Fun With Non-Ionizing Radiation

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticDec 7, 2016 12:29 AM


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Does non-ionizing radiation pose a health risk? Everyone knows that ionizing radiation, like gamma rays, can cause cancer by damaging DNA. But the scientific consensus is that there is no such risk from non-ionizing radiation such as radiowaves or Wi-Fi. Yet according to a remarkable new paper from Magda Havas, the risk is real: it's called When theory and observation collide: Can non-ionizing radiation cause cancer? There are a few remarkable things about this paper but chief among them is its 'graphical abstract'. Behold:

Here at Neuroskeptic I have written about research on the psychology of emoji's, but this is the first time I've seen an emoji-based scientific illustration. Wow. The paper itself goes on to explain that non-ionizing radiation is able to cause cancer and other problems by interfering with antioxidant (the yellow "kisser" depicted above) production in cells:

The body produces free radicals during metabolic activity and it also produces anti-oxidants as part of its natural repair mechanism. If the anti-oxidant repair mechanism is impaired free radical damage can result... The damage is generated not by direct ionization of atoms and molecules but rather by interference with anti-oxidant repair mechanisms.

The trouble is, Havas doesn't say anything about how the disruption of anti-oxidants happens, and it's not clear how it could. Non-ionizing radiation such as radiowaves and microwaves consists of photons, just like visible light, but at a lower frequency. Because the energy of a photon is proportional to its frequency, very high frequency photons (like gamma rays) have enough energy to disrupt atoms producing those dangerous, zombie-like, green free radicals. But visible light can't do this, and still less can microwaves or radiowaves. There's no known mechanism by which such low-energy photons could harm living tissue - except that they can heat tissue up in high doses, but the amount of heating produced by radio and wireless devices is tiny. Havas concludes that

The rapid deployment of wireless technology needs to be reconsidered. The potentially harmful effects of Wi-Fi in schools; smart meters on homes; the 5G network, as well as previous generations of cellular telecommunication have not been adequately tested for biological compatibility.

I don't think we need to get into the debate over whether there is a statistical link between non-ionizing radiation sources and cancer. Some studies report an association, but if there is no physical mechanism that could explain it, my conclusion remains as follows: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (h/t Smut Clyde).

Havas, M. (2016). When theory and observation collide: Can non-ionizing radiation cause cancer? Environmental Pollution DOI: 10.1016/j.envpol.2016.10.018

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