantly. By so doing, we send radio waves from cellphones into our brains.

We wouldn’t have this on our plate the way we do now if it weren’t for the invention of the radio. Late in the 19th century, Nikolai Tesla and Guglielmo Marconi competed for the patent on radio technology. Telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell’s company, AT&T, became the first to advertise over the radio in 1923. In 1973, Martin Cooper and Motorola invented the cell phone—although AT&T had already invented the concept of cellular technology.

Cellular technology harnesses the power of radio waves to send signals, allowing phones to ditch the wires, and creating more convenience for us. At the same time, the technology could potentially create a headache: we’re using electromagnetic radiation to a greater extent now than ever before, and science is still unclear on how it’s affecting us.

The radio waves are everywhere. Radio waves, carrying the Marketplace Morning Report you hear every day on your way to work. Waves radiating into your brain from your cell phone as you talk to your mom on Mother’s Day. Passing through you from TV signals. From WiFi conductors. Radar. And now, the NFL is using them, via RFID chips, to report player stats in real-time.

Imagine a stadium with thousands of people cheering, sending radio signals from the field—from RFID chips—and from the stands—from cell phones. Meanwhile, radio and TV broadcasts from the same stadium are using radio waves. Yet lurking in the background is the WHO’s murky assertion that radio waves may cause cancer.

Other waves on the electromagnetic spectrum, such as gamma waves and x-rays, are powerful enough to ionize atoms. They literally vibrate the atom so violently it shakes loose an electron, leading to destabilization in tissue, and eventually cancer.

The scientific community, though, is unsure about radio waves and cell phone use. Radio waves don’t vibrate at a level intense enough to break down the bond between atoms. Ultimately, the scientific community instills a vague level of fear in us concerning radio waves. The waves are a form of energy, an energy that can heat tissue. What is this energy, radiating around us in a higher concentration than ever before, doing to our minds and bodies?

The answer depends on who you ask. The WHO’s report is riddled with words like participation bias, methodological limitations, and suggestions of an increased risk. That last phrase applies to glioma, a rare kind of brain tumor. Participants who had used cellphones for around 1640 hours suggested an increased risk of glioma tumors in their temporal lobes, about a 40% increased risk. But this “suggestion” is limited by “biases and errors.”

Likewise, another study on how cell phones affect brain metabolism comes up unclear. Conducted by the Journal of the American Medical Association, the study showed that cell phone use excites brain cells. The radio waves stimulate cells into consuming more glucose. Brain cells send electric signals to each other, and electromagnetic energy causes these cells to speed up—but the result of this activity, besides depleted glucose, isn’t necessarily negative, or positive.

While we’re in the gray zone of scientific uncertainty, we can ask what we’re looking for. Are we looking for a study to prove cellphones, and by extension, the radio waves that cell phones use can eventually cause cancer? Or are we looking for a study that lets us justify using our cell phones constantly?

Either way, we’d be looking for a chimera. We’d be looking for something to confirm our own biases. Radio waves have been a part of our natural spectrum ever since there has been such a thing. They’re generated by stars, black holes, solar winds—they occur naturally. Granted, some not-so-academic sources are more assertive about a supposed link between cellphone radio waves and cancer. And if we’re overexposed to this type of energy—if we use our cellphones too much, or let our young children use them—it’s not unreasonable to think our cells may revolt.

But if we’re worried about cancer, I think we are better off exploring positive ways of living, and positive solutions, such as turmeric, which helps reduce free radicals and promote cell turnover. A substance in turmeric, curcumin, helps control transcription factors in cancer-causing genes. The genes act like a switch, and once the switch is turned off the gene can no longer synthesize cancer agents.

Of course there’s no end-all-be-all, in which I tell you turmeric or positive thinking will absolutely reduce the risk of cancer. At the same time, if I do make that assertion, you and I may benefit from the placebo effect—we may benefit from the power of our own mind, sending electrical signals, exercising moderation, working with the environment in such a way as to never have to worry about cancer to begin with.

Daniel Matthews

About the Author

Daniel Matthews is a thirty-two years young writer and musician from Boise, Idaho. He loves creativity, psychology, and healthy living. Besides blogging, he is currently working on a long book of poetry.

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