Wireless technology is everywhere these days. Almost every home seems to have a wi-fi router, as computer users find it so much easier to set up than running Ethernet cables. Businesses too are increasingly deploying wireless networks along with their wired ones, so employees can use their mobile devices while moving around the building. Hotels, conference centers, city parks, restaurants, coffee shops, airports – they all have wireless hot spots, both public and private. Even on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean, you can’t escape those signals.
It’s not just computer networks that are transmitting over the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies. Cordless phones, baby monitors, garage door openers, Bluetooth devices, car alarms, microwave ovens – all of these operate on those same frequencies. That’s only a small part, though, of the radio waves that inundate us every day. The ISM (Industrial, Scientific and Medical) bands range all the way from 6.75 MHz up to 246 GHz. The entire radio spectrum stretches from ELF (extremely low frequency) communications used aboard submarines (as low as 3 Hz) to THF or tremendously high frequency waves that reach 3000 GHz and are used in some medical imaging and other scientific applications.
More and more often, though, we’re seeing reports of studies that suggest constant bombardment with all those radio waves might have a negative impact on our health and especially that of young children. Although some of the results are contradictory and some of the conclusions are controversial, it has many people wondering what they can do to minimize the potential effects of living in a wireless world. In this article, we’ll look at some of the research and opinions and some of the steps you can take to protect yourself “just in case.”
To begin with, we need to be sure we all understand exactly what these radio waves are. They’re all a form of electromagnetic radiation (EMR). “Radiation” sounds scary and conjures up visions in some minds of nuclear fallout and deadly radioactive isotopes (even if you don’t know exactly what an isotope is). Before we panic about being exposed to all this radiation, it’s important to understand that there are two different basic types of radiation: ionizing and non-ionizing radiation.
Ionizing radiation emits enough energy to damage living tissue that’s exposed to it. It can cause cancer or mutations in smaller doses and radiation sickness and death in larger doses. There are different types of ionizing radiation: alpha particles, beta particles and x-rays and gamma rays. Alpha and beta particles are harmful if they enter your body (ingested, inhaled, or through a cut in your skin). Your skin can stop some while others require a stronger shielding material such as wood or metal. Gamma rays penetrate most substances. To shield yourself from them, you need something like a thick concrete wall. Both gamma rays and x-rays can cause serious damage to tissue but x-rays aren’t as penetrating. Also, radiation exposure is cumulative over your lifetime.
We’re all exposed to all types of radiation, including ionizing radiation – through medical and dental procedures, devices such as smoke detectors, color TVs and naturally occurring sources such as materials in rock and soil, radon gas, and cosmic radiation, especially at higher elevations or when flying in a plane at high altitudes. Even potassium, which is an important mineral for health, is naturally radioactive.
Then there’s non-ionizing radiation. This includes all light waves, from near ultraviolet to infrared, as well as microwaves and the radio waves that we’ve been talking about here. It emits far less energy. While it is well established that ionizing radiation harms the body, there is no conclusive evidence of health impact of non-ionizing radiation such as radiofrequency (RF) waves, other than thermal effects (heat, burns, damage to the skin or eyes from the increased temperature). Studies as to whether RF exposure is harmful have been contradictory.
We know that RF radiation can cause an increase in body temperature and heating of human tissue. Some individuals have reported effects such as sleep disturbance, heart palpitations and headaches but it’s difficult to positively connect these symptoms to RF exposure. There’s anecdotal evidence that some folks have seen a reduction or disappearance of the symptoms after turning off their wi-fi equipment and using only wired Ethernet connections but many of the symptoms are the type that can be attributed to stress so the psychosomatic effect could be responsible for the alleviation of symptoms.
There have also been studies that “suggest” a causative link between brain tumors or memory loss and exposure to wireless signals, particularly in close proximity such as use of cell phones held close to the head. Some of these studies are suspect, though, because they’re sponsored by companies that make products designed to protect you from the RF waves.
The reality of today’s world is that there is no way to eliminate all exposure to radio waves. Even if you moved off to Antarctica, away from all of our technology, you would still receive radiation exposure (in fact, you would receive more of it because the earth’s atmosphere is thinner at the poles). Moving to Antarctica is a pretty drastic step, but it does make sense to take reasonable measures to reduce your exposure – and that of your children – in case there are long-term effects that haven’t yet become obvious. After all, microwave ovens, cordless phones, and wi-fi networks are all relatively recent inventions. My grandparents never heard of any of them.
Since we know that the effects of ionizing radiation are cumulative in the body, it’s not unreasonable to extrapolate that maybe the effects of non-ionizing radiation are, as well. If you’re really concerned, you could run Ethernet cables and connect your computers that way instead of via wi-fi. However, that doesn’t work with tablets and phones. You can easily turn wi-fi off on those devices when you aren’t using them, though. This would reduce the amount of RF in your home. You could also turn off your mobile phone, unplug cordless phones (or use only wired land lines), and so forth. Using speaker phone instead of holding your phone against your head, or using a wired headset, could protect you from close range exposure. Of course, none of this prevents you from being exposed to signals coming from your neighbors’ wi-fi networks, cell phones, etc. – but the signals attenuate (get weaker) as they go through the air and through walls, windows, etc.
It’s well known that children, because their bodies are growing and changing rapidly, are more susceptible to many external stimuli than adults. A study published earlier this year in a scientific journal concludes that children absorb more radiation than adults and are at more risk from exposure, because they have smaller bodies, thinner skulls and more absorbent tissue, especially brain tissue.
You might want to rethink the decision to give your young children their own cell phones. If there are ill effects, they most likely develop over a long period of time so the younger kids are when they start using these devices, the greater the potential risk.
On the other hand, the World Health Organization has publicly concluded, based on more than 25,000 published articles over three decades, that there is no evidence of health consequences from low-level electromagnetic field exposure.
My opinion: Despite all those articles and studies, at this point we really don’t know. The amount of RF exposure has been increasing over time and the current levels just haven’t been in existence long enough to provide clear proof one way or the other. It does no harm to subscribe to a “better safe than sorry” approach and minimize exposure where possible, especially for children. But given all the clear and present dangers in today’s world for which plenty of proof does exist, our energies might be better spent worrying about other things.