Note to Self | Podcast Review | October 10, 2015 | By

Note to Self: WiFi, Cancer, and Paranoia

If you’re reading this on your phone, you’re probably alright. But if you’re reading this on your phone on the way to the tanning salon, you might want to rethink your destination.

What do working as a firefighter, pickled vegetables, and WiFi 1 have in common?


The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) lists all three (along with dry cleaning, coffee, and others) as possible carcinogens—emphasis on possible. Because while we roll our eyes and complain that everything causes cancer these days, there is surprisingly not much conclusive medical evidence to prove causality between day-to-day exposure to low-level radiation and developing cancer.

Still, it’s somewhat unsettling to realize that we’re swimming in a dense but invisible “soup of connectivity” every day (1:51). This week on Note to Self, host Manoush Zomorodi and Mary Harris, the host of WNYC’s Only Human podcast (check out our review here), explores how our love of technology might be affecting our health.  Could our cell phones be giving us cancer?

Soup metaphors aside, people have reported real health issues—dizziness, nausea, headaches, etc.—that they claim come from exposure to mundane radiation sources like WiFi. And even though there’s no definite medical proof of this condition, which is called electromagnetic hypersensitivity, French nurseries have gone so far as to ban WiFi from their facilities.

Note to Self talked to David Brenner, a professor of biophysics at Columbia University, about the scientific aspects of this phenomenon.  Though there’s too much noise in the data to prove causality between cell phone use and cancer, there is a real danger in using high-level radiation machines like tanning beds.

In an incredibly touching and intimate portion of the episode, Mary shares an audio clip from her own battle with cancer. She asks her five-year-old son how he feels about her shaving her head. We hear her son’s voice quaver as he says, “Kind of scared” (11:49).

Prior to that moment, I had felt that the concerns expressed in the episode were a bit trivial. There’s no actual proof that WiFi can give us cancer, and even if it did, isn’t the sun constantly showering us with radiation? We can’t stop living just to try and keep ourselves from dying.

When I heard Mary’s exchange with her son, people’s fears started to make sense—they became real. Technology moves quickly, and we’re adopting new gadgets and practices without stopping to fully understand how they are affecting us at the most basic level. Fears about WiFi usage and microwaves are easily dismissed as paranoia, but when cancer happens to someone you know, someone you love, or even to you yourself, you want to know: could anything have been done to prevent this?

Nearly 40 percent of us will get cancer at some point in our lives. Read that again. It was so jarring of a statistic that listeners asked Note to Self for the source (the National Cancer Institute), which is posted now on its website.

But before you freak out and disable your WiFi router, keep this in mind: if you’re reading this on your phone, you’re probably alright. However, if you’re reading this on your phone on the way to the tanning salon, you might want to rethink your destination.


  1. Listed as radiofrequency electromagnetic fields ^

About the Author

Rebecca Lim is a writer at Audiologue, where she covers Freakonomics and Note to SelfReach her by email at

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