Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, allowed none of his children to use a cellphone until age 14. Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, refused to allow his young children to play with the iPad, because: “We think it’s too dangerous for them.”
We humans are today exposed to billions of times more electromagnetic radiation in the sub-infrared frequency ranges than our forebears were 100 years ago. Since the first use of radio waves and alternating current, exposures have increased exponentially. With the emergence of the Internet of Things, smart cities, and intelligent transportation, we face a very steep increase in coming years, particularly with the build-out of small cell networks providing “Wi-Fi everywhere.”
Almost universally, people have assumed that non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation is harmless unless energy intensity exposure levels are high enough to heat living tissue. However, there is growing consensus among scientists that this is a false assumption. Around the world, a growing number of governments, associations and other institutions are implementing policies to reduce electromagnetic radiation health risks from cellphones and other wireless devices.
The research supporting caution continues to accumulate. In May 2016, the U.S. National Toxicology Program released, earlier than planned, partial results of its 16-year, $25 million “National Toxicology Program Carcinogenesis Studies of Cell Phone Radiofrequency Radiation.” Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society remarked that, "The NTP report linking RFR (radiofrequency radiation) to two types of cancer marks a paradigm shift in our understanding of radiation and cancer risk." This was an about-face for the American Cancer Society, which has long denied the health risks of cell phones.
Physicists and engineers tend to believe that physics proves that biological effects cannot be caused by such low levels of exposure. I refer them to a study published in the March 2016 IEEE Power Electronics Magazine: "Some Effects of Weak Magnetic Fields on Biological Systems," by eminent researchers Frank Barnes and Ben Greenebaum. “Stuff is going on,”Barnes told Microwave News, “We can see changes with very small fields.” Barnes is a distinguished professor emeritus of electrical engineering at the University of Colorado in Boulder and a long-time member of the National Academy of Engineering.
Many studies suggestother risks besides cancer. (See the BioInitiative Report.) Harvard neurology professor Martha Herbert co-authored a paper containing 560 references on a plausible link between electromagnetic fields and autism. She has written, "The more sensitive our scientific measurement instruments become, the more we learn that every cell in our body uses electromagnetic signaling". To appreciate the truth of this statement, read about Tufts University’s Levin Lab, funded by Microsoft founder Paul Allen. Researchers there can cause a frog eye to grow on a frog embryo’s tail by applying carefully calibrated electrical signals. One example of a negative biological effect of wireless device emissions: household-level electromagnetic radiation has been shown repeatedly to raise oxidative stress, which is a risk factor in many chronic diseases as well as cancer. Electromagnetic radiation is thus not necessarily the sole cause, but rather an important contributing factor in many diseases, some of which are important factors in the rising cost of healthcare. Consider, too, that numerous studies show negative effects of low-level electromagnetic radiation on wildlife.
Electrohypersensitivity is perhaps the most controversial topic in the area of electromagnetic radiation and health. Some people are much more sensitive to electromagnetic radiation than others. EHS sufferers typically experience dermatological symptoms (redness, tingling, and burning sensations) as well symptoms such as fatigue, tiredness, concentration difficulties, dizziness, nausea, heart palpitation, and digestive disturbances.In 2015, the National Law Review provided this overview for legal professionals.
Be sure you read about the electrohypersensitivity of Gro Harlem Brundtland, medical doctor, three-time prime minister of Norway, director-general of the World Health Organization from 1998 to 2003, and chair of the Brundtland Commission. That commission’s report, “Our Common Future,” also known as the Brundtland Report, set in motion the series of international climate conferences that led to the 2016 Paris Agreement. See also the story of Matti Niemelä, Nokia’s former Chief Technology Officer. Their experiences shed light, as do a number of articles in professional journals, on why it has taken so long for the biological effects and health risks of EMF to be taken seriously by the press, the public, and unbiased policy makers.
The Federal Communications Commission's rule for wireless device makers is based on the seriously outdated idea that a device is safe enough if the radiation exposure from that device stays below the intensity at which the phone's radiation measurably heats one cubic centimeter of adult male brain tissue. The Apple Computer iPhone 7’s fine print includes information about the phone’s “as tested” levels, plus a note advising that you keep a 5 millimeter gap between you and your phone. The FCC does not publish different exposure limits for children, whose skulls are thinner and smaller, and who are more susceptible for other reasons.
In 2012, the U.S. General Accounting Office asked the FCC to review its exposure and testing requirements for mobile phones. The FCC has not complied. To understand why, see “Captured Agency” by Norm Alster, former director of the Harvard University Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics Graduate Fellowship Program.
Nora D. Volkow, M.D., director of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health has said, "Even though the radio frequencies that are emitted from current cell phone technologies are very weak, they are able to activate the human brain."
(I wonder if the addictiveness of wireless devices has a deeper cause than people realize. See Dr. Henry Lai’s early research into the role that endogenous opioids play in mediating the effects of microwaves on rat behavior. I wonder, too, if this connection might also play a role in obesity. This is just conjecture. The interwoven psychological, biological, and environmental factors in addiction and obesity are complicated.)
What will smart people do?
First, smart people will look for guidance on how to limit their exposures. Joel M. Moskowitz, Ph.D. director, Center for Family and Community Health, University of California, Berkeley provides an excellent list of tips on how to reduce exposures.
It’s especially important to limit children’s exposures. See the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations to reduce children’s exposure to cell phones.
Smart people will also work together with their friends and families, their children’s friends’ parents, their schools and communities, and their state and federal representatives to find solutions.
What will smart cities do?
Network effects, apps and platforms, and the continuous rise in capability and reduction in cost, size, and power requirements of semiconductor devices, along with wireless industry marketing, seem certain to increase cities’ and citizens’ dependency on wireless communications. The public appetite for more bandwidth and everywhere-available wireless coverage seems endless. Opposing this progress with growing force are concerns about privacy, hackers, electromagnetic pulse risks, and the public health risks of electromagnetic radiation. Below are my predictions for things that I think cities will start to do to provide citizens with safer electromagnetic radiation environments:
1. Wireless smart meters will be abandoned. Microgrids without wireless control systems will proliferate. We do need to transform power distribution grids to increase efficiency and dependability, incorporate renewable power sources, and protect our security. As currently conceived and deployed, however, smart meters have dubious records and prospects on cost and security. Regarding health, imagine a bank of wireless meters on the outside of a wall against which a baby sleeps in a multifamily dwelling. It is my impression from watching the troubled rollout of the smart grid in Massachusetts that smart grid initiatives tend to put the interests of utilities ahead of the interests of consumers. My enthusiasm for smart grids was sparked in 2008 by a book written by former Motorola CEO Robert W. Galvin called “Perfect Power.” I participated in NIST’s 2009 smart grid standards workshops and watched utility executives struggle with new realities that would threaten their business models. They went on to devise the prevailing profitable smart grid strategies and derived information system architectures. Read about microgrids and the Galvin Electricity Initiative, and consider how Galvin’s smart grid philosophy aligns with the fiber optics discussion below.
2. Fiber optics will become ubiquitous. Optical fiber provides much more bandwidth than wireless, and it is more immune to hacking, electromagnetic pulse, and expensive periodic updates. Also, by itself, a fiber optic cable produces no electromagnetic fields. Burying fiber cables makes the cables immune to storms. Also, burying can avoid obstruction by utilities and cable companies who control utility poles. Much is happening in the fiber optics world, with advances such as NG-PON2 and fiber optic sensing. Small cell wireless networks such as those being deployed for smart grids will in many cases be built out from fiber optic networks that are being put in place. In April, Verizon Communications agreed to buy optical fiber from Corning for at least $1.05 billion over the next three years. That will bring Verizon a big step closer to small cell networks, but it would also position them to provide fiber-to-the-home if an informed public successfully resists small cell networks. Fiber optics will not become ubiquitous soon, for reasons illustrated in this article about Google Fiber and this article about Chattanooga’s municipal optical network. Nevertheless, EMF health issues, plus the advantages of fiber, could bring voters to persuade local, state, and federal lawmakers to promote rather than oppose municipally-owned fiber networks. Smart meters as well as citizens and businesses would then have a safer connection to the Internet that could be maintained affordably and locally, contributing to community wealth.
3. Cities will want devices’ emissions to be scaled down and tuned for minimum health risk. Cell phones already scale their energy outputs based on distance from the nearest cell tower. As far as I know, WiFi, Bluetooth and cordless phones do not scale back to emit only as much energy as necessary. It may be that certain protocols, certain electromagnetic field time domain profiles, certain combinations of amplitude pulse patterns, frequency, and polarity will be discovered to be more or less harmful to life. We don’t yet know if this is the case. Such knowledge, along with self-quieting devices, would figure importantly in the evolution toward safer electromagnetic field environments.
4. Cities will support ubiquitous electromagnetic radiation monitoring. Imagine:
- Every emitting device periodically sharing to a cloud server packets of data describing its emissions — emitter location, time, protocol, frequency, amplitude pulsing patterns, antenna type, etc.
- Every receiving device periodically capturing and sharing to the cloud server packets of data describing the receiver’s location, current time, and data about the emissions it is receiving.
- The cloud server sharing to any device a profile of electromagnetic activity at any location.
- Augmented reality apps showing what the immediate non-ionizing radiation environment “looks like.”
Admittedly, this won’t happen soon. It awaits widespread agreement on the value of such monitoring. Also, an open standard international data model for electromagnetic fields would be a technical requirement. (The OGC EM Spectrum Domain Working Group, which I chair, is discussing such a standard, but for other uses.)
5. Electromagnetic radiation shielding will be detailed in building codes. To make buildings healthier, and to prevent interference with delicate electronics, including individuals’ medical devices — pacemakers, insulin pumps, deep-brain stimulators, cochlear implants, internal defibrillators, and other RF-sensitive medical implants — builders will need to electromagnetically shield buildings and rooms. One consideration is that all types of non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation induce low level electrical “noise” in electric power circuits, potentially impacting both delicate electronics and health. Shielding will be especially important for hospitals, schools, and nursing facilities. IEEE already provides standards and guidelines for such shielding.
Other predictions, which I may cover in future columns:
- 12 and 24 volt DC power-over-Ethernet homes
- The abandonment of fluorescent lighting for health reasons
- Establishment and official recognition of radio-free communities
Undoubtedly, many readers of this article have seen other articles presenting some of the same issues, because the important findings of bioelectromagnetics science are finally beginning to be reported objectively and thus known and discussed.
My April 19, 2017, Directions article was about “first principles” for smart cities. Dr. John Snow’s mapping of the 1854 London cholera outbreak was an early inspiration for geographers. Electromagnetic fields present a more difficult problem, but the principal is the same: Public health is a priority in cities, so we need to understand, locate, avoid, and remediate disease agents. Developing and encouraging the use of an open international standard data model for electromagnetic fields will be one piece of the puzzle eventually, and that’s what I’m working on. But the most important work is the work that will be done in the near term by people who organize to urge officials to address legitimate concerns about the health hazards of wireless technologies.