Experts from the Trust and Imperial College London team up to challenge myths and misconceptions around radiation in an AHSC seminar at St Mary’s Hospital.


ach year, the Imperial College Academic Health Science Centre brings together Trust and College experts to host public seminars covering on-going research and applications to care. January’s seminar, “Challenging the myths and misconceptions of radiation,” united experts Professor Paul Elliott, chair in epidemiology and public health medicine at Imperial College London, and Professor Gerry Thomas OBE, chair in molecular pathology at Imperial College London and the Chernobyl Tissue Bank. Radiation is the emission of energy in the form of waves or particles. Radiation can be ionising or non-ionising depending on how much energy is held in the particles emitted. Non-ionising radiation doesn’t have enough energy to ionise molecules, so is generally considered unlikely to cause damage at the levels we encounter. However, in high doses, ionising radiation can cause damage to our cells, including cell death or cell mutation.


Prof Elliott’s work focuses on the long term effects of mobile phone use. Mobile phones emit non-ionising radiation that

doesn’t have enough energy to break chemical bonds, so they are considered safe to use. But as we become more reliant on our phones, researchers are hoping to understand their long-term effects.

Prof Elliott leads an international study of the impact of the long-term use of mobile phones and wireless technologies. Called COSMOS, the study follows a cohort of 310,000 adults across six European countries. It aims to gather objective data about each participant’s phone use over 20 to 30 years, and hopes to uncover whether there is any correlation between mobile phone use and poor health outcomes. The study analyses the routine health information, lifestyle and demographic data and mobile phone use of participants alongside data from mobile phone operators to try to identify whether chronic diseases or symptoms are linked to mobile phone use. Professor Elliott explained that people who use mobiles phones extensively for making or receiving calls recorded slightly more frequent weekly headaches than other users, but it seemed that this was more related to lifestyle issues than to radio frequency (RF) emissions from the phones.

Professor Gerry Thomas 14 /Trust

TACKLING ‘RADIOPHOBIA’ Following Prof Elliott’s talk, Prof Thomas spoke about ionising radiation and ‘radiophobia’, or the persistent fear of perceived dangers of radiation. “The effect of radiation on public health is small compared to other risks such as smoking,” Prof Thomas said. “There is a real need to dismantle some

Professor Paul Elliott

of the myths and misconceptions around radiation to increase understanding, as well as policymakers having access to evidence-based science when making decisions on matters such as energy policy.”

She also outlined her work looking at the health effects on those who were children at the time of the Chernobyl nuclear accident and living in the contaminated areas of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia who subsequently developed thyroid cancer. Twenty eight people died as a result of being exposed to very high levels of radiation and there were 15 deaths from thyroid cancer in 25 years. The team found no increase in other cancer cases and no effect on fertility or infant mortality.


With its academic partner, Imperial College London, the Trust formed Imperial College Academic Health Science Centre in 2009, the first of its kind in the UK. The Royal Marsden and the Royal Brompton and Harefield joined in 2016, and the Institute for Cancer Research in 2019. The AHSC runs an annual programme of public events on new research and their applications to care, with speakers from member organisations. Trust staff are encouraged to attend, and all events are open to the general public. Visit to find out about upcoming events.

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