Mice studies show RFID tags cause cancer

The studies raise concerns about the safety of icky implantable radio chips that carry your medical records.


Farhad Manjoo
September 10, 2007 10:50PM (UTC)

The rise of RFID, or radio frequency identification, has already raised a host of privacy concerns: If RFID tags are installed on every product we buy, won't the government or big corporations be able to monitor what we're doing? Now comes another worry: RFID tags have been shown in several studies to induce malignant tumors when they're implanted in mice, the Associated Press reported this weekend. That's bad news for VeriChip, a company that markets RFID chips for human implantation; the chips received approval from the Food and Drug Administration in 2005, and they've already been implanted in 2,000 people.

VeriChip tells the AP that it wasn't aware of the mice studies, and the FDA declined to detail which studies it reviewed when approving VeriChip. Cancer researchers who spoke to the AP noted that mice and humans are different, so there's no guarantee that studies showing RFID-induced cancer in mice guarantees a risk for humans.

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Still, the mice studies didn't sit well: "There's no way in the world, having read this information, that I would have one of those chips implanted in my skin, or in one of my family members," Robert Benezra, who heads the Cancer Biology Genetics Program at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, told the AP. "I mean, these are bad diseases. They are life-threatening. And given the preliminary animal data, it looks to me that there's definitely cause for concern."

VeriChip argues that its devices are medically beneficial. The company -- which Techdirt points out has a sorry history -- markets the chips as a way for people to carry their medical records with them at all times. The process sounds icky -- rather than hand you a clipboard to divulge your details, a doctor scans your implanted chip and instantly has all your info at hand.

Thousands of pet dogs and cats have been implanted with devices similar to the VeriChip; the AP says that veterinary pathologists haven't reported outbreaks of cancer caused by the chips.

There's one more wrinkle in this story. At the time that VeriChip was looking for FDA approval of its device, the head of the Department of Health and Human Services was former Wisconsin Gov. -- and just-failed Republican presidential candidate -- Tommy Thompson. Shortly after Thompson left HHS, he joined VeriChip's board and he became so forceful an advocate of human chip implantation that he promised to get chipped himself.

Thompson tells the AP that he had nothing to do with VeriChip's approval process, and an FDA rep says, "I have no recollection of him being involved in it at all."

But the AP digs up a 2004 speech by Lester Crawford, the former acting head of the FDA, in which Crawford praises Thompson for promoting "the use of new information technology to help prevent medication error." One example of such technology -- "the implantable chips and scanners of the VeriChip system our agency approved last week," Crawford said.

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Thompson, by the way, never did get chipped. I wouldn't either.


Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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