An Insider Perspective: A Personal Take on the Intersection of Public Health, GIS and Smart Cities - Part 2: Electrosmog


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The following is the second installment of a two-part series by Lance McKee. In Part 1, McKee explored how the scope of public health is broadening and how geospatial technology and location data will play an increasingly important role in health as we build a technology foundation for the “exposome.” In this installment, the author asks readers to consider the mounting evidence that our health and the health of future generations are at risk from the weak electromagnetic fields emitted by our wireless technologies.


"Wonderful as are the laws and phenomena of electricity when made evident to us in inorganic or dead matter, their interest can bear scarcely any comparison with that which attaches to the same force when connected with the nervous system and with life."

— Michael Faraday

In 1821, Faraday demonstrated electromagnetic induction: A magnet moving in a coil of wire produces an electric current in the wire. This and Faraday’s many subsequent discoveries and ideas inspired James Clerk Maxwell (1831 – 1879) to turn those facts and ideas into what we now call Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism. Those equations provide the foundation for electrical engineering.

Modern affirmation of Faraday's envisioned bioelectromagnetics comes from 1965 Nobel Prize winning quantum physicist and quantum theory pioneer, Richard P. Feynman:

"We now realize that the phenomena of chemical interactions, and ultimately life itself, are to be understood in terms of electromagnetism."

Physics today sees force fields, not material substance, as the basis of natural reality. It is not far-fetched to claim that medicine and public health are just beginning to see the implications.

In the macro world of features and phenomena we can see with the naked eye, global warming is the most important change taking place in the natural environment over the last thirty years, and virtually everyone has heard about it. In the intensely local micro and nano world of cells and biochemistry, something far more dramatic than global warming has been taking place in the last thirty years, but we can’t see it, just as mid-nineteenth century Londoners couldn’t see, without instruments, cholera bacteria. Few are aware of it. The intensity and complexity of the oscillating radio frequency electromagnetic fields that engulf living beings are now many millions of times greater and more dynamic than the intensity, complexity, and dynamism of the oscillating fields in which life evolved.

Life evolved in an electromagnetic environment that included radiation from the sun and other celestial bodies, and also Schumann resonances, a very low frequency (approximately 7.83 cycles/second) radio signal produced by impulses from lightning resonating in the space between the Earth and the ionosphere. Lightning, of course, is intense, but lightning and other static electrical phenomena do not produce regularly oscillating waves. 


Figure 1: Life evolved in a rich but largely uneventful environment of very weak fields in the frequency range between zero and infrared. (Image by the author.)

Everything that happens at the cellular level and the biochemical reaction level involves weak electrical potentials. These can potentially be affected by weak oscillating electromagnetic fields.


Figure 2: Electromagnetic fields propagate at the speed of light. They consist of interwoven electrical fields and magnetic fields. Low frequencies have long wavelengths. High frequencies have short wavelengths. Higher frequencies are more energetic. Frequencies energetic enough to break chemical bonds are called “ionizing radiation.” Frequencies that are usually considered too weak to break chemical bonds are called “non-ionizing radiation.”

The importance of weak electrical fields in life is dramatically apparent in this report of a 2011 study at the Tufts Levin Lab, which is funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Researchers measured the tiny electrical potentials around an eye as it develops on a frog embryo. They reproduced those potentials at a point on the frog embryo's tail to cause development of another eye. See also the use of electrical signaling in therapeutics at Pulse Biosciences (PLSE on NASDAC), a company founded by Dr. Rich Nuccitelli. Pulse Biosciences’ technology uses electrical fields to signal cancer cells to disassemble, without heat, toxic chemicals, or intense radiation.

Most people assume that “electrosmog” doesn’t matter for human health, but a growing body of science suggests that it does matter. See this very important study: “Some Effects of Weak Magnetic Fields on Biological Systems: RF fields can change radical concentrations and cancer cell growth rates” by Frank Barnes and Ben Greenebaum. It appeared in the March 2016 issue of IEEE Power Electronics Magazine. Click on the Authors tab on that page and consider the authors’ outstanding scientific credentials. In addition to what you read there, note that Barnes and Greenebaum are co-editors of the most recent edition of the CRC Handbook of Biological Effects of Electromagnetic Fields, the definitive reference for bioelectromagnetics researchers.

The title of the Barnes and Greenebaum paper mentioned above says, “RF fields can change radical concentrations and cancer cell growth rates.” Read the paper and you’ll see that the authors are referring to very weak fields and quantum effects.

For at least twenty years, nutritionists, concerned mainly with the radical concentrations (oxidative stress) that increase as we age, have written about the need to eat fruits and vegetables that contain antioxidants. High radical concentrations contribute to virtually all degenerative diseases and may contribute to depression and anxiety, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease and autism. Thousands of studies show a positive correlation between low-level microwave exposure and oxidative stress. Very importantly, Barnes and Greenebaum have shown a likely mechanism that can account for that correlation.

When scientists speak of cancer cell growth rates, what’s implied is lag times between exposures and diagnosable cancers. As with tobacco and asbestos, weak electromagnetic fields’ effects may not become apparent for many years. Our bodies’ natural processes for managing damaged DNA both slow and hide the effects of cancer-causing environmental insults.

There’s growing controversy as data accumulates in favor of greater caution in exposing people to weak electromagnetic fields, including the emissions of cell phones and other wireless devices. See, for example, the appeal to the World Health Organization, UNEP, and UN member states calling for greater health protection on EMF exposure, signed now by 235 scientists from 41 nations. The number of signees has continued to grow. They urge adherence to the “precautionary principle.” They are particularly concerned for fetuses, children, and women, who, for various reasons, are more susceptible. See also the Environmental Health Trust’s growing Database of Worldwide Policies on Cell Phones, Wireless and Health and the EMR Safety website’s compilation of scientific and policy developments. It’s instructive, as I mentioned in an earlier Directions article, that 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.” See this recent statement by Dr. Anthony B. Miller, who is an advisor to the World Health Organization and who was in the past senior epidemiologist for the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

On the other side of the controversy are organizations defending the status quo of regulation and guidance. These include, for example, the World Health Organization, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, and the CTIA, a wireless industry organization serving the $2T wireless industry. These organizations base their guidelines and regulations on the theoretical argument that radio frequency electromagnetic fields are harmful only if they are strong enough to heat human tissue. They are waiting for unequivocal proof that weak radio frequency electromagnetic fields – non-ionizing radiation – can be linked to adverse health effects. Then, presumably, the WHO will change the status of radiofrequency exposures from “possibly carcinogenic” to “probably carcinogenic.” This statement by the American Cancer Society’s chief medical officer includes an interesting comparison to theoretical arguments that delayed acceptance of the link between lung cancer and smoking. See this critique of IARC by oncologist Dr. Lennart Hardell and this critique of the FCC, written by Norm Ulster and published by the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University.

Note on the page the “Statement by the Advisors to the International EMF Scientist Appeal” dated August 18, 2017 concerning the 5G rollout that has begun in the US and elsewhere. In my city, Worcester, Massachusetts, 5G is being implemented by National Grid as part of a controversial wireless “smart meter” program. See the American Academy of Environmental Medicine’s resolution on smart meters.

Thousands of research studies suggest adverse health impacts of weak EMF, but I have been particularly puzzled that almost no one writing about the opioid crisis seems to know about the research into microwaves’ effects on endogenous opioids in rat brains. Dr. Henry Lai, who began this line of research in 1984, provided a summary in 1998 of his work and the work of others. I recently discovered this abstract of a 2012 paper, “Millimeter waves: Acoustic and electromagnetic,” by Dr. Marvin C. Ziskin, which Ziskin presented in 2011 when he accepted the prestigious D'Arsonval Award. Ziskin and his colleagues demonstrated that “local exposure of skin to low intensity (italics by author) millimeter waves caused the release of endogenous opioids, and the transport of these agents by blood flow to all parts of the body resulted in pain relief and other beneficial effects.” 5G, the next generation of wireless networks, will almost certainly use millimeter wave frequencies. The Ziskin study is notable, but there is little other research available on the biological effects of radiation at these frequencies, though research must have preceded development of a crowd dispersal EMF weapon that uses millimeter waves. Clearly, there is a societal need for an environmental impact study before millimeter waves are allowed to become part of the environment in neighborhoods around the world. (It should be noted that communications systems using millimeter waves may be “fixed wireless,” that is, they may focus the radiation in narrow beams between two non-mobile antennas rather than broadcasting the radiation in all directions as WiFi routers do.)

My involvement in this controversial subject

In 2014, curious about some of my neighbors’ objections to Worcester’s wireless smart meters, I began reading bioelectromagnetics research abstracts and articles. My initial skepticism waned as I read. However, I also noticed and read about problems with the research. It was reported that many studies, when carefully repeated, produced different results. I noticed that some studies showed that polarity was an operative factor, but many studies did not mention polarity or control for it, (just as some non-EMF biological research is confounded by uncontrolled EMF.) Writers have reported in detail other methodological shortcomings in bioelectromagnetics studies. When dealing with very subtle and somewhat random effects, very small variances in controlled factors such as temperature can skew data and confound results.

As someone who spent 22 years learning about and promoting open standards for spatial/temporal features and phenomena, it occurred to me to suggest development of an open standard data model for electromagnetic fields. Dr. Rich Nuccitelli, the former Bioelectromagnetics Society president who chaired the 2015 BEMS and European Bioelectronics Association conference, agreed with precautionary principle activist and distinguished scientist Dr. Devra Davis that it would be “useful to the community” to hear my presentation at that conference. I presented my ideas, and the attendees generally agreed that such a standard would be a good idea, but they thought it would be difficult to do and it would be difficult to find funding to support it.


Fig. 3: One of my slides from the BEMS/EBEA presentation. (Figure by author)

After retiring from my OGC staff position in 2016, I became an OGC individual member. I found other OGC member representatives who thought there might be other applications for an electromagnetic spectrum standard data model, applications unrelated to biology, such as security and resilience of radio communications in disasters and war zones, and improved management of spectrum used to communicate with Earth imaging satellites.

It was interesting to some that I was promoting a standard that would expand OGC’s geo (Earth scale) and macro (cityscape and in-building scale) focus to include micro and nano scale features and phenomena, and it would also expand OGC’s time series temporal scale down to microseconds and nanoseconds. For example, as a GPS satellite comes over the horizon from the perspective of another GPS satellite, the weather along the horizon affects the speed of the satellite’s signal. The known difference in speed through different atmospheric conditions is useful in improving the accuracy of the GPS system and the variance in speed is used in some weather forecasting calculations.

I found co-initiators for an Electromagnetic Spectrum Domain Working Group. The group has met four times. Minutes and links to documents are available at the EMSpectrumDWG wiki page. Most of those documents outline the potential value of a standard data model in a number of domains, all geospatial, unrelated to health.

 To summarize our EMSpectrum DWG discussions:

  • Different applications require different standard data models, but an OGC standard set of location elements for different applications’ standard data models would be useful for data integration between data used in radio frequency spectrum application domains and spatial data of other kinds, such as terrain data and 3D urban models. We reviewed the open source OpenSSRF data model and discussed replacing its location model elements with OGC-based location elements, which would be relatively easy to do.
  •  There is little or no overlap between the bioelectromagnetics research community and the OGC community. I stated my intention to continue to learn about and promote, outside of OGC, standardization that would be useful in bioelectromagnetics research.
  • We should establish and maintain contact with other standards organizations focused on radio frequency applications, to learn more about and contribute to the current state of standardization in the radio frequency world.

For various reasons, with the exception of my note above about promoting EMF data sharing standards in bioelectromagnetics research outside of OGC, I and most of the others who took actions at our March 2017 meeting have not followed up on those actions. Each task needs preparation, more homework, and perhaps reconsideration.

Often, decision makers don’t appreciate how standards-facilitated spatial data integration would benefit them and how they might benefit from OGC participation. This is true even in the geosciences, as I described in a 3-part series in Earthzine in 2010 and 2011. Just as in the geosciences, an exposomics that consistently used standards, including OGC/ISO standards for spatial/temporal elements, would hasten the progress of environmental health. This, however, will require outreach to that community, and the outreach will need to extend to other communities such as epidemiologists, ecologists, and environmental regulatory agencies whose funding could drive interoperability progress. It's not an easy task.

In the media and in OGC, there is increasing interest in big data, citizen science, and data-driven problem solving. Despite the technical limitations and existential concerns about big data (privacy etc.), this trend bodes well for science. As explained in those Earthzine articles, most sciences are seriously constrained by institutions and methods of communication that evolved in the print era. The sciences are all at various stages in their progress toward using information technology strategically to accomplish the goals of science. It takes time. The scientists and their immediate stakeholders need to coordinate around goals and then there needs to be investment in building the technology and standards platforms, all while reconceiving the institutions and always keeping in mind the importance of interoperability.

I wrote in part 1 of this two-part series, that I think that, “... unlikely as it seems, we are headed into a period where unbiased bioelectromagnetics science will suddenly get the visibility and funding it has long deserved.” I envision a multi-omics and exposomics initiative in which “spectrumomics” would be included. It’s about leveraging computer science – big data, standards, automated data collection, data-driven problem solving, and perhaps citizen science – to accelerate realization of the vision that Faraday and Feynman shared. It’s about coordinating development of a platform that would serve both environmental bioelectromagnetics, as exemplified in the work of Dr. Devra Davis, and what’s coming to be called “bioelectronics,” as exemplified in the work of Dr. Rich Nuccitelli. This is something I’m pursuing, as I mentioned above, outside of OGC.  

A bumpy road behind. What’s ahead?

Coordination and investment in science can be accelerated or impeded. There is a trend, at least in today’s U.S.A., toward less government support of research. Depending on the potential applications of the science, the lost funding may or may not be replaced by corporate funding. Corporations have specific business-driven research goals that may or may not coincide with the public interest. The public interest, of course, ought to be the main driver of government policy.

The BEMS/EBEA conference I spoke at was held at the beautiful Asilomar seaside resort near Monterey, California. Wireless industry organizations were the main sponsors, as they are every year. The wireless industry has also been the main source of funding for bioelectromagnetics research, at least in some decades. It’s sometimes hard to find who has sponsored studies. 

There’s a clear conflict of interest here. I mentioned above the maturation of sciences. It’s not hard to understand why bioelectromagnetics has matured so slowly and why so few young scientists choose to enter this field. Read about the careers of researchers Henry Lai and N.P. Singh and a former Finnish cell phone technology executive Matti Niemelä. Consider the career of Gro Harlem Brundtland, director general of the World Health Organization from 1998 to 2003, who prior to that was the chair of the Brundtland Commission. That commission’s report led to the UN’s focus on sustainability and the series of international climate summits that gave us the Paris Agreement.

In Part 1 of this series, I mentioned governments’ balancing of environmental risks against other risks and costs. Weather radars, airport radars, speed control radars, and military radars are critical technologies, yet they are also sources of potentially dangerous radio frequency radiation. There can be no doubt that government decision-makers worry about the problems that would ensue if the public’s perception of risk became an impediment to operations that depend on radars.

The public’s perception of risk is growing, as it should, but policy initiatives raising the priority of health risks over other risks may be too late in coming to avoid significant downstream public health costs and expensive deployment of wireless infrastructure that will, after a brief time, need to be replaced. It’s easy to imagine “improved safety” becoming a selling point for the next generation of technology, and for generations after that.

Within twenty years, virtually everyone in the world will have been exposed over long periods to biology-affecting radiation from wireless devices. Where will scientists find a control group if diseases and disorders associated with radio frequency radiation exposures become a “normal” part of the human condition?

I wrote in Part 1 of this series, “The Earth is the stage for countless complex and intensely local competitions and interactions among many inescapably interactive ‘agents.’ The agents include all the Earth’s living things, including us, as well as the features and phenomena of their inorganic environments.”

Safety of electromagnetic environments is an important and complicated issue for Smart City technology rollouts, public health, and the protection of non-human life forms in cities. It’s going to take a lot of good scientists and policymakers working together, representing different “agents” in “intensely local competitions and interactions” to find the best way forward.

What can citizens do? Realistically, the cycling of new and safer generations of wireless technologies will take decades. In my opinion, the most important stakeholders are our children and children yet to be conceived, and there are some things we can do to protect them.

If you’re a parent (or a meddling grandparent like me), see the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Recommendations to “Reduce Exposure to Cell Phones.” If you’re a parent of a teenager, have them watch the 1-minute “Cell phones: Teens in the Driver’s Seat” on YouTube. If you work in a school or you’re a parent concerned about WiFi in schools, see the WiFi in Schools page at the Environmental Health Trust website. There’s a lot to learn and then teach to our local school boards, city councils, and state and federal legislators.

As Margaret Mead wrote, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

The author has not been paid by OGC to write any of the articles in this series and has not sought input from OGC staff or board of directors on the content. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not reflect official or unofficial positions of the OGC.


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