Modern myths about cancer – from ‘chemicals’ in food to wifi

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Modern myths about cancer – from ‘chemicals’ in food to wifi

Taking a look at cancer facts and myths.

Cancer is not up there with the most likely explanations for what caused the mass extinction 66m years ago of the T rex and the triceratops. That said, at least one species of dinosaur suffered from blood-vessel tumours – and a 1.7m-year-old toe with bone cancer was discovered in 2016 at a South African world heritage site.

Cancer may have been more common in ancient times than we will ever know, because fossilisation will have obliterated most evidence of the disease. However, misinterpretations of some small studies and claims by self-styled wellness gurus that cancer is “a man-made disease” have fed the belief that cancer is modern. While that does not mean anyone concerned about cancer should visit their local natural history museum for information, thinking of cancer as a result of modern life causes unnecessary fear. Here are some modern myths about cancer.

Mobile phones and wifi

There have been worries about mobile phones causing cancer since the days of playing Snake on a Nokia. Considering how widespread mobile phone use has been for decades, it would be impossible not to notice if they posed serious health risks. In the US, hardly anyone used a mobile phone in 1992. By 2008, mobile-phone use was widespread, yet the number of people who got a brain tumour barely changed. The World Health Organization’s Interphone study, which studied thousands of people across 13 countries between 2000 and 2006, also found that mobile phones did not increase a person’s chance of getting a brain tumour.

Fundamentally, cancer is caused by our DNA becoming damaged and sending normal healthy-cell-replication processes askew. Ionising radiation, such as in x-rays or radiotherapy, carries a huge amount of energy. Mobile phones, however, carry a tiny amount of energy. Breaking or stressing DNA requires a great deal of energy, far beyond the capabilities of mobile phones. Wifi, incidentally, transmits even less energy than a mobile phone.

Note, also, that not all scientific studies are created equal. Reviews or meta-analyses, where scientists look at many research studies together, give the most accurate idea of what is happening. One such review concluded: “Overall, the existing evidence for a causal relationship between RF [radiofrequency] radiation from cell phones and cancer is found to be weak to nonexistent.” The International Agency for Research on Cancer lists mobile phones as “possible carcinogens”, but this classification means only that there may be a hypothetical link that cannot be ruled out, rather than that there is a real likelihood of something causing cancer.

Read on: Modern myths about cancer – from ‘chemicals’ in food to wifi

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