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Swedish office workers risk cancer to get RFID chip implants

02 February 2015

Staff at a hi-tech office block in Stockholm are volunteering to get RFID chip implants in their hands in order to improve workplace convenience. But studies show some lab mice implanted with chips develop tumours around the implant. Why the Swedish workers may literally be taking their lives in their hands.

In a fast-moving technological era, where smaller is always better, human chip implants may seem to be the most convenient solution to all our everyday inconveniences. The rice-sized chips can, after all, store valuable information such as banking, biometric and medical details, as well as providing access to home or work. But those who are enthusiastically adopting the technology should be careful what they wish for: laboratory experiments on mice show chip implants can cause cancer.

That hasn’t stopped tenants and staff at Epicenter, a hi-tech office block in Sweden, from volunteering to be ‘chipped’ in order to gain entry to the building. It’s not a new idea – people have been trying to get RFID tags embedded in their skin since before the turn of the millennium – but insufficient research has been done on just how dangerous the chips could be to human health.

In Sweden, the author of the latest chipping fad is biohacking group BioNyfiken, which is said to hold 'implant parties' of between 8-15 people at a time in order to embed the chips. They claim the goal is to make everyday life easier and want participants to feel part of a community.

The BBC technology correspondent went to Epicentre to test out the implant. He reported: "Hannes Sjoblad ('chief disruption officer' at the development) and the Swedish Biohacking Group (want to prepare) us all for the day when others want to chip us. 'We want to be able to understand this technology before big corporates and big government come to us and say everyone should get chipped - the tax authority chip, the Google or Facebook chip'. Then, he says, we'll all be able to question the way the technology is implemented from a position of much greater knowledge."

Despite the shaky logic of that objective (it would seem that putting the futuristic technology to such well-publicised use actually makes it appear more mainstream and trendy) the lack of any caution about carcinogenic risks is cause for concern.

In September 2007, the Washington Post reported that a series of veterinary and toxicology studies, dating to the mid-1990s, showed chip implants had 'induced' malignant tumours in some lab mice and rats. The Post quoted Keith Johnson, a retired toxicologic pathologist, as saying: "The transponders were the cause of the tumours." Johnson had led a study in 1996 at the Dow Chemical Co. in Michigan.

At the time, about 2,000 RFID devices had been implanted in humans worldwide, but news that tumours had grown around the implants in some lab mice brought the futuristic craze to an abrupt halt. But it seems the staff and tenants at Epicentre in Stockholm volunteering for implants either haven't been told about the dangers, or are content to ignore them.

After reading the studies reported by the Post, Dr Robert Benezra, head of the Cancer Biology Genetics Program at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, is reported to have said: "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."

As far as can be ascertained, the three studies performed so far were published in veterinary and toxicology journals between 1996-2006. According to the Post, the studies found that lab mice and rats injected with microchips sometimes developed subcutaneous 'sarcomas' - malignant tumors, most of them encasing the implants.

According to RFID Update, the back-story to the original press reports deserved some interest: "Anti-RFID activist Katherine Albrecht was contacted by a pet owner whose dog had reportedly died of a tumour induced by a chip implant. Albrecht's subsequent research into the scientific literature uncovered the studies in question. She brought those studies to the attention of The Associated Press, which embarked on a four-month investigation and found additional studies."

The three studies are:
1997, Germany. Finding: 1% of 4,279 chipped mice developed cancer. The tumours "are clearly due to the implanted microchips," the authors wrote.

1998, Ridgefield, Conn, US. Finding: More than 10% of 177 chipped mice reported cancer incidence, a result the researchers described as "surprising".

2006, France. Finding: 4.1% of 1,260 microchipped mice developed tumours. One of six studies in which scientists did not set out to find chip-induced cancer but noticed the growths incidentally. "These incidences may ... slightly underestimate the true occurrence" of cancer, said the study.

However, there were caveats: some researchers warned against 'blind leaps' to the prediction of human health risk. In addition, it was noted that although domestic cats and dogs are routinely microchipped, there haven't been any noteworthy incidences of cancer developments being linked to the implants.

There have been worrying isolated incidents, however. In October 2010 it was reported by the Boston Globe that a lawsuit had been filed by Andrea Rutherford against pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co and implant maker Digital Angel, after Rutherford said a cancerous tumour formed around the pet ID microchip implanted in her cat Bulkin.

The cat is said to have survived the ordeal after undergoing surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. According to the lawsuit, the chip was embedded in February 2005 but in October 2007 a vet removed a malignant tumour from the cat - and the chip was found in the middle of the tumour.

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