Do solar panels cause cancer?
One of the more interesting questions that people have about home solar panels is whether they increase your cancer risk. This article looks at the science behind this question.
A solar photovoltaic system is made up of a number of components that generate electric currents, or have electronics that emit electromagnetic fields. In addition, certain types of solar cells are made of elements or compounds that have known toxicities, such as cadmium telluride and gallium arsenide. So does this mean that putting solar panels on your roof increases your risk of cancer?
In short, no. While components that make up a photovoltaic system do emit varying degrees of electromagnetic fields, those fields are within the limits established by the FCC for electrical devices. In addition, the electricity that is generated by solar panels is direct current, and so the wires that carry DC power don’t generate electromagnetic fields like AC-carrying wires do. EM radiation has no known health effects. Finally, solar panels for homes almost always use non-toxic silicon technology.
Health concerns about modern technology are completely understandable, and solar photovoltaic systems are made up of a lot of different components. Here’s a look at each of them in detail.
Do solar panels emit radiation? Electromagnetic fields and solar inverters
Modern electronics emit very low levels of electromagnetic (EM) fields and radiofrequency (RF) radiation. In a photovoltaic system, the solar inverter that converts direct current (DC) power from your solar panels into alternating current (AC) power is a source of EM and RF radiation.
Neither of these are a health concern.
The health risks of RF radiation
First, let’s talk about RF radiation. The word radiation causes fear because it conjures up images of nuclear bombs and powerful x-rays. This is not the type of radiation that modern electronics emit.
Electromagnetic radiation, broadly speaking, consists of photons in motion. Photons at different frequencies take on different characteristics. At one frequency, photons make up the radiation that we call visible light. That’s right: that pretty rainbow in the sky is made of electromagnetic radiation.
Reduce the frequency of that light, and it becomes radio waves. Harmless stuff. Increase the frequency, and it becomes ultraviolet light. Now there is a health risk, which is why you wear sunscreen on a sunny day.
Increase the frequency of that beam of light further, and it becomes ionizing radiation: x-rays and gamma rays. This is the type of radiation associated with nuclear bombs and emitted by the sun (known as cosmic rays). At low doses this type of radiation is harmless, and is used in applications such as dental x-rays. At high doses, it causes cellular damage and cancer.
The RF radiation emitted by solar inverters and all other electronic devices found in your home is in the radio frequency. It’s non-ionizing and harmless.
The health risks of EM radiation
Solar inverters, like all electronics, emit a small amount of electromagnetic radiation. So do the wires that carry AC current from the inverter to your electric panel.
The wiring in your panels that lead to the inverter carry DC current. Because of that, they don’t emit the same type of EM fields that AC wires do. Instead, these DC wires generate static magnetic fields, similar to the Earth’s magnetic field.
There is no evidence that EM fields have any negative health effects.
This is one of those topics that is controversial on the internet, and its outside the scope of this website to tackle in any depth. Instead, I'll link you to a number of different health agencies from around the world that have arrived at the same conclusion.
National Health Service, United Kingdom:
But most current research suggests it's unlikely that radio waves from mobile phones or base stations increase the risk of any health problems.Mobile phone safety
There have been many studies on the possible health effects from exposure to EMFs at ELFs. While it is known that EMFs can cause weak electric currents to flow through the human body, the intensity of these currents is too low to cause any known health effects. Some studies have suggested a possible link between exposure to ELF magnetic fields and certain types of childhood cancer, but at present this association is not established.Electric and magnetic fields from power lines and electrical appliances
Susan G. Komen:
Regular exposure to EMF does not appear to increase the risk of breast cancer. Large prospective cohort studies and a meta-analysis that combined the results from 15 studies have found no link between the two.Electromagnetic fields and breast cancer risk
National Cancer Institute:
Numerous epidemiologic studies and comprehensive reviews of the scientific literature have evaluated possible associations between exposure to non-ionizing EMFs and risk of cancer in children (12–14). (Magnetic fields are the component of non-ionizing EMFs that are usually studied in relation to their possible health effects.) Most of the research has focused on leukemia and brain tumors, the two most common cancers in children. Studies have examined associations of these cancers with living near power lines, with magnetic fields in the home, and with exposure of parents to high levels of magnetic fields in the workplace. No consistent evidence for an association between any source of non-ionizing EMF and cancer has been found.Electromagnetic Fields and Cancer
Solar panels and toxic materials
There are two major categories of solar photovoltaic technology: silicon cells, and thin-film.
The most common technology, and the one that is used almost exclusively for homes, is crystalline silicon cells. Silicon is completely non-toxic and the primary element in rocks and sand.
Silicon solar panels may have a very small amount of lead that is used in wiring, but because this is encased behind a durable glass and aluminum frame, there’s no risk of being exposed.
Thin-film solar panels and toxicity
Thin-film panels are a different technology that is rarely used in residential applications. Instead of silicon, thin-film technology uses different compounds, some of which include toxic elements such as cadmium.
However, cadmium is a waste product of mining, and the production of thin film solar uses this waste and does not contribute to any marginal increase in cadium production.
In any case, these materials are sealed behind a glass and aluminium frame that is designed withstand severe wind and hail. There is no toxic hazard to the homeowner. On a per-watt basis, solar is responsible for far less heavy metal pollution than coal burning, which is a major source of mercury emissions.
Read the PubChem datasheet for compounds in thin-film solar:
Health and safety hazards associated with solar panel manufacturing
While the homeowner should feel completely safe about installing solar panels on their home, and society benefits from a cleaner environment by using renewable energy, it’s important to consider manufacturing and its health and safety impact on workers.
Depending on the technology, there are different hazards that workers in solar cell manufacturing are exposed to.
For example, with silicon cells, hydrofluoric acid, nitric acid, and strong alkalis like sodium hydroxide are part of the manufacturing process. It’s critical for worker safety that they have proper physical protections and ventilation.
Depending on the country, there will be different worker safety standards that apply. You can learn more about this for your product by examining the product datasheet and looking for environmental health and safety labels and certifications. These will vary, but products sold in the US are required to meet the same minimum standards.
Be aware that while US factories may have higher occupational safety standards than those located in China, some Chinese companies manufacture their solar panels in the United States, and some US companies, including SunPower, do at least some manufacturing in China. Read the guide to solar panel specifications to learn more about this.
To learn more about this issue, read this document by the Brookhaven National Laboratory on the overview of potential hazards in photovoltaic manufacturing.
Solar panel EHS tests and certifications
Reading the product label for your solar panel will tell you about the worker and environmental safety certifications that the product has undergone. While certifications are no guarantee, they are a valuable tool to help make sure that your product is manufactured with a high standard.
|Certification||What it means|
|OHSAS 18001:2007||Occupational Health and Safety Management|
|ISO 14001:2015||Environmental management standard|
|ISO 9001:2015||Quality management standard|
In addition, you will typically find numerous standards for fire and electrical safety, and other performance standards.
Solar panel recycling
Solar panel recycling is not yet very widespread because panels last for a long time, and there is not yet a large waste stream. However, recycling is feasible and is being done by some companies, and will become more widespread in the future as the current generation of panels nears the end of their useful life.
Health benefits of solar
To summarize: solar panels don’t cause cancer. In fact, solar power can have major health benefits by reducing air pollution, which is estimated to cause as many as 200,000 early deaths per year in the United States, according to MIT.
By supporting renewable energy, you reduce the prevalence of cancer-causing pollutants in the environment, such as PM 2.5 particulates. Read our guide on why you should get solar panels to learn more about how solar offsets dirty electricity on the grid.