Left-sided Cancer: Blame your bed and TV?

Left-sided Cancer: Blame your bed and TV?

By R. Douglas Fields

Curiously, the cancer rate is 10 percent higher in the left breast than in the right. This left-side bias holds true for both men and women and it also applies to the skin cancer melanoma. Researchers Örjan Hallberg of Hallberg Independent Research in Sweden and Ollie Johansson of The Karolinska Institute in Sweden, writing in the June issue of the journal Pathophysiology, suggest a surprising explanation that not only points to a common cause for both cancers, it may change your sleeping habits.

For unknown reasons the rates of breast cancer and melanoma have both increased steadily in the last 30 years. Exposure to the sun elevates the risk of melanoma, but the sun’s intensity has not changed in the last three decades. Stranger still, melanoma most commonly affects the hip, thighs and trunk, which are areas of the body protected from the sun. What is responsible for the left-side dominance and increasing incidence of these cancers?

An intriguing clue comes from the Far East. In Japan there is no correlation between the rates of melanoma and breast cancer as there is in the West, and there is no left-side prevalence for either disease. Moreover, the rate of breast cancer in Japan is significantly lower than in the West; only 3 percent of what is seen in Sweden, for example. The rate of prostate cancer in Japan is only 10 percent of that in the U.K. and U.S.

The researchers suggest an explanation based on differences in sleeping habits in Japan and Western countries. Previous research has shown that both men and women prefer to sleep on their right sides. The reasons for this general preference are unclear, but sleeping on the right side may reduce the weight stress on the heart, and the heartbeat is not as loud as when sleeping on the left. Still, there is no reason to suspect that people in Japan sleep in positions that are any different from those in the West. The beds in Japan, however, are different. The futons used for sleeping in Japan are mattresses placed directly on the bedroom floor, in contrast to the elevated box springs and mattress of beds used in the West. A link between bedroom furniture and cancer seems absurd, but this, the researchers conclude, is the answer.

The first line of evidence they cite comes from a 2007 study in Sweden conducted between 1989 and 1993 that revealed a strong link between the incidence of melanoma and the number of FM and TV transmission towers covering the area where the individuals lived. Despite epidemiological correlations like this one suggesting the possibility that electromagnetic radiation from FM and TV broadcasts stations could suppress the immune system and promote cancer, the strength of these electromagnetic fields is so feeble it has been difficult to imagine any biological basis for the correlation.

Consider, however, that even a TV set cannot respond to broadcast transmissions unless the weak electromagnetic waves are captured and amplified by an appropriately designed antenna. Antennas are simply metal objects of appropriate length sized to match the wavelength of a specific frequency of electromagnetic radiation. Just as saxophones are made in different sizes to resonate with and amplify particular wavelengths of sound, electromagnetic waves are selectively amplified by metal objects that are the same, half or one quarter of the wavelength of an electromagnetic wave of a specific frequency. Electromagnetic waves resonate on a half-wavelength antenna to create a standing wave with a peak at the middle of the antenna and a node at each end, just as when a string stretched between two points is plucked at the center. In the U.S. bed frames and box springs are made of metal, and the length of a bed is exactly half the wavelength of FM and TV transmissions that have been broadcasting since the late 1940s. In Japan most beds are not made of metal, and the TV broadcast system does not use the 87- to 108-megahertz frequency used in Western countries.

Thus, as we sleep on our coil-spring mattresses, we are in effect sleeping on an antenna that amplifies the intensity of the broadcast FM/TV radiation. Asleep on these antennas, our bodies are exposed to the amplified electromagnetic radiation for a third of our life spans. As we slumber on a metal coil-spring mattress, a wave of electromagnetic radiation envelops our bodies so that the maximum strength of the field develops 75 centimeters above the mattress in the middle of our bodies. When sleeping on the right side, the body’s left side will thereby be exposed to field strength about twice as strong as what the right side absorbs.

If this study is correct, the solution is simple: Replace the metal in our beds with a nonmetallic mattress or orient your bed, like an antenna, away from the direction of the local FM/TV transmission tower. Call it high-tech feng shui if you like, but if this new study has not identified the cause of left-side cancer, it will, for some, be the cause of insomnia.


R. Douglas Fields, Ph. D. is the Chief of the Nervous System Development and Plasticity Section at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and Adjunct Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. Fields, who conducted postdoctoral research at Stanford University, Yale University, and the NIH, is Editor-in-Chief of the journal Neuron Glia Biology and member of the editorial board of several other journals in the field of neuroscience. He is the author of the new book The Other Brain (Simon and Schuster), about cells in the brain (glia) that do not communicate using electricity. His hobbies include building guitars, mountain climbing, and scuba diving. He lives in Silver Spring, Md.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Jan Steinman

    Or, it could be that Westerners drive cars more than Japanese. I know LOTS of people with “car suntans” on exposed skin on their left side only.

    The metal bed stuff is indeed pretty far out there. As a ham radio operator and a RF electrical engineer, I’m pretty certain that the resonance effect of a bed spring would be what we call “low Q factor,” and therefore unlikely to produce significant re-radiation. A low-Q resonant circuit resonates a small bit over a wide range of frequencies; a high-Q circuit resonates very strongly at a small range of frequencies.

    For one to get significant re-radiation from a bedspring, it would have to be a high-Q circuit AND you would have to have a TV or FM station nearby with EXACTLY the right frequency — highly unlikely.

    Also, the resonant frequency based on dimensions of a standard mattress is considerably above the frequency range mentioned — a bed spring 2 metres long would resonate at 150 MHz. A bed spring that would resonate 87 MHz would have to be 3.4 metres long! Know any giants; been sleeping in their beds?

    And then there’s the matter of materials. The standard resonance formula (300,000,000 / f) is for propagation in a vacuum. Radio waves propagating through other media are slowed down, effectively lengthening the distance needed to resonate at a particular frequency. The so-called “velocity factor” for pure copper is about 98%, but is much less for steel, perhaps as little as 80%. So now your giant friends that you sleep with would have to have 4.3 metre beds.

    And as velocity factor is smaller, the Q of a resonant circuit also goes down. And low-Q resonant circuits don’t re-radiate as much energy as high-Q ones.

    Finally, the complex combination of coils and loops of wire tend to increase the length needed to resonate at a particular frequency AND to reduce the Q factor — both reducing the amount of energy that is re-radiated. The effective size of a resonant antenna also reduces the Q factor — a thin wire will re-radiate more energy than a thick wire. And at the frequencies cited, I’d bet that the entire spring assembly tends to be “seen” by the RF field as one big lump of metal — low Q, and low re-radiation.

    If one were to sleep on top of a copper dipole cut to exactly the resonant frequency of a nearby transmitter, then perhaps there might be some connection. But with all the variables involved — different frequencies of transmitters, different materials, different spring spacings, different aspect ratios, etc. I’d say the likelihood of your mattress being a significant source of re-radiated energy slim to none.

    The only thing worse than bad science is pseudo-science. Let’s focus on things that have demonstrated scientific cause-and-effect, such as nuclear radiation or environmental pollutants, and leave the pseudo-scienticif speculation to the tin-foil-hat crowd.

    1. hellaD

      Thanks so much Jan Steinman for your detailed comment! I really appreciate your taking the time to explain about Q factors and more. I have currently borrowed a gauss meter from BC Hydro and have been trying to check out what is going on in my apartment with EMFs, we had 8 smartmeters installed directly below my room.

      Indeed there are a lot of things that could cause the prevalence of those types of cancer.

      I have heard many reasons why melanoma often grows on areas of the body that are not exposed to sunlight at all.

      Regardless of where the radiation is coming from there is a lot that can be done with diet, therapeutic baths etc to help your body remove any toxic effects.

      1. Jan Steinman

        “I have currently borrowed a gauss meter from BC Hydro and have been trying to check out what is going on in my apartment with EMFs, we had 8 smartmeters installed directly below my room.”

        A “gauss meter” only measures magnetic fields, which is the “M” in “EMF.” It is good for measuring magnetic fields coming from transformers and other low-frequency (60 hertz) things.

        A gauss meter will be useless for measuring radio waves that are coming from the cell phone transmitters in smart meters. To a gauss meter, a smart meter will look no different than a normal meter.

        The cell phone transmitters in smart meters are operating at frequencies at least 15,000,000 times higher than what gauss meters can measure. (900 MHz versus 60 Hz)

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