Our Wireless World. Is it healthy?

In a word: NO! New data indicates that caution is advised. Exposure to radiation (cell phones, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, cordless phones, high tension lines) should be minimized.

Our wireless world! How did we ever get by without the ubiquitous cell phone. And Wi-Fi connections to computers, tablets, and coming soon, Wi-Fi connections to just about everything else.

It has been asked numerous times if there is a danger, and the stock answer is, “we don’t have enough data.”

Or maybe we do? In fact, there is now quite a bit of research, and it is not looking very good at all. It scared me enough to replace my desk cordless phone with a corded one and to put my cell phone in airplane mode as it charges on my bedside table. There is no convenient way to turn Wi-Fi off, and even if I did, the (at last count) 14 Wi-Fi devices would still broadcast, looking for the mother-ship.

So why am I, an electrical engineer, so freaked out? Well, here is what led me down this troglodytic path. (I, Dr. Mike, no electric engineer, have been shy of EMF fields for many years. Even though I have a pair of AirPods for hands free car use, I never use them in stereo – shoot the field right through my head? I don’t think so!)

Cell Phones

First, they do effect the brain. In this study, EEGs were found to vary significantly if a transmitting cell phone was present. Ok, but us that bad?

An Australian study, here, found that people that have been using cell phones for more than 10 years had twice the risk of developing a brain tumor on the side where they held the phone. This study is a little hard to sweep under the carpet. It is simple, the result is strong, and the sample size was large. Now, as we are fond of saying, association is not causality. But given the structure of this study, it is hard to conclude otherwise, since it was the same person, there is no need to account for any confounding variables.

For me, this was enough. Besides the aforementioned nightly airplane mode, I am now making calls over wired landline whenever I can. However, anyone who uses a cellphone a lot should use wired earbuds (not Bluetooth). And kids probably should not use cell phones at all. Bear in mind, the above study was for 10+ years of usage. Most of us had cell phones 10 years ago, but 20 years ago, many of us did not. Now then, fast-forward a generation or two and we could have cell phone users with 50 years of exposure. If 10 years doubles the risk then 50 years would… Who knows? But I would prefer that myself and my progeny not be the guinea pigs.

More research.

In Google Scholar, searching for “cell phone brain cancer” yields many results. The older results tend to conclude that there is not enough data. The newer ones support the Australian study, and in most cases are even scarier.

An oft-quoted study can be found here. The results are as follows, compared to non-cell phone users:

  1. Mobile phone use increases the risk of glioma (brain cancer) 30%.
  2. Additional use of cordless phone use increases the risk to 40%.
  3. Twenty-five or more years of use increases the risk 300%.

This is a lot of increased risk.

Cordless Phones

There isn’t too much direct data, but this would be tough to sort out since most people exposed to this radiation would be exposed to cell phones as well.

Cell phones operate on the 900 MHz and 1800 MHz bands.

Cordless phones use the 1,800 MHz band.

A phone pressed to an ear will be about 1.5” away from brain tissue. Both cordless phones and cell phones broadcast at a level of a few hundred milliwatts, typically in bursts.

Cordless phone risk is almost surely comparable to cell phone risk.

Bluetooth and Wi-Fi

Bluetooth radiates at 2.5 GHz, just a tad above the higher cell phone bands.. Bluetooth comes in classes. Class 1 is “long range” and has signal levels about half that of cell phones. The rest of the classes are far lower. Bluetooth earbuds, which would be the riskiest way to use Bluetooth are either class 2 or class 3, broadcasting at 2.5 mW and 1 mW respectively; far less than cell phone or cordless phones. Hence, this would be a good method for those that cannot stand wired headphones.

Wi-Fi operates at 2 and 6 GHz. The Wi-Fi router, or base station, radiates around 100 mw. On many of them, this can be lowered. Battery-powered devices that connect to the Wi-Fi typically use far less power, maybe 5-15 mW.

Hi-Tension Power Lines

These are the big lines supported by steel towers. These are not the ones at the top of the phone poles outside your house. Living near these power lines is dangerous and should not be allowed. Perhaps it isn’t. How near is near? This study concluded that within 1000 feet of high-tension lines, children got leukemia at a rate 3-4 fold above average. The safe distance is unknown.

Conclusion

Holding cell phones or cordless phones next to the ear long-term will greatly increase the risk of brain cancer.

Is there also damage that is done other than the cancer. We do not know, but this is likely. Cancer means DNA damage and damaged DNA could do other unpredictable things.

Possible Ameliorations

Minimize the signal level.

Nearness is everything.

For all the various radiating devices, exposure will drop with the square of the distance.

If you hold a cell phone against your ear, the phone is radiating maybe 200 mw of energy at a distance of about 1.5” from you brain. If you held the phone 18” away, the power would be only one hundredth of that. This could be accomplished with wired headphones or earbuds.

Turn stuff off when not in use.

Some Wi-Fi routers have “schedulers” built in. Still, turning off the router won’t stop all the connected devices from searching for another Wi-Fi. Maybe the best thing here is to keep Wi-Fi devices, especially the router, away from people.

Replace cordless phone with corded one when possible.

Note, there are low-power cordless phones available in Europe. They are labeled ECO-Plus. They do not seem to be available in the US. It goes without saying that there must be some good reason to have such phones…

Use earbuds or earphones with cellular and cordless phones.

The phone will be away from your head, at least.

Keep kids away from all these radios.

We do not know what the safe limit is, but we do know that typical cell phone use exceeds it.

Airplane mode turns off all the radios

Put devices in airplane mode at night.

Put devices in airplane mode before letting any children play with them.

Many devices can stay in airplane mode until needed. Kindles, for instance, or laptops. Children’s tablets.

Valid Experiment or Placebo Effect

For I week, I have put my phone in airplane mode at night. It’s normal nighttime haunt is my bedside table. It hence spends the night about two feet from my brain.

I immediately noticed that I slept a lot better, but I was skeptical. The power that an idle phone exerts on my brain from a distance of two feet is quite quite low.

Then one night I didn’t sleep well. I thought this confirmed my belief that a cell phone two feet from my head couldn’t interfere with my sleep. However, I then made a discovery: I had forgotten to put the cell phone in airplane mode the previous night.

Just to further tease out this “discovery,” my wife will now randomly set airplane mode.

I invite our readers to try this one too and let us know.

This Is Going to Be a Big Issue

I can’t see any escape. There is going to be a brain cancer epidemic before anything meaningful happens. And lawsuits and so on. Like asbestos. Like cigarettes.

And it is a solvable problem. We could have all this marvelous connectivity at a small fraction of the current power levels by distributing the transmitters locally.

There will have to be a solution. Too bad the likelihood of proactivity is small.

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