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.
One of the stranger myths about solar panels is that they cause cancer. The reasons given is that solar panels leak toxins or emit dangerous radiation.
Neither of these are true. Solar panels do not cause cancer. A solar array doesn’t emit any more RF radiation than the electrical wires already in your home do. In any case, there is no established connection between non-ionizing RF radiation and cancer. Also, the electricity generated by solar panels is direct current (DC), which doesn’t generate electromagnetic fields like AC-carrying wires do. Finally, silicon solar cells, the most common photovoltaic technology in use, doesn’t contain any toxic materials.
The only possible way that solar panels might cause cancer is if you ate them. Certain types of thin-film solar cells are made with cadmium telluride and gallium arsenide, which are classified as carcinogens. So, don’t eat your solar panel. But home solar panels are almost always made with non-toxic silicon cells.
Health concerns about modern technology are understandable, but renewable energy from wind turbines and solar panels improve our health and environment by reducing emissions from coal burning and natural gas fracking. This article will try to cover the cancer myths about solar panels in detail, and hopefully alleviate concerns you might have.
Do solar panels emit radiation?
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 EM fields or RF radiation pose any health concerns. Here’s an explanation of why.
What is radiofrequency radiation?
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 after it rains is made of electromagnetic radiation.
Reduce the frequency of that light, and it becomes radio waves, also known as radiofrequency radiation. The radio stations you listen to while sitting in your car are carried on RF radiation.
Increase the frequency, and you get ultraviolet light. It’s at this point when EM radiation becomes energenic enough to cause health problems. Long enough exposure to UV light can cause sunburns and skin cancer.
Crank up the frequency higher and you have ionizing radiation: x-rays and gamma rays. At low doses this type of radiation can be harmless, and is used in applications such as dental x-rays. At high doses, it causes cellular damage and cancer.
Electromagnetic fields (EMF)
Solar inverters, like all electronics, generate small electromagnetic fields (EMF). So do the wires that carry AC current from the inverter to your electric panel.
If you go down the internet rabbit hole, you can find plenty of websites claiming that EMF is a hidden danger that the telecommunication and electronics industries (and others) want to keep a secret. Refuting this in detail is outside the scope of this website, so instead I’ll link you to a number of different health agencies from around the world that have arrived at the same conclusion. (Unfortunately, these same internet experts will just say that the health agencies are part of the conspiracy too.)
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
Are solar panels toxic? No, not really. This one requires a bit of explanation. 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. The risk of lead exposure is no higher than any other electronics on your home, such as your smartphone or TV.
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 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, <a href=“https://news.mit.edu/2013/study-air-pollution-causes-200000-early-deaths-each-year-in-the-us-0829" target="_blank” rel= noreferrer noopener">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.