Wireless networks are woven like an intricate web in our lives, with phone coverage and Wi-Fi offering us continuous connection and communication with the world. There are currently more than 5 billion mobile subscriptions worldwide, in addition to millions of wireless routers in public areas and private homes.
We surround ourselves with these networks for convenience, but have we thought about the health consequences of long-term exposure to the electromagnetic radiation they emit? Scientific research is asking us to question the use of Wi-Fi and mobile devices, with authorities such as the World Health Organization claiming it could cause cancer and have other detrimental effects, especially for our children.
If you ever took an interest in physics, you learned that the kind of radiation used for wireless networks is completely harmless. But new evidence from the biological sciences points at an error in this assumption that we will examine today.
What Is a Wireless Network?
A wireless network allows us to communicate using radio-frequency electromagnetic waves, rather than physical wires. These are the same kind of waves used to transmit radio and television signals, but they work at a higher frequency, more similar to microwaves.
There are several types of wireless networks. Cellular networks allow mobile devices to access communication points and cellular data, while Wi-Fi is used to transmit signals between a router and its connected devices. Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) is a special kind of Wi-Fi network used to link computers and smartphones together so they can share information and access the Internet.
Are There Known Health Concerns?
A physicist will tell you that there is a significant difference between the radiation emitted by a nuclear bomb or x-ray device and that of your smartphone: one is ionizing and therefore dangerous, and the other is not.
Ionizing radiation is capable of separating electrons from atoms by transmitting such high energies that their bonds break. This is why nuclear bombs are so lethal and x-ray should only be used for absolute necessities. If the bonds are broken in our DNA, we can develop tumors and other potentially fatal diseases. Ionizing radiation has a much higher frequency than that of Wi-Fi networks or cell phones. These are classified as non-ionizing, which means that they are not capable of causing permanent damage to our cells. But now we know there is more to this.
Cells Under Stress
When cells are exposed to large amounts of electromagnetic radiation at any frequency, they start producing heat shock proteins (HSP). This process is called cellular stress response, it tries to prepare the cell for extraordinary conditions, in the same way our body produces adrenaline and other hormones when we are under stress.
Now here’s the problem: the production of these HSPs is linked with DNA molecules breaking apart. DNA is vital to life, not just in the production of new cells, but also in their maintenance and the creation of proteins necessary for life.
Harm Outside of Ionization
But how can non-ionizing radiation cause DNA to break, when it is not powerful enough to dislodge electrons from atoms? The reason lies in the powerful architecture of the DNA molecule.
A special property of DNA is its ability to conduct electricity inside itself. Because of this, electrons are able to move along DNA bases, a process that is apparently caused by exposure to electromagnetic radiation and leads to breaks in the DNA strand.
This process does not just heat up our cells, it causes permanent damage to DNA molecules. Following long-term exposure, electromagnetic radiation such as that emitted by smartphones can actually lead to cancer in the place where the radiation was applied. This was found in a study published in the journal Surgical Neurology.
Is It Worse for Children?
Some research has found that the harmful effect of microwaves may affect children to a greater extent than adults. This is because they absorb the waves into their body more easily due to their skull being made up of thinner bone while it is still growing. This can cause more long-term damage to their cells and possibly lead to cancer.
If you have young children, it is recommended to limit their time with mobile phones and exposure to wireless networks — which can be difficult in city wide networks. Fetuses are the most susceptible to electromagnetic radiation and pregnant women should also try to limit their exposure.
On a global level, there seems to be a mixed response to the use of wireless networks. Most people use some form of wireless network every day and rely on its function but want to limit the risks.
In 2006, the Swedish town of Göten rolled out a new wireless network called Wi-MAX, which used a higher frequency wavelength. Within hours, there were complaints related to electromagnetic sensitivity, with hospitalizations of people with symptoms of headaches, difficulty breathing and even heart problems. Wi-MAX was banned in Sweden soon after, due to the harmful effect of the waves.
Additionally, many countries are taking an interest in the safety of wireless networks, particularly for children who are more susceptible. Recommendations to avoid Wi-Fi in schools are becoming more common, helping to reduce exposure of this vulnerable population to the waves.
Benefit and Risk Overview
Should we use wireless networks if they are threatening our health? When it comes to a decision like this, it can help to think about the benefits and risks they present to us.
Wireless networks provide us with the convenience of connection without wires and allow us to synchronize devices and navigate with ease.
However, the risks of cancer, DNA damage, infertility and other long term, as yet unknown problems, may well outweigh the benefits, especially for pregnant women and children.
To make matters worse, many of the studies that have investigated the safety of wireless networks are, in fact, funded by the commercial communication companies that profit from their existence. As a result, they are likely to have considerable bias and be more concerned about profit than safety, much like the tobacco companies which funded studies proving smoking was good for your health. Moreover, these companies know that if the networks are successfully proven to be dangerous, they could be liable for the plethora of serious health conditions which have become more common in today’s wireless society.
What Can You Do?
It is difficult to completely avoid wireless networks in the world we live in. Mobile phone networks are all around us and you probably even have Wi-Fi signals from several different networks in your home.
So what can you do to limit your exposure to harmful radiation, particularly if you are pregnant or have children?
- Limit phone use and do not keep your phone close to your body.
- Use ‘airplane’ mode when possible.
- Use headphones for phone calls to increase the distance of the electromagnetic waves to your head.
- Turn off Wi-Fi network when you’re not using it. Many people leave their router on overnight, even though they don’t need it.
- Consider reverting to an ‘old fashioned’ wired Local Area Network (LAN) in your home (most Wi-Fi routers support this). Combined with a splitter, you can still have your super-fast internet in every room.
- Rest your laptop/tablet on a table away from your body. For your safety, at least 20cm away from your body.
- Investigate EMF shielding as a way to protect yourself from electromagnetic waves when you are at risk of high exposure.
- Advocate for network safety by joining petitions that pledge to ban wireless networks with harmful exposure levels, such as WiMAX.
The important thing is to do the best you can, but don’t panic. We are surrounded by these wireless networks and currently rely on them every day to communicate. You can help to protect yourself and your family by taking measures to limit your exposure.References