RFID and cancer

Who needs privacy concerns if RFID causes cancer. The small implantable microchips that have generated concern from privacy experts and readers of revelations alike have now been associated with sarcoma formation in animals.

A series of veterinary and toxicology studies, dating to the mid-1990s, stated that chip implants had “induced” malignant tumors in some lab mice and rats.

“The transponders were the cause of the tumors,” said Keith Johnson, a retired toxicologic pathologist, explaining in a phone interview the findings of a 1996 study he led at the Dow Chemical Co. in Midland, Mich.

Leading cancer specialists reviewed the research for The Associated Press and, while cautioning that animal test results do not necessarily apply to humans, said the findings troubled them. Some said they would not allow family members to receive implants, and all urged further research before the glass-encased transponders are widely implanted in people.

Published in veterinary and toxicology journals between 1996 and 2006, the studies found that lab mice and rats injected with microchips sometimes developed subcutaneous “sarcomas” — malignant tumors, most of them encasing the implants.

– A 1998 study in Ridgefield, Conn., of 177 mice reported cancer incidence to be slightly higher than 10 percent — a result the researchers described as “surprising.”

– A 2006 study in France detected tumors in 4.1 percent of 1,260 microchipped mice. This was one of six studies in which the scientists did not set out to find microchip-induced cancer but noticed the growths incidentally. They were testing compounds on behalf of chemical and pharmaceutical companies; but they ruled out the compounds as the tumors’ cause. Because researchers only noted the most obvious tumors, the French study said, “These incidences may therefore slightly underestimate the true occurrence” of cancer.

– In 1997, a study in Germany found cancers in 1 percent of 4,279 chipped mice. The tumors “are clearly due to the implanted microchips,” the authors wrote.

I’m pretty sure they’re referring to this study in mice in the first example. As usual the idiots writing science pieces can’t figure out how to link articles in the literature, or even mention useful information to help find the article like the journal name or an author. Worthless, I swear.

RFID didn’t need any more help being creepy. But two things should be considered before this becomes a major concern. First, is that enough of these have been implanted in dogs and cats that it strikes me as strange that this has not been observed yet in the pet population (I could only find one report and it’s not clear this is different from post-injection fibrosarcoma seen with vaccination in cats and dogs). Maybe now that we know to look such an effect might appear with systematic study. Second this result would be surprising since one would not predict the types of materials used in implantable chips would cause inflammation or be carcinogenic (unless someone screwed up), so it is unclear what the mechanism would be for carcinogenicity.

The things that are scary are that this has been observed inadvertently in multiple studies, the cancers are repeatedly sarcomas, and based on what the researchers have said, directly associated with the RFID implant. It’s enough that I would never agree to get an implant, not that I see any good reason to in the first place. Even a 0.01% risk of cancer would be crazy, since there isn’t enough of a benefit to the technology to justify the risk of tens of thousands of cancers a year if the technology were widely adopted. Here’s an instance in which the precautionary principle wins out. This technology should be frozen for human use until the cause of these results is better understood.

I should also point out that this is yet another example of crappy science reporting. Not because it wasn’t thorough, but because of the complete lack of transparency about the specific sources in the literature from which the reporting came. I think we should start writing emails to authors of articles that do this until the problem is corrected.


  1. Here’s an instance in which the precautionary principle wins out.

    Do you really mean that? The precautionary principle should *never* win out. I can use the precautionary principle to argue you shouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. Or that you never should have gotten into bed in the first place…

    This is a clear cost-benefit analysis. The potential costs aren’t clearly understood, but could be pretty bad. The benefit is zero (to the injectee). So potential costs are paid by a different person than receives the benefit. Ergo, scrap the project until it’s clearer what the costs are.

  2. Well Factition, I think the precautionary principle is a good idea, but ultimately scientifically dangerous and abused. I’m not quite as vehement about it as you, but if it hadn’t been for cranks it would have been a good general principle

    I’m all for caution and prudence when it comes to things like this. And the fact is, there isn’t a lot of evidence to suggest a solid link in humans. That doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be halted and evaluated very carefully. Hence, the principle in this case wins for me.

  3. It seems to me that such a thing would have more to do with the nature of the implant itself than the technology — the studies have generally shown that radio waves of any sort can’t cause cancer because they aren’t ionizing radiation.

    Unless there’s something in the chemistry of the implant, it seems there is a tempest in a teapot and the precautionary principle does not apply. That said, I don’t want an RFID implant for any reason either.

  4. Just a note–complaining about not citing sources to the actual author of that article, or any other, isn’t going to do you much good. Reporters have to answer to editors, who have to follow long-running standards set up by their publications. That particular article, for example, is from the AP. If you really want to see changes made, your best bet is to write directly to the organization and make your suggestion(s)–to the AP in this case.

  5. It seems to me that such a thing would have more to do with the nature of the implant itself than the technology

    The nature of the implant (materials, location, etc) are part of the technology. You couldn’t make one of these out of surgical steel, or implant it in a bone. So yes, this is all about the “chemistry” of the implant, or its physical design.

    The real issue isn’t health, obviously, but it’s also obvious that these things have potential health issues as well.

    Everyone knows that these things are already FDA approved and in play, right?

  6. This may be related to an effect specific to rodents where smooth implanted objects are likely to result in scarcomas. There’s some discussion of the effect in this article with references to some relevant journal articles in the footnotes.

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