Devices like cell phones, tablets, laptop computers, wireless printers, Bluetooth speakers, and even internet-enabled thermostats and light bulbs are become more and more ubiquitous, raising questions about the safety of Wi-Fi (the networking system that allows these devices to communicate without wires).
These devices use radio waves in the 2.4 to 5.0 Gigahertz (GHz) range to talk to each other, creating an invisible web of radiation called an electromagnetic field (or EMF) around them. As the number of Wi-Fi-enabled devices increases, so does the strength of the field produced. Our bodies are increasingly bathed in fields of electromagnetic radiation at home, in the office, in our cars, and even in public spaces like parks as our insatiable demand for constant Internet connectivity leads local authorities to make Wi-Fi networks universally accessible.
It is well established that at high frequencies, electromagnetic radiation can be dangerous. Exposure to intense electromagnetic fields for even a brief period of time can cause short-term damage (in the form of burns to the skin, as happens when we get a sunburn) as well as long-term damage to our cells and DNA (potentially increasing our lifetime risk of developing cancer or other diseases).
Unfortunately, the data that we have on the risks of chronic exposure to low frequency electromagnetic radiation is unclear. As experts hired by tech companies like to point out, for example, data collected by the US National Cancer Institute has found no statistically significant increase in the number of brain tumors over the past 20 years despite the widespread use of cell phones during that time.
By contrast, a 2013 review of research previously conducted on the possible health effects of Wi-Fi found that those studies were extremely mixed in terms of their scientific rigor and verifiable outcomes. Some of these studies reported finding biological effects associated with Wi-Fi exposure in laboratory and animal models, but these data were limited and could not be used to draw definitive conclusions about the possible health risks of wireless technology.
Finally, recent studies using laboratory rats found that heavy exposure to cell phone radiation increased these animals’ risks for some brain and heart tumors. Similar studies found that high levels of Wi-Fi and cell phone exposure caused both hormonal shifts and oxidative stress in laboratory mice. Although the long-term consequences of these physiological changes are unknown, they are believed to be associated with a number of cancers and neurological disorders in humans. It is important to note, however, that animal models are not always predictive of human disease. Moreover, the levels of electromagnetic radiation that these mice were exposed in the laboratory were far greater than what most people encounter when using a mobile phone or other wireless device. There’s a great and frequently updated collection of research on the safety of electromagnetic radiation on this website, compiled by Dr. Joel M. Moskowitz, Director of the Center for Family and Community Health at UC Berkeley School of Public Health.
While the health risks associated with using our smartphones and other Wi-Fi-enabled devices are thus still unclear, an increasing body of evidence suggests that this technology may not be as safe as our current regulations and safety standards would suggest. This may explain why the World Health Organization and its International Agency for Research on Cancer have classified mobile phones as a “possible carcinogen”
This doesn’t mean that you need to ditch your cellphone or go completely ‘off the grid’ and live in a yurt in rural New Mexico. There are some ways in which you can limit your exposure and hopefully reduce your risk of harm should Wi-Fi prove to be dangerous. These include:
1. Keep cell phones and laptops off your body.
The further the device is away from your body, the lower your exposure. Rather than carry your phones in our front pocket, keep it in your briefcase or purse.
Similarly, despite its name you should never place a laptop computer directly on your lap. Use a desk, table or other rigid surface instead. You can also buy EMF blocking mats to place underneath your computer. Not only will this reduce your exposure to electromagnetic radiation, but it will also prevent you from potential burn injuries (surprisingly, laptop burn is a real and not uncommon condition).
2. Use earphones or a headset when talking on your cell phone.
The electromagnetic output of your phone increases 100-fold when in use, and when you hold it up to your ear you are directly exposing your head to that radiation. You can reduce this exposure by using earphones or some other listening device, keeping the actively transmitting phone away from your body. Radiation-free headsets using air tube technology are also available, further reducing your EMF exposure when talking on the phone or listening to music.
3. Put your cell phone into airplane mode at night, when charging, or when not using it.
When your phone is in airplane mode it is transmitting almost no electromagnetic radiation at all; its cellular connectivity, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS and location services are all switched off. As an added bonus, your device will also charge faster.
4. Turn off your wireless router at night.
You’re not using it anyway, so why waste electricity exposing yourself to its electromagnetic field while you sleep? An easy way to do this is use the same sort of timer that you use to turn the lights in your house on and off while on vacation.
5. Look for other ways to reduce your EMF exposure.
You might consider tossing out your microwave, for example, as it is one of the biggest sources of electromagnetic radiation in your home. You might ditch your wireless router all together in favor of an old-fashioned ethernet cable. You can purchase an inexpensive EMF meter to determine the greatest sources of radiation in your home, then reduce or eliminate their use. You can even purchase EMF blockers for home use.
While it is fairly impossible to avoid all EMF exposure in our modern world, there are simple and easy ways to reduce it. Until the true dangers of Wi-Fi and other low-frequency electromagnetic radiation are known, it would seem to be a prudent thing to do.