Answer to Question #11719 Submitted to "Ask the Experts"

Category: Micro/Radio Waves, Radar & Powerlines — Microwaves and Radiofrequency

The following question was answered by an expert in the appropriate field:


I have been diagnosed with thymus cancer. I was in the military for 32 years. I spent 15 years on ship as a fire control man and transferred to air trade as a com/radar tech. I worked on aircraft fire control radar, communication systems, and aircraft weather radar. Would working in this environment have contributed to my cancer?


First, let me thank you for your military service. Then, let me tell you that, based on the scientific literature and the lack of any mechanism for radiofrequency (RF) energy to induce cancer, there is no convincing evidence that your thymus cancer can be related to the exposure to the RF/microwave energy associated with radar and similar devices. Let me explain why I make that statement.

The thymus is a small organ located just behind the sternum (breastbone) and just above and in front of the heart. It reaches its maximum size of about 28 grams (g) at puberty and slowly decreases in size during adulthood. It is an important part of the immune system. During early childhood it makes T cells, which help protect the body from infectious agents.

Cancer of the thymus is uncommon. It is most common in Asians and Pacific Islanders and least common in whites and Latinos. It is rare in children and young adults, and it is most common in persons 70 and older.

The cause of thymus cancer is unknown. Some studies have suggested a link with exposure to ionizing radiation to the upper chest area, but this has not been confirmed. An excellent source of information is the American Cancer Society website, where you can search on "thymus cancer":

The environment that you worked in resulted in exposure to RF energy, which is very different from ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation is known to cause cancer, but this is not the case for RF energy which is nonionizing and for which there is no convincing evidence that it is capable of causing cancer.

Studies of the biological effects associated with exposure to RF energy and the development of safety standards for human exposure based on these studies is a continuous process that has been ongoing throughout the world for more than six decades. In fact, safety guidelines were proposed as early as the 1950s when concern first arose in the United States about exposure to electromagnetic energy, particularly at the microwave frequencies associated with military radars.

After more than 60 years of research, there is no established evidence that RF exposure can cause cancer. During the past 20 years, because of the proliferating use of mobile phones throughout the world, an extensive number of studies have been carried out related to mobile telephony—studies examining the effects of holding the phone close to the head and studies related to exposure to the base stations. The results of this research are continually reviewed by expert scientific committees and panels throughout the world, and the conclusions of these reviews are published in the form of reports and fact sheets.

Based on the scientific literature and the lack of any mechanism for RF to induce cancer, there is no convincing evidence that your thymus cancer can be related to exposure to the RF/microwave energy associated with radar and similar devices. In any event, I suggest that you follow good medical practice to treat your condition. The earlier treatment is started the better the outcome. I hope you get proper treatment and that you achieve a complete cure.

Please note that although I am the cochair of the International Committee on Electromagnetic Safety (ICES), Technical Committee 95, Subcommittee 4, which is responsible for creating international safety standards for RF exposures, I am writing this response as an individual, and my statements are my own and not necessarily those of IEEE, ICES, or Temple University.

Marvin C. Ziskin, MD
Emeritus Professor of Radiology and Medical Physics, Temple University School of Medicine

Answer posted on 15 September 2016. The information posted on this web page is intended as general reference information only. Specific facts and circumstances may affect the applicability of concepts, materials, and information described herein. The information provided is not a substitute for professional advice and should not be relied upon in the absence of such professional advice. To the best of our knowledge, answers are correct at the time they are posted. Be advised that over time, requirements could change, new data could be made available, and Internet links could change, affecting the correctness of the answers. Answers are the professional opinions of the expert responding to each question; they do not necessarily represent the position of the Health Physics Society.