Dear Europe, Radio Waves Aren't Killing You

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One of my favorite television shows is European Journal by Germany's DW-TV. It helps keep me connected with current events in Europe. The program is decidedly left-of-center, but their reporting is usually solid -- that is, until they decide to openly advocate for a particular cause. And their latest attempt at advocacy is nothing short of journalistic malpractice.

The report (linked here) was about a U.S. satellite dish installation in Sicily called MUOS (Mobile User Objective System). Local residents are opposed to the project because they believe the satellite dishes will cause cancer. The reporter interviewed Dr. Marino Miceli, who said, "We set up a cancer register. What it shows is that we have an elevated rate of thyroid cancer, double the average for Sicily and for Italy as a whole. The same holds true for testicular cancer and some forms of leukemia."muos.jpeg

The reporter then interviews a cancer survivor who blames her cancer on -- you guessed it -- the satellite dish.

Does this sound familiar? It should. It was this sort of pseudoscience that linked hexavalent chromium to cancer in Hinkley, California -- made famous by the movie Erin Brockovich. The problem? Subsequent investigation showed that Hinkley actually didn't suffer from higher rates of cancer. In fact, the town had fewer cancers than what was expected based on its demographics.

In other words, Erin Brockovich and the lawyers she worked for made millions of dollars peddling shoddy pseudoscience masquerading as epidemiology.

Could the same thing be happening in Sicily? Almost certainly, the answer is yes.

It's not possible -- not even theoretically possible -- for the ultra high frequency (UHF) radio waves that the MUOS satellite system uses to cause cancer. Why? Radio waves, like all electromagnetic radiation, come in little packets called "photons." For any particular photon to be carcinogenic, it must be able to deliver enough energy to break chemical bonds. An X-ray photon can do that. So can UV photons. But radio wave photons cannot. And it doesn't matter how many radio wave photons there are. They cannot cause cancer. Your AM/FM radio isn't killing you -- no matter how strong the signal is. (The same logic applies to cell phones. Despite that, 69% of Italians are still scared of cell phone towers.)

Think about it. Radio waves are everywhere. If they actually caused cancer, we would all be dead -- probably several times over.

And the most negligent thing about European Journal's report was that they did not even bother to ask a scientist if their scare story was remotely possible. They got the information they wanted and presented a distorted, lopsided view of reality to their audience.

So, what is causing the higher rate of cancer in this part of Sicily? The better question to ask is: "Is there a higher rate of cancer in this part of Sicily?" If the answer is yes (and that's a big "if"), then it could be due to an environmental contaminant. It should be noted that the area immediately surrounding Mt. Etna has a higher rate of thyroid cancer. Perhaps some similar contaminant is present near the satellite dish installation. Whatever the explanation, it is definitely not radio waves.

If DW-TV is responsible, they will run a follow-up story correcting the scientific record.

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

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