Some people steadfastly believe that radio waves from cellphone towers, electrical wires and microwave ovens, make them sick. They cite symptoms such as insomnia, headaches, muscle pain and nausea. Some say they cause cancer. And all those people are wrong.
I am Mary’s favourite sceptic. Mary wants me to investigate why hundreds of people in her city are getting sick while a major mobile operator is erecting cellphone towers without going through the proper processes, one of which is 100m from her home.
Mary isn’t her real name, of course. I protect my sources, especially when they reveal dangerous information that the government is hiding from the people, or might be embarrassed by my findings.
It is true that I am sceptical, and that I don’t trust governments. I don’t know whether the mobile operator in question did follow the correct processes, or did bribe city officials to get away with it, but I would not be shocked to learn this was true. However, I also know a little science, and science tells us that the more cellphone towers there are in your area, the less exposed you will be to the radio frequencies on which mobile phones communicate. Does this make no sense? Bear with me.
Other people think that microwaves cause cancer. NaturalNews claims to be able to tell you how and why, as does a quack named Dr Mercola. Both quote Hans Hertel, a retired professor who wrote a long-debunked paper on microwaved food 25 years ago. The paper was never published in the scientific literature and cannot be found online in English or its original Swiss German. Instead, it appeared in a German magazine, Raum & Zeit, which claims to be an “avant-garde science magazine”, and is well known for promoting conspiracy theories such as chemtrails.
Some details about the paper can be found in a court case brought in 1992 by the Swiss Association of Manufacturers and Suppliers of Household Electrical Appliances against Hertel and others.
The Hertel paper makes ridiculous assertions, such as that microwaves are transferred to the blood of humans via irradiated food, by induction. Only an elementary grasp of physics is needed to know that induction can only occur when an electromagnetic field is active, and microwaves cannot conceivably persist after the field is turned off. It says that microwaves cook from the inside out, which anyone who has ever used a microwave knows to be false: the edges of food can easily overcook while the centre is still cold.
It says that matter affected by electromagnetic waves, such as atoms, molecules and cells, undergo rapid polarity reversals. Every high school physics student knows that atoms have no polarity, and cells don’t either. Only some molecules (like water) do, and they are agitated by microwaves just like they would be by radiated or conducted heat.
It says, “not a single atom, molecule or cell of a living organism would be able to resist destructive forces of such power, even if it was only of the order of 1 milliwatt,” but the simple fact that there is still life on earth disproves this hysterical claim.
Hertel’s co-author distanced himself from the article’s findings, and the court ruled that they were not supported by any scientific research – including Hertel’s own, which it said did not meet generally accepted scientific standards. Hertel’s claims were ruled to be “manifestly false and untrue”. The court’s ruling that this constituted an offence under laws about unfair competition was later overturned, purely on free speech grounds, but the material findings of the case – that Hertel was a quack and a fraud who wouldn’t know science if it bit him on the ass – stand.
Perhaps people find it so easy believe nonsense about electromagnetic radiation because the word “radiation” is scary and they do not understand the relevant physics. A simple chart is helpful in understanding what is and is not harmful:
Radio waves, microwaves, visible light, x-rays and gamma rays all occur on the same spectrum. They’re exactly the same thing, but at different frequencies, wavelengths and energy levels. There is a simple relationship between these attributes: the higher the frequency, the higher the energy, and the shorter the wavelength.
The bottom half of the chart shows which common applications operate on which frequencies. On the left are typical radio applications, in the middle you find the visible light spectrum, and towards the right are X-rays and gamma radiation.
Towards the top, you’ll notice that the spectrum is broken up into two distinct segments: non-ionising and ionising radiation. At frequencies of higher than 1 petaHertz, electromagnetic waves have enough energy to separate electrons from atoms. This can break molecular bonds, resulting in positively and negatively-charged ions, hence the term “ionising”.
Note that the border between non-ionising and ionising radiation occurs just above the visible light spectrum, in the ultraviolet segment. That is why the sun’s radiation, which includes ultraviolet, can cause sunburn and even cancer. Gamma rays are very high-frequency rays given off by nuclear reactions, and in high enough doses can be deadly. X-rays are also dangerous, although like sunlight, the body can easily repair the damage caused by infrequent exposure of short duration.
Visible light, however, is not dangerous, unless you’re photophobic or vampyric, both of which are rare. Unlike ionising radiation, light in the visible spectrum cannot cause damage to DNA molecules, which is what causes cancer. Light certainly does cause heat, however. Infra-red heat lamps can be used in physical therapy to warm and relax tense muscles. Infra-red light carries 10,000 times more energy than microwaves, but when focused, microwaves can also cause heating. So can wi-fi signals and mobile phone signals, at high enough concentrations.
To match the effect of an 800W microwave, you’d need to miniaturise about 8,000 wi-fi routers and place them inside a suitably small enclosure that reflects and contains the signals to focus them on the content you’re trying to heat. In theory, it will work. However, that doesn’t mean wi-fi is dangerous.
One experiment that won a prize and got loads of media attention, performed by Danish schoolgirls, showed that wi-fi had a negative effect on the germination of garden cress. But even a cursory assessment of the quality of the experiment reveals its conclusions to be invalid. It simply played into their preconceived biases, probably inculcated in them by sensationalist media and a technophobic teacher.
Lower-frequency radiation, such as radio and television signals, produce negligible heating effects, even at high power, but could induce some mild electrical currents. Of course, so can moving magnets and thunderstorms.
Understanding the electromagnetic spectrum, and particularly the difference between non-ionising and ionising radiation, is key to understanding whether or not electromagnetic radiation can really harm you. At higher frequencies than visible light, yes they can. Ultraviolet and X-rays can cause cancer, and gamma rays are deadly. But anything from visible light on down has a negligible effect on the human body. If daylight doesn’t hurt you, there is no reason to fear microwaves or radio waves at far lower frequencies and energy levels.
Now, let’s get back to the mobile phone signals, which operate at similar frequencies to wi-fi and microwaves. As we’ve established, there is no plausible mechanism by which they can cause harm. I once called the World Health Organisation names for suggesting that they could cause cancer. (Last month, I explained how the WHO’s cancer scare committee really works: it completely ignores the degree of cancer risk, which makes almost everything they have ever investigated a “possible carcinogen” or worse.)
So what about the symptoms that Mary listed? Headaches, nausea, insomnia, muscle pains. Think about it. Do you have any of these symptoms right now? I do. Almost everyone does every now and again. Many people suffer them frequently.
Listing vague symptoms with no clear cause is a very easy way of convincing people that something or other is causing them harm. The longer the list is, the more likely it is that people will recognise some of the symptoms and say, “Hey, yes, that’s me.”
Struggling to sleep? It must be the fluoride in the water! Got a stiff neck? It must be food colourants! Have a headache? It must be GMOs!
The problem is that these supposed links are entirely spurious. There is no causal connection, and not even a plausible explanation for why these supposedly bad things might cause these symptoms. It is far more likely that they’re caused by any of a myriad other causes which commonly affect people, such as stress, dehydration, eye strain, lack of exercise, stale air, viral infections, the wrong mattress, poor posture or simply getting older.
This is why almost nobody (except Sweden) recognises the condition of “electromagnetic hypersensitivity”. Scientists call it “idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields.” The term “idiopathic” refers to a symptom or disease with no known cause, and the term “attributed” does not mean “attributable”.
Research suggests suggests that the problem with people who self-diagnose with electromagnetic hypersensitivity is the nocebo effect. The opposite of the placebo effect, which is why homeopathy works in some people, the nocebo effect is the phenomenon that the mere belief something can make you sick actually does make you sick. Other psychological mechanisms have not been ruled out, but physical mechanisms have.
Whatever the case, the science is clear: electromagnetic radiation of frequencies lower than visible light cannot plausibly cause significant harm to the human body.
If you still fear cellphone radiation despite the overwhelming evidence of its safety, simple physics says that you should welcome more cellphone towers in your area. This is because the power of electromagnetic waves that are evenly radiated outward from a point source decreases proportionally to the square of the distance from that source. If you measure the signal power at a metre’s distance from the source, then the power at two metres will be a quarter (not half) of that value. At 4m, the power will be 16th of the power at 1m. At 10m, the power will be one 100th of the power at 1m. At 100m, the power would be only one 10,000th as strong. Transmitter design can influence the rate of signal drop-off by focusing and directing the beam, much like a gun barrel directs the energy of an exploding round, but even with something as focused as a laser beam, the power drops of exponentially with distance from the source.
This means that to be harmed by a cellphone tower, you’d have to climb up the tower and position yourself directly in front of the transmitter. This goes for any other transmitter: keeping just a small distance away from the transmitter dramatically reduces the power of the signals to which you’re exposed.
If you aren’t up the tower in front of the transmitter, and if your phone is communicating with a cellphone tower, the distance between you and your phone is vastly more significant than the distance from you to the cellphone tower.
Your phone is a point source right next to you. The further away the tower is from your phone, the more power your phone has to emit to reach it. Because your phone is transmitting right next to your brain (or gonads), you’ll want it to be as close as possible to a signal tower, so it can operate at the lowest possible power output. Ergo, the more cellphone towers you have in your area, the less electromagnetic radiation you’ll be exposed to.
People often fall for popular pseudo-science because any explanation is better than no explanation. Blaming someone is easier than acknowledging that you’re getting old. Often, the conspiracy theories play into distrust of governments or companies, and people end up imagining symptoms that weren’t really there to begin with.
All the evidence, published in academic journals rather than popular magazines, supports the conclusion that radio waves, cellphone transmissions and microwave ovens are entirely harmless. Mary’s symptoms either have a different cause, or no cause at all. DM
Stephen Hawking held a party for time travellers. He sent the invitation out the day after. Nobody attended.