Years of studies conclude that tablets, smartphones, and other wireless technology emit radiation that causes cancer, but scientists don't know to what degree
The list of things that may possibly cause cancer is very long and includes almost everything you know and love: alcohol, lipstick, sugar, sun exposure—just to name a few. While some are more worrisome than others (as long as you're not eating lipstick a tube at a time, you're safe), one that people are becoming increasingly concerned about are cell phones and other wireless technology.
A new meta-analysis, published in Electromagnetic Biology and Medicine, aims to address those concerns once and for all with a review of all the existing data on the subject. And what they found shows that our phones, laptops, tablets, and unlimited Wi-Fi could indeed be making us sick. (See The Bad Habits that Increase Your Risk for Cancer.)
The problem stems from the fact that all wireless devices emit low-intensity radiofrequency radiation (RFR). Study author Igor Yakymenko, Ph.D., explained in the paper that RFR causes oxidative stress in the body, a reaction which releases free radicals—molecules that can cause cellular damage unless they're "cleaned up" by antioxidants (yes, the same antioxidants in berries, green veggies, red wine, and tea).
Oxidative stress, at a basic level, is a completely normal part of the aging process. It's a natural and unavoidable byproduct of breathing oxygen—ironically, the same stuff we need to live is the same stuff that's aging our cells. But prior research has shown that some things can increase the rate at which oxidative stress occurs and therefore accelerate the damage. Wireless gadgets, Yakymenko wrote, may be one of those things.
His team analyzed existing data from previous studies and found evidence that long-term exposure to the ambient, low-dose RFR emitted by our favorite electronic devices is enough to explain not only the development of cancer, but also other minor problems seen in the studies, such as headache, fatigue, and skin irritation. (Some of these can be early symptoms of cancer too. Find out the Top Warning Signs to Ask Your Doctor About.)
"These data are a clear sign of the real risks this kind of radiation poses for human health," Yakymenko warned.
But before you start wearing a stylish tin-foil hat and lead vest at all times, there are some things you should know. First, radiation comes in two types: ionizing (x-rays, radon, and cosmic rays) and non-ionizing (radiofrequency and extremely low-frequency or power frequency). Wireless technology only uses the latter—good news, since only ionizing radiation has conclusively been shown to cause cancer. Although many studies have examined the potential health effects of non-ionizing radiation from radar, microwave ovens, cell phones, and other sources, the National Cancer Insitute reports that there is no consistent evidence that non-ionizing radiation increases cancer risk. While Yakymenko's new analysis did find some evidence that RFR increases cellular damage and therefore has the potential to cause cancer and other illnesses, more research needs to be done to show that direct link.
Plus, even though RFR increases oxidative stress, our bodies are programmed to deal with this because it's a normal part of living. Not surprisingly, a healthy diet full of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables and exercise have both been shown to minimize and even reverse oxidative damage. (Opt for a diet that does double duty: 6 New Dietary Guidelines Announced for Cancer Prevention.)
So how much of a risk are you really at? The scientific community at large thinks the danger is very small, but as this paper shows, there may evidence that the threat is bigger than previously thought. But there still isn't a known, accepted threshold for what's healthy and what isn't—mostly because we all experience RFR on a daily basis, even from sources besides wireless. It's not yet possible to quantify how much damage people are doing to themselves or how much exposure warrants worry.
Regardless of whether or not they will give you cancer, it's important to remember that abuse of electronic devices isn't healthy. Recent studies have found that social media can make you depressed, binge-watching TV is linked with mental illness and obesity, cellphone addiction can causes social isolation, and the blue light emitted from screens can cause sleep problems.
For better or worse (both, probably), wireless technology is an integral part of modern life, so the question becomes how to use them as safely as possible. According to the FDA, it's all about taking reasonable precautions and using gadgets as a small part of a healthy lifestyle. In other words, going on that long run this weekend will likely balance out any ill effects from listening to your favorite running playlist on your phone while you do it.