Many people know ultraviolet rays and X-rays can cause cancer.
These are high-frequency, ionizing electromagnetic fields (EMFs). Ionizing EMFs are considered carcinogenic, while nonionizing EMFs, such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth signals, and fields from electronic devices, are generally not. This perception has prevailed in the public mindset for decades.
In this series, we will explore the invisible yet omnipresent electromagnetic fields that saturate our world, from common home electronics to 5G, and their potential impacts on human health.
Many people know ultraviolet rays and X-rays can cause cancer.
These are high-frequency, ionizing electromagnetic fields (EMF). Ionizing EMFs are considered carcinogenic, while nonionizing EMFs, such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth signals, and fields from electronic devices, are generally not. This perception has prevailed in the public mindset for decades.
However, fewer people know that certain nonionizing EMFs are also classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as class 2B carcinogens—a category indicating potential human carcinogenicity.
Dr. David Carpenter, an environmental health professor at the University of Albany who received his medical doctorate from Harvard Medical School, noted that radiofrequency, a type of nonionizing radiation used in telecommunications, might eventually fall under class 2A classification, denoting a probable human carcinogen.
Oxidation, DNA Changes, and Cancer
Cancer is usually caused by mutation or changes to DNA. Factors like viral infections, radiation, and environmental toxins can cause these alterations DNA.
Ionizing EMFs directly damage DNA. Ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays remove electrons from DNA, causing mutations. Accumulated mutations lead to cell malignancy. The body is accustomed to a certain amount of this kind of damage, particularly from sunlight. Excessive amounts are a different matter.
Cancer can also be induced through physiological stress alone. Examples of this include asbestos and arsenic, which cause cancer in the absence of direct DNA damage.
For this reason, Dr. Carpenter suggests EMFs may be carcinogenic just by inducing “reactive oxygen species” that stress the cell environment through oxidation. Oxidation generated by EMFs has been shown to break DNA in human sperm and fibroblast cells, indicating potentially carcinogenic risks.
Professor emeritus Martin Pall, specializing in biochemistry and basic medical sciences at Washington State University, explained that EMFs are complicated in that stronger EMFs don’t necessarily mean more DNA damage. Instead, only specific frequencies and intensities cause an effect.
This has been shown in a recent University of Colorado study, finding that at a 4.2 megahertz (MHz) frequency, human fibroblast and fibrosarcoma mitochondria increased in mass, inducing cell stress. This effect was absent at higher and lower frequencies.
According to the IARC, possibly carcinogenic nonionizing EMFs include:
Extremely low frequency EMFs commonly found at frequencies of 50 to 60 Hz emitted by power lines, electronic wires, and virtually all electrically powered devices.
Radiofrequency EMFs emitted by wireless devices such as phones, Wi-Fi modems, TVs, and cellphone towers used in telecommunications. These are also utilized in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
The IARC rated radiofrequency as class 2B rather than 2A, with one of the reasons being the lack of evidence linking it to cancer in animal studies.
Contrastingly, the 2018 U.S. National Toxicology Program study from the 1990s presented "clear evidence" of radiofrequency-induced heart tumors in rats, along with "some evidence" of brain and adrenal cancers.
The Ramazani Institute's 2018 study also discovered heart and brain tumors in rats, aligning with these findings.
EMFs and Brain Cancer
Senior consultant in radiation sciences Kjell Hansson Mild from Umea University in Sweden told The Epoch Times that the link between EMF exposure and brain cancer and tumors is well-established.
A study from the 1980s revealed a 39 percent higher risk of brain cancer among amateur radio operators due to EMFs.
“Brain gliomas associated with cellphones have the most research. The gliomas appear after 10 years of moderate cellphone use, primarily ipsilateral cancers (cancer on the same side of head where you hold the cellphone),” professor emerita Magda Havas told The Epoch Times through email.
Glioma are malignant brain cancers.
A 2017 study linked long-term ipsilateral use of mobile phones with an over 40 percent increased risk of slow-growing glioma. A large French study conducted between 2004 to 2006 found that people with “heavy mobile phone use” had increased folds in glioma risk after years of use.
In 2004, oncologist and professor Lennart Hardell from Orebro University in Sweden published a study involving over 1,600 patients with benign brain tumors. His research found a 30 percent higher likelihood of brain tumors in wireless phone users. These tumors primarily developed on the side of the head in contact with the phone, with an over 60 percent higher risk after 10 years of phone use.
Benign tumors typically don't become cancerous; they grow slower and do not invade nearby tissues or other areas of the body.
Another Swedish study in 2004 indicated no initial risk increase of acoustic neuroma (benign brain tumor) associated with phone use within the first year. However, by the 10th year, the risk surged to 90 percent.
Other research on brain tumors emerged from occupational exposure studies.
During the late 1990s, a study examined approximately 880,000 U.S. Air Force personnel with at least one year of service. This study detected 230 cases of brain cancer potentially linked to radiofrequency exposure, revealing a 39 percent heightened risk through occupational exposure. In 2001, a review (pdf) demonstrated that those working with electricity faced an up to 20 percent greater risk of developing brain cancer than the general public. Still, researchers concluded the risk was too low to warrant a discussion on causality.
Despite increased environmental radiofrequency exposures among the public, Mr. Hansson Mild's primary concerns are power lines and occupational exposures.
He noted that cellphones used in previous studies emitted stronger signals than today's phones.
“Today, you only need to reach 200 meters to the next base station. But yesterday, you needed to reach 35 kilometers to reach the base station,” Mr. Hansson Mild said.
While phones emitted stronger radiation in the past, Ms. Havas emphasized that radiofrequency radiation still poses a health risk, given its higher prevalence today.
Not everyone owned a phone in the past, but most people today have a wireless phone.
“So many people now use cellphones, and they still emit far more energy than necessary, and brain tumors (gliomas) are increasing in the population,” Ms. Havas said. “So many wireless devices now emit radiofrequency radiation in addition to cellphones, like Wi-Fi, smart meters, cordless phones, wireless baby monitors, smart watches, etc., and these are active 24/7 in most homes, schools, and occupational settings.”
EMFs and Childhood Leukemia
Some of the earliest research linking nonionizing EMF with cancer came from studies on leukemia.
"We know that from Hiroshima and Nagasaki ... that the [latency for leukemia] may be five to seven years, but for brain cancer, when you look at ionizing radiation or chemical exposure, the time between exposure and when the cancers are detected is usually 20 to 30 years," Dr. Carpenter said.
This shorter latency makes it easier to research, he explained.
Leukemia has been strongly linked with extremely low frequency (ELF) EMF exposures through power lines and home wiring. The flow of electricity creates powerful magnetic fields that can penetrate walls and glass. (We will explain more details in the following articles.)
One of the first studies investigating this link came from a 1979 paper on leukemia in Colorado. The authors found that between 1976 to 1977, childhood cancer in the region was disproportionally found in families living near power lines carrying high currents of electricity.
The risks also appeared dose-related; for instance, children who had not moved had the highest cancer risk.
Studies from the early 2000s found that children exposed to 0.3 to 0.4 microtesla of magnetic fields had up to twofold increased risk of childhood leukemia compared to children exposed to magnetic fields under 0.1 microtesla.
The official safety limit for magnetic fields is much higher, at 100 microteslas.
EMFs and Breast Cancer
Breast cancer, especially estrogen-positive breast cancer, which uses the hormone estrogen to grow, has been well linked with ELF EMFs.
Research published since the 1990s shows that 50-Hz to 60-Hz EMFs promote breast cancer growth in cell culture by blocking the action of melatonin, an anti-tumor agent that prevents tumor growth.
ELF EMF has also been shown to inhibit the breast cancer drug tamoxifen in human cell cultures. Tamoxifen is also used to prevent cancer cell growth. Epidemiological studies on women and men have indicated EMFs increase the risk of breast cancer in both sexes.
Radiofrequency from mobile phones has also been linked with breast cancer.
A 2020 Taiwan study on women with breast cancer found that those with habitual smartphone use before bedtime had a 43 percent higher risk of breast cancer.
Women who routinely put their mobile phones against their breasts may also be at a higher risk. This was illustrated in a 2013 American study investigating four unusual breast cancer cases in women under 40 with no family history or genetic predisposition.
Breast cancer typically occurs in women 50 or older with a family history or certain genetic predisposition. The authors, therefore, looked for other reasons and found that all patients regularly carried their smartphones directly against their breasts in their brassieres for up to 10 hours a day for several years and developed tumors in areas of their breasts immediately underlying the phones.
Despite the above studies, it has been challenging to definitively prove if EMFs cause cancer, according to Dr. Carpenter.
Due to the widespread use of electricity and telecommunications globally, finding an unexposed group for comparison in cancer rate studies has become nearly impossible.
Another problem is that biology is very complicated; not all cells respond to EMFs, and not all EMFs will cause a biological reaction. Cells can behave very differently depending on the biochemical processes within the cell at the time of exposure. Even samples of the same cell line from the same laboratories can respond differently to EMFs.
There is also published research led by researchers inexperienced in researching the effects of EMFs. For instance, researchers testing magnetic fields on cell cultures in incubators might overlook that the incubator itself could emit stronger magnetic fields, rendering the study invalid.
Financial motivations within the industry could also contribute to inconclusive links between EMFs and cancer. Independent research by Dr. Carpenter and Professor Emeritus Henry Lai from the University of Washington has revealed that industry-funded studies often find no connection between EMFs and health effects. In contrast, independent and government-funded research tends to identify an association.
"You can always find no effect if you design a faulty study," Dr. Carpenter said. "I think that in many ways, the telecommunications industry has very intentionally muddied the water by supporting publication of results that are designed to not show any effect.
"And therefore," he continued, they state that the results on EMFs causing cancer "are inconsistent, and inconclusive."
Next: Are EMFs contributing to infertility and miscarriages?
Marina Zhang is a health writer for The Epoch Times, based in New York. She mainly covers stories on COVID-19 and the healthcare system and has a bachelors in biomedicine from The University of Melbourne. Contact her at [email protected].