Wacky Theory: Bed Springs Reflect Radio Waves and Prevent Some Cancers

By Allison Bond | July 28, 2010 12:50 pm

bedUpdate, 9pm, July 29: Thanks to a tip from a commenter, we learned there was a crucial factual error in this post, so the text and headline have been altered to fix the problem.

In the West, breast cancer occurs 10 percent more often in the left breast than in the right, and skin cancer also pops up more on the left side. Oddly enough, this disparity is nonexistent in Japan. Why the discrepancies between left/right and West/East? Swedish scientists think they have the answer to the riddle—and it’s kind of weird.

The researchers lay out their case in a recent study in Pathophysiology, and the title (“Sleep on the right side—Get cancer on the left?”) gives a hint of where it’s going: The discrepancy is due to a difference in the types of beds commonly used in Japan and the West, and how radio and television waves interact with this furniture.

In the West, most people use mattresses (and often box springs) that contain coiled-metal springs, which reflect the radio waves all around us, which decreases the chance that the body will develop cancerous tumors. And because more people sleep on their right sides than their left sides—the heartbeat is quieter that way—the left sides of their bodies are further from the coils’ protective effects, and they get more cancers there. In Japan, many people sleep on futons right on the ground, so there’s no metal to prevent cancer and no difference depending on how you sleep.

Or so the story goes. There are a lot of leaps and holes here (for instance: most researchers think non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation like TV transmissions do not cause cancer) and not enough evidence—not yet, anyway—to prove the whole causative chain. So as reasonably skeptical people, we should wait for some hard supporting evidence before accepting what is, uh, a rather novel theory. Until then, sweet dreams!

Note: The original version of this post quoted from a Scientific American blog post, which is where we found out about this study. But that piece gets the researchers’ explanation exactly backwards: it said that the springs acted as antennas and amplified radio waves, increasing the likelihood of cancer; the researchers actually said the springs attenuate radio waves and decrease incidence of cancer. This post was altered to reflect that important difference.

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Image: flickr / jm3

Sleep on the right side—Get cancer on the left?


  • Jessica

    If more people sleep on their right side, why would the coils be responsible for cancers that disproportionately affect the left side?

  • http://discovermagazine.com Allison Bond

    Hi Jessica,

    That’s a good question! According to the researchers, the reason these fields affect the left side, rather than the right, has to do with the way a wave behaves. On an antenna, the “peak” of the wave occurs in the center (this is the maximum strength of the field), with two nodes on either end. So when the wave interacts with the bed frame, it just so happens that the field is at its max a little under 30 inches (75 cm) above the mattress, in our bodies’ center. This means the left side is exposed to a field strength about twice as strong as the one to which the right side is exposed.

    Hope that helps!
    Allison

  • Jessica

    Very helpful – thank you! Though I am joining you in reasonable skepticism. Thanks for your quick and informative explanation!

  • Roger

    Hmmm…

    I didn’t think there was anywhere near the energy in a photon of the wavelengths used in TV or FM transmitters to break the chemical bonds required to allow cancers to occur.

    The effect of putting a transmitter beside your head – using a cell phone, blue-tooth device, or other cordless phone – has not been shown conclusively to increase the risk of brain cancer. I’d think hat would pump a lot more energy into your head than you’d get from lying on a box spring.

    The same goes for living near power lines.

    Sorry…I think the researchers need to look someplace else to explain a right-left dichotomy.

    Perhaps in the west we use more perfumes and chemicals in our soaps. Is there a tendency to scrub our left sides harder than our right sides, forcing these chemicals under our skin more on the left than the right?

  • kirk

    first a stray cat knocks over a bucket with a bowling ball in it that rolls down a ramp and pushes a broom stick… Rube Goldberg’s unfounded conjectures about turning light switches off were funnier…

  • http://littlewinery.blogspot.com/ @tbeauchamp

    The article doesn’t seem to mention if they tested the validity of their assumption that there is a gradient of electromagnetic field strength created by the bed springs. The whole thing sounds like a premature leap of faith and a rush to publish something.

  • Old Rockin’ Dave

    Allison, since when is thirty inches at the center of the body? That would mean that an average body is sixty inches across! I know of very few humans who measure five feet through the abdomen or chest from side to side.

  • Brian Urban

    Japan FM band 70-90 MHz
    US FM Band 88-108 MHZ
    Japan TV Band (VHF Low) 90-108 MHZ
    Japan TV Band (VHF High) 170-222 MHZ
    US TV Band (VHF Low) 44-88 MHZ
    US TV Band (VHF High) 174-216 MHZ

    From the article “….In Japan, TV transmission waves are of a different frequency…”

    Not really.
    I think someone needs to do a little basic research—

  • http://kcur.org Robin

    As a Radio Engineer and Amateur Radio Operator. I must protest that this is NOT scientific. If it were it would be a repeatable experiment. AND one of the statements is entirely incorrect. Antennas CANNOT amplify. In order to amplify it requires that additional power (voltage and current) be used to increase the power of the antenna signal. Antennas can only select a range of frequencies. Other frequencies outside of that range are attenuated -read shrunk-.
    The MICRO-VOLTS that can occur on any metal object are not enough to cause this effect. The theory of heating-blankets causing problems is MUCH more likely because 120 Volts AC RMS is applied to them. The Peak to peak value of common household voltage -120 VAC- is on the order of 180 Volts P-P.

    BTW, the US FM and TV Bands are
    FM 88 to 108 MHz
    TV Low VHF 54 to 88 MHz – this band has virtually been abandoned by broadcasters since DTV has come on
    TV Hi VHF 174-216 MHz – this band still continues to have a small percentage of TV broadcasters since DTV came about
    TV UHF 470 to 752 MHz – the band ends at channel 60 to allow other uses for higher channels
    see http://www.csgnetwork.com/tvfreqtable.html

    I hope this helps.

  • Brian Too

    The Japanese inspired Swedish solution?

    An Ikea futon called the NörMatte!

  • http://cherishthescientist.net Cherish

    Actually, the SciAm article completely biffed this one up. http://cherishthescientist.net/2010/07/28/your-bed-may-be-killing-you/

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    Wow, Cherish — you’re right. The SciAm blogger has it completely backwards. We’ll fix it up ASAP.

    Good point, Robin. The original study did indeed say the box springs attenuate EM radiation.

  • http://www.decrepitoldfool.com george.w

    Radio waves are a few orders of magnitude too low in energy to ionize molecules / cause DNA damage. Amplify, attenuate, makes no difference.

  • natalie

    Ok, so springs are not amplifiers. Just wondering though. What if each spring is acting as an antennae does this mean more electromagnetic radiation is attracted to the bed area as a whole than to a single antenna. In this way any theoretical cancer causing damage is done on the passage of the waves into the mattress and not when transmitted from the mattress.

  • John Nichols

    Everything has a resonating frequency.
    Assume body length at meridan of 5.5 feet or 66 inches.
    Resonating frequency would be approx. …
    468 divided by 5.5 ft = 85.09 MHz.
    Assume body length at meridan of 5 feet or 60 inches.
    Resonating frequency would be approx. …
    468 divided by 5 ft = 93.6 MHz
    Assume body length at meridan of 6 feet.
    Resonating frequency would be approx. …
    468 divided by 6 ft = 78 MHz
    These are all half wavelength calcs. That is – the wavelength travels from head to toes and back to head.
    The antenna effect has the most energy at the ends where there is an increase in energy – aka amperian spring effect.
    True, the bed springs would dampen the energy, but could also concentrate reflected energy similar to a reflecting element of a yagi antenna.
    The reflecting element of a yagi antenna is normally tuned to .15 to .25 wavelength distant from the driven element. In this case, the body is the driven or receiving element. The distance from the bed spring would need to be 10.8 inches to 18 inches from the receiving element/body for a 6 foot individual. This is probable with some beds and inner spring mattresses.
    However, isotropic radiation occuring at 78 MHz or any UHF freq. (a 6 ft individual) is unlikely.
    Horizonal propagation is not the norm as 99% of all propagation is verticle or perpendicular to the earth’s surface.
    The uncoiled length of the inner spring may offer a clue since it is vertically aligned and could resonate since it is in a different plane to the frame of the inner spring even if connected to the metal body of the inner spring matress.
    This in my opinion is were to concentrate efforts.
    Antennas do propagate a ghost image from their tips at a 1/2 beat of the frequency.
    So, what is the length of the coil of a typical inner spring mattress? From that, we can determinine resonating frequency of the coil.
    Frequencies below 30 MHz are considered non-hazardous. All others higher are suspect.
    Maximum Permissible Exposure of RF energy to humans is dependent on frequency, power, duration and exposure/proximity. Refer to IEEE and FCC guidelines found at http://www.arrl.org.
    Also, from a sub-atomic basis, muon and tau should be measured. They are 10^3 mev and are the first particles to be spunoff a coil.
    There are too many things at play here including hetrodyning of frequencies – sum and differences, multiple radiation envelops/loops – horizonal and verticle.
    Give the theory a possible status with further investigation needed.
    ‘Just comments from another FCC licensed amateur extra radio operator.
    J

  • John

    Also, antennas can concentrate RF at a point or area. In common day language, this concentration of energy could be termed amplification, but technically isn’t.

  • Anonymous

    Is it great to lay down with a natural or
    organic mattress? When your mattress is made from organic materials, the
    feeling is different. Comfy and cool. | http://www.mattress-wiz.com

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