WHO on EMF and EHS – Will Wi-Fi Cause Cancer?

In this modern world, there are plenty of reasons to be cautious. Digital devices almost seem to control our lives. They take up our time, luring us into the virtual world for entertainment, allowing us to be more productive by keeping us linked to our work 24/7, lulling us into a world of social networking that never requires us to physically interact with other humans. It is no wonder that authors of speculative fiction depict alternative worlds where we are literally plugged in.

In offices and homes across the developed world, it is more likely than not that there will be active Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connections running all day long, often from multiple devices. In the past twenty years, as wireless connections have become more prevalent, concerns have been increasingly raised about their safety. The World Health Organization (WHO) took notice in the late 90s and began looking at all the evidence that was piling up from studies in many countries. Key to this awareness were the growing trend of Electromagnetic Hyper Sensitivity (EHS) and the concern that Electromagnetic Frequencies (EMF) could cause cancer.

It is important to note, however, that there is a difference between raising a question about whether there is a problem and finding conclusive evidence that a problem exists.

What is Electromagnetic Hyper Sensitivity?

The concept of EHS has many supporters around the world, with people claiming that they have health problems caused by electromagnetic fields or frequencies. While many of their health concerns are very real, the cause to which they attribute them is questionable and, so far, entirely unverifiable. One reason for some people to attribute their ills to EMF, I surmise, is the sound of “white noise.”

I am one of those people who has finely tuned hearing for high-frequency sound, and I can easily hear the hum of electronics when they are powered on. Sometimes it can be a bit unnerving or even make it hard to sleep, but I’m generally fine once I get used to whatever room I am in. Most people I know are completely unfazed by this. Some, however, are more deeply affected and even get headaches from the noise. Common sources of this noise are light bulbs (especially fluorescent bulbs), computer equipment, televisions and DVRs, stereo equipment that is powered on but not playing, and sometimes just a tangled mass of wires plugged into power strips — also, Wi-Fi boxes. So I get it. The noise is something that can be “picked up” by some people, and it can be bothersome. That does not make it a public health issue. If you cannot hear a dog whistle, chances are this sort of thing will never affect you at all. And if it does affect you, it will be as an annoyance, much like when that car drives by with the egregiously loud bass pumping that you can feel more than you can hear.

Still, proponents of EHS often insist that it is caused by EMF. The concerns that electromagnetic frequencies could have negative ramifications on human health have been around for decades. After all, we know that some forms of radiation do cause cancer. Fortunately, in order to cause cancer, the radiation must be able to break cellular walls and disrupt DNA — X-rays and UVA radiation are able to do this, for example. The type of radiation emitted from Wi-Fi and Bluetooth devices, however, cannot.

Radiation and Fear

Let’s face it, the word “radiation” sounds frightening. It is one of the key words that purveyors of alternative cancer treatments use to scare patients away from medical science. But “radiation” is a broad term for describing the emission of energy as waves or particles. It can come in many forms, ranging from heat (thermal radiation) to radio waves, light waves, and high-energy radiation like X-rays and gamma radiation.

When you look at light waves, there is a wide range, from infrared through the visible spectrum and up to the narrow waves of ultra-violet light. Some of those light waves are clearly responsible for maintaining life on Earth. The sun keeps us warm. It facilitates photosynthesis. Some radiation, therefore, is not only good but necessary. We survive because of radiation. Some of that sunlight, however, at the upper spectrum, can lead to skin cancer from over-exposure. This is the UV radiation that all those sun block lotions have printed on their labels. Above those light rays we can’t see are the X-rays that are useful in small, quick doses for looking through us and the gamma rays that made Dr. Banner all big and green and angry. All right, the Hulk isn’t really a likely byproduct of gamma radiation exposure, but gamma rays could still affect DNA structure.

But on the lower-energy end of the spectrum, down past the infrared and past the microwaves, we have radio waves. Yes, radio waves, that ubiquitous form of radiation that carries not only FM and AM, but also the old shortwave frequencies that allowed HAM operators to converse with fellow enthusiasts thousands of miles away. These low-energy parts of the spectrum are also responsible for television transmission and much more. We are bombarded by them constantly in many parts of the world, every minute of every day, without any measurable effect at all. This is not a new phenomenon, either; there are few people alive today who have not had exposure their entire lives and no connection to any health issues has ever been made with these frequencies. There has been no noted increase (or decrease) in incidence of cancer for radio operators, for example, as compared to the general population. The same can be said of people who work in the airline industry or in airports, where microwave and radio wave radiation are well above average levels of exposure compared to other industries.

Basically, outside of a microwave oven, the electromagnetic radiation that we encounter from the radiofrequency range through the visible light spectrum is all essentially harmless. It does not have enough energy to do harm to our cells. But somewhere in the ultraviolet range things begin to get interesting. That is where the radiation becomes powerful enough to begin knocking electrons out of whack, thus ionizing molecules. When enough of this happens, it can become dangerous. That won’t happen with a single X-ray, or even a series of them, or even likely with a whole lot of X-rays over time, because when you have an X-ray done in a hospital or an imaging center or at the dentist, the situation is always controlled to minimize exposure. The lifetime exposure of most people from medical imaging alone is far less than the amount of radiation that a passenger would get from flying across the country and dealing with normal things like walking in the park.

Wi-Fi radiation is at the low end of the dial, so to speak. Wi-Fi functions near the radio wave section of the electromagnetic spectrum, right near your old-school walkie talkies, but up in the microwave frequencies where the shorter wavelengths can transmit with faster data over an extended distance.

Now We’re Cooking!

Microwaves still manage to scare some people. When I was a kid, there was plenty of fearmongering about how they would make you sterile if you stood too close, or otherwise make you sick. Some people are still concerned that microwave cooking somehow alters the cellular makeup of food. But microwaves, much like their less maligned but more powerful neighbors in the infrared spectrum, simply make things hot. They lack the power to ionize, but not the power to burn. The nifty part is, because these are electromagnetic waves, they only burn if they are highly concentrated and very close to their source. The heat from a 1000 watt microwave oven would not be felt a few feet away, much less able to cook anybody, if the shielding was somehow removed from the containing box. Commercial ovens, however, are shielded and are safe to stand next to. Wi-Fi uses a similar frequency, with 2.5 – 5 gigahertz being comparable to many commercial ovens.

Wi-Fi, in theory, might have the ability to heat things up based on the frequencies used. But if you compare it to a 1000 watt microwave oven, or even a 600 watt microwave oven, which could do no damage at the cellular level much less at the cooking level if you were not inches from the magnetron that creates the waves, you begin to see how little Wi-Fi radiation could affect anything. For starters, remember that microwaves are able to cook only when close to the source, where their relatively low energy is concentrated enough to excite the molecules they encounter, causing them to move around more quickly. (This generates heat, not unlike putting water in a pot over a flame.) Then look at the power level of the Wi-Fi router. At around only one watt of power (the typical high end for home and business routers), Wi-Fi is inconsequential when pitted against a microwave oven. Wi-Fi routers simply lack the power to generate enough heat to even be measurable, much less something we could feel.

Inverse square law

There is a little thing called the Inverse Square Law that applies to electromagnetic radiation and explains why we don’t get cooked by all the radiation around us, even the shorter wavelengths. Essentially, it explains that the further away from a source, the energy is dispersed over a wider range, thus becoming progressively less powerful.

It is also relevant to note that exposure over the course of a lifetime is less relevant than exposure at any given instance. This is to say that there is no evidence suggesting a cumulative effect from radiation. Specifically, with the more dangerous, short wavelength ionizing radiation, it is more important to avoid highly concentrated doses than it is to concern oneself with gradual low-level exposure over extended periods. This explains why airports, which are notorious for constant levels of background radiation, are not simply breeding grounds for all things cancer.

Another issue that occasionally comes up with regard to EHS is the question of ELF electromagnetic radiation. Extremely low frequency radiation is the mostly harmless byproduct of passing electricity through wires. Wherever electrical wiring is used, some magnetic fields are generated. There has been a growing fear that an office full of wiring or a house near a power line would have enough of this ELF to cause health problems. It has been know for quite a long time that very, very high exposure levels of ELF can disrupt the nervous system, even causing permanent damage. But the levels of exposure required are over five times higher than standing directly underneath a power line tower. More importantly, it is well over a hundred times stronger than what would normally be encountered in a home or business.

Radiofrequency radiation and low power microwave radiation are both extremely common in the majority of home and work environments. Many sources of these electromagnetic waves are impossible to avoid completely since we live in a society that constantly supplies programming for hundreds of television and radio channels, uses radio communications for municipal services like the police and fire departments, has cell phone towers scattered throughout populated areas, relies upon satellite communications and often has multiple wireless networks running in a single home. But these pose no threat to public health at the levels which we encounter them in daily life. In fact, the exposure would have to be often a thousand times higher for there to be any concern.

Many studies have been done since the mid-1990s regarding the dangers of Wi-Fi and similar wireless home networks. There has not only been a lack of evidence to indicate that there is any danger from these networks, but the data shows clearly that Wi-Fi base stations simply are unable to create cellular damage. In short, Wi-Fi is physically unable to cause cancer.


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