Reassessing whether low energy electromagnetic fields can have clinically relevant biological effects
It is with some trepidation that I write this, given that I realize this post might lead to charges that I’ve allowed myself to become so open-minded that my brains fell out, but I think the issues raised by what I’m about to discuss will make our readers think a bit—and perhaps spark some conversation. Because I’m in a bit of a contrarian mood, I’ll take that risk, although it’s possible I might end up with the proverbial egg on my face. As our regular readers know, the issue of the health effects of radiation from mobile phones has been a frequent topic of this blog. The reasons are obvious because fear mongering claims not based in science are frequently made in the lay press and in books (for example, Disconnect by Devra Davis) and, unfortunately, also by some physicians and scientists. Moreover, like homeopathy, the issue demands a discussion of prior probability and plausibility based on basic science alone, but the issues are a bit less clear-cut. Whereas the tenets of homeopathy clearly violate multiple laws of physics and chemistry, it is possible, albeit very unlikely, that radio waves might produce significant biological changes.
There’s also sometimes a maddening dogmatism on the part of some physicists that it’s “impossible” that long term exposure to radio waves could possibly cause cancer because such electromagnetic waves do not have anywhere near enough energy to cause ionization and thereby break chemical bonds. While it is certainly true that such radio waves can’t break chemical bonds and the likelihood that the radio waves from cell phones can cause cancer appears very low based solely on physics considerations, all too often the arguments made based on physics considerations alone use a simplistic understanding of cancer and carcinogenesis as their basis. It’s not for nothing that I have referred to such arguments as being based on a high school or freshman level of understanding about cancer—or just an outmoded understanding that prevailed a decade or two ago but today no longer does. Bernard Leikind, for instance, argued and famed skeptic Michael Shermer accepted that, because the radio waves used in cellular communications are too low energy to break chemical bonds and do not produce significant heating compared to other sources, “cell phones cannot damage living tissue or cause cancer.” Note the implicit assumption: That it is somehow necessary to “damage” living tissue in order to cause cancer. That’s an assumption that is arguably quite simplistic and ignores knowledge we’ve gained about epigenetics and how potential metabolic influences might cause cancer. Cancer is associated with characteristic cellular metabolic abnormalities, and determining which is responsible for the formation of cancer, metabolic abnormalities or gene mutations, has become a “chicken or the egg”-type of question.
I do not in any way believe that cell phone radiation actually is a cause of cancer because, unlike the case in homeopathy, where multiple well-established laws of physics would have to be overturned for homeopathy to work, I find the argument that a causation is “utterly impossible” far less persuasive than some physicists do when it comes to cell phone radiation and cancer. Even dismissing the “impossibility” argument, however, clearly such a link is at the very least incredibly implausible on physics considerations alone, as I have pointed out time and time again. Add to that the nearly completely negative epidemiological data in which only one group of researchers has been able to produce apparently “positive” studies, and my personal conclusion is that we probably already have enough data to reject a connection between radio waves and cancer and don’t need any more new large epidemiological studies; following up long term results on the ones already under way should be sufficient. That is not the same thing as arguing that radio waves have no significant biological effect, which is what, in essence, the argument from physics is based on. In fact, the inspiration for the rest of this post came from a meeting I had last week with a scientist and that scientist’s talk for our cancer center’s weekly Grand Rounds. What I learned did not demonstrate that cell phones cause cancer or even that they might cause cancer. Not even this scientist claimed his results were consistent with cell phone radiation causing cancer; in fact, he quite clearly stated they were not. However, what I learned from him cast some doubt (to me, at least) on the assumption that radio waves cannot have profound biological effects. In fact, ironically enough, this scientist is proposing the use of amplitude-modulated (AM) radio waves to treat cancer. I’m not yet convinced by any stretch of the imagination that this researcher is on to something, but his findings made me think about the perils and pitfalls of declaring something “impossible” solely on basic science considerations, because he has some very intriguing results that I can’t find a compelling reason to dismiss.
And, at least as of now, there’s no known physical mechanism that can explain his findings. Leaving aside the possibility of fraud or some sort of systematic bias that is not apparent in the methods sections of the papers I’m about to summarize, either he’s found something new and potentially promising, or he’s somehow very, very wrong.