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Science & Health

‘Cellphones cause cancer’ and other health myths

No, smartphones don't cause cancer. (Creative Commons photo by Japanexperterna.se on Flickr)
No, smartphones don't cause cancer. (Creative Commons photo by Japanexperterna.se on Flickr)

When I got my first cellphone, my mom told me to not put it in my pocket because it would give me cancer. I rolled my eyes and told her that that was stupid, but I always worried a little when I went to slip my phone into my jeans.

It’s a worry that many share, largely because this myth rears its head every so often. It often expands to encompass not only cellphones, but also laptops and microwaves. However, based on current evidence, it is just that – a myth. But now, although we can use our cellphones as much as we want (which might very well be every waking moment), we may have to worry about meat giving us cancer.

Keith Diehl, a radiation technology instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College, says that this myth started because “the word ‘radiation’ causes fear in the population.” But every type of technology emits radiation since the word radiation describes the way that energy moves through space – that energy can take the form of light, signals and much more.

Cellphones and laptops emit radiation, but the type and amount of radiation that is produced (low levels of nonionizing radiation) can’t even penetrate the human body.

Harmful ionizing radiation – the kind found in X-ray machines – is powerful enough to displace electrons orbiting a nucleus, which then leads to the electron disrupting DNA bonds. This is what causes biological problems, like cancer or other noncancerous tumor formation, or even genetic problems which can then affect future generations.

But nonionizing radiation cannot do this – it’s simply not strong enough. Even microwaves, many parents’ secret fear, do not emit harmful radiation nor do they “zap” the nutrients out of food.

For there to be any change in expert opinions on this, there would have to be much more extensive and in-depth studies. “The radiofrequency radiation used in cellphones may affect the brain in different ways, but scientific evidence has not been proven to cause cancer or tumor formation in animal or human studies. An extensive epidemiologic study would need to be conducted to further study if there is a direct link between the radiofrequency radiation used in cellphones and tumor or cancer formation,” said Diehl.

Although we don’t have to worry about our household appliances giving us cancer, we still aren’t only cursed by genetics or sheer bad luck – instead we get to contend with food that tries to kill us. It turns out that eating processed or raw meat might actually increase our chances of getting cancer. Granted, if you have that meat-lovers’ pizza at dinner, you will not die, nor you will suddenly collapse if you have a few pieces of bacon at breakfast. If you suddenly decide to go on an all-meat diet, however, you might run into trouble.

The World Health Organization recently categorized processed meat as Group 1, meaning that there is sufficient evidence linking the consumption of processed meat (like that found in hot dogs, beef jerky and sausages) to colorectal cancer.

Red meat has been classified as Group 2A, which means that limited evidence has suggested a strong positive association between consumption of red meat and colorectal cancer, as well as strong mechanistic evidence suggesting a connection.

So maybe you should avoid a third hot dog, or skip the steak at dinner, but at least you can curl up with your laptop for as long as you want with no fear.


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