No, We're Not All Being Bathed In Deadly Radiation From Smartphones And Wi-Fi

With last night's ABC Catalyst episode examining the safety of electromagnetic radiation from smartphones and Wi-Fi, we thought it would be relevant to re-publish this May 2015 scientific response to sceptics.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tomorrow at TedX Sydney’s Opera House event, high-profile neurosurgeon Charlie Teo will talk about brain cancer. Last Saturday Teo was on Channel 9’s Sunrise program talking about the often malignant cancer that in 2012 killed 1,241 Australians. During the program he said:

Unfortunately the jury is still out on whether mobile phones can lead to brain cancer, but studies suggest it’s so.

Teo’s name appears on a submission recently sent to the United Nations. If you Google “Charlie Teo and mobile phones” you will see that his public statements on this issue go back years.

The submission he signed commences:

We are scientists engaged in the study of biological and health effects of non-ionizing electromagnetic fields (EMF). Based upon peer-reviewed, published research, we have serious concerns regarding the ubiquitous and increasing exposure to EMF generated by electric and wireless devices. These include – but are not limited to – radiofrequency radiation (RFR) emitting devices, such as cellular and cordless phones and their base stations, Wi-Fi, broadcast antennas, smart meters, and baby monitors as well as electric devices and infra-structures [sic] used in the delivery of electricity that generate extremely-low frequency electromagnetic field (ELF EMF).

That list just about covers off every facet of modern life: the internet, phones, radio, television and any smart technology. It’s a list the Amish and reclusive communities of “wifi refugees” know all about.

Other than those living in the remotest of remote locations, there are very few in Australia today who are not bathed in electromagnetic fields and radiofrequency radiation, 24 hours a day. My mobile phone shows me that my house is exposed to the wifi systems of six neighbours' houses as well as my own. Public wifi hotspots are rapidly increasing.

The first mobile phone call in Australia was made over 28 years ago on February 23, 1987. In December 2013, there were some 30.2 million mobile phones being used in a population of 22.7 million people. Predictions are that there will be 5.9 billion smartphone users globally within four years. There are now more than 100 nations which have more mobile phones than population.

So while Australia has become saturated in electromagnetic field radiation over the past quarter century, what has happened to cancer rates?

Brain cancer is Teo’s surgical speciality and the cancer site that attracts nearly all of the mobile phone panic attention. In 1987 the age-adjusted incidence rate of brain cancer in Australia per 100,000 people was 6.6. In 2011, the most recent year for which national data is available, the rate was 7.3.

The graph below shows brain cancer incidence has all but flat-lined across the 29 years for which data are available. All cancer is notifiable in Australia.

New cases of brain cancer in Australia, 1982 to 2011 (age-adjusted) / Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, CC BY

Brain cancers are a relatively uncommon group of cancers: their 7.3 per 100,000 incidence compares with female breast (116), colorectal (61.5) and lung cancer (42.5). There is no epidemic of brain cancer, let alone mobile phone caused brain cancer. The Cancer Council explicitly rejects the link. This US National Cancer Institute fact sheet summarises current research, highlighting rather different conclusions than Charlie Teo.

Another Australian signatory of the submission, Priyanka Bandara, describes herself as an “Independent Environmental Health Educator/Researcher; Advisor, Environmental Health Trust and Doctors for Safer Schools”.

Last year, a former student of mine asked to meet with me to discuss wifi on our university campus. She arrived at my office with Bandara who looked worried as she ran a EMF meter over my room. I was being pickled in it, apparently.

Her pitch to me was one I have encountered many times before. The key ingredients are that there are now lots of highly credentialed scientists who are deeply concerned about a particular problem, here wifi. These scientists have published [pick a very large number] of “peer reviewed” research papers about the problem.

Peer review often turns out to be having like-minded people from their networks, typically with words like “former”, “leading”, “senior” next to their names, write gushing appraisals of often unpublished reports.

The neo-Galilean narrative then moves to how this information is all being suppressed by the web of influence of vested industrial interests. These interests are arranging for scientists to be sacked, suppressing publication of alarming reports, and preventing many scientists from speaking out in fear.

Case reports of individuals claiming to be harmed and suffering Old Testament-length lists of symptoms as a result of exposure are then publicised. Here’s one for smart meters, strikingly similar to the 240+ symptom list for “wind turbine syndrome”. Almost any symptom is attributed to exposure.

Historical parallels with the conduct of the tobacco and asbestos industries and Big Pharma are then made. The argument runs “we understand the history of suppression and denial with these industries and this new issue is now experiencing the same”.

There is no room for considering that the claims about the new issue might just be claptrap and that the industries affected by the circulation of false and dangerous nonsense might understandably want to stamp on it.

Bandara’s modest blog offers schools the opportunity to hear her message:

Wireless technologies are sweeping across schools exposing young children to microwave radiation. This is not in line with the Precautionary Principle. A typical classroom with 25 WiFi enabled tablets/laptops (each operating at 0.2 W) generates in five hours about the same microwave radiation output as a typical microwave oven (at 800 W)in two minutes. Would you like to microwave your child for two minutes (without causing heating as it is done very slowly using lower power) daily?

David French/Flickr, CC BY

There can be serious consequences of alarming people about infinitesimally small, effectively non-existent risks. This rural Victorian news story features a woman so convinced that transmission towers are harming her that she covers her head in a “protective” cloth cape.

This woman was so alarmed about the electricity smart meter at her house that she had her electricity cut off, causing her teenage daughter to study by candlelight. Yet she is shown being interviewed by a wireless microphone.

Mobile phones have played important roles in rapid response to life-saving emergencies. Reducing access to wireless technology would have incalculable effects in billions of people’s lives, many profoundly negative.

Exposing people to fearful messages about wifi has been experimentally demonstrated to increase symptom reportage when subjects were later exposed to sham wifi. Such fears can precipitate contact with charlatans readily found on the internet who will come to your house, wave meters around and frighten the gullible into purchasing magic room paint, protective clothing, bed materials and other snake-oil at exorbitant prices.

As exponential improvements in technology improve the lifestyles and well-being of the world’s population, we seem destined to witness an inexorable parallel rise in fear-mongering about these benefits. The Conversation



    My favourite story is the one about the new mobile phone tower that was built in a community. The company had a community meeting to meet with all the people that had started having headaches, rashes and all sorts of other problems. At the end of it all, they thanked the community for their input and advised that they would be turning it on the following week.

      I always enjoy a good story of mass hysteria.

      People are silly things.

    The World Health Organisation spent a ton of money trying to prove that wifi radiation was harmful to people in general and specifically to kids but came away with something along the lines of “it doesn’t seem to be harmful but we are not quite 100% sure about this and it may in some cases somehow in some way we can’t really seem to create be harmful to kids – kinda”. It was a classic case of an organisation launching a study, getting results they didn’t want back and then trying to report the results how they wanted them in the first place. It reminded me of “Dumb and Dumber” when the girl says there is a 1-in-a-million chance she will go out with him and he says “so there is a chance!” Naturally the popular press turned the findings into “There is a chance that wifi will fry your kids according to the W.H.O.”

    The non-finding makes sense because the amount of actual radiation is so small that it is almost a rounding error compared to how much we get from the sun and the ground and the world around us. Our bodies are built to withstand radiation and have been for millions of years. We got this. I believe (but don’t quote me on this) that the amount of wifi radiation is roughly the same amount that a banana or carrot gives off naturally.

    People are strange and will react to the slight radiation that wifi gives off negatively but will ignore the only natural source of radiation that can possibly affect and that is the sun. How many people complaining about technological radiation even wear sunscreen or hats or cover themselves when they go out? How many are tanned?

    Unfortunately the jury is still out on whether mobile phones can lead to brain cancer, but studies suggest it’s so

    Anyone remember the ending of "Thank You for Smoking"?

      Anyone remember this article?

    Best not let my granddad get a whiff of this...he already believes that mobile devices are the beginning of a major brainwashing operation, but god forbid someone stops him from watching the news every night.

    I loved the clip where they showed a picture of a woman a child holding a phone to their ear and overlaid heat maps on the child's and woman's head showing red in their scientific! (and emotional haha) they are killing children by using a mobile!!!!!

      I remember reading about a study concerning the heating effect of EMF from mobiles. The study found that there was a much, much higher effect from the fact that you were holding your warm hand plus a thermally insulating plastic brick next to the head.

      I used to get the same basic effect from a landline. Had to switch ears occasionally because my phone ear was too warm.

    It's worth mentioning that, in addition to the lack of statistical evidence (despite numerous and extensive studies), there's no proposed physical mechanism.

    Microwave EM radiation is non-ionising, meaning it that those frequencies do not possess the energy levels required to knock electrons around - they can't change the chemical bonds of molecules, can't damage your DNA, can't mutate cells, and thus can't cause cancer. This is regardless of time or wattage. It's the same reason why you can sit all day under a 1000W studio lamp (IR & visible-light frequencies), but 15 minutes in sunlight will start to burn you (ultraviolet frequencies & higher are ionising).

    What non-ionising radiation *can* do is heat stuff up. The molecules absorb the energy and vibrate faster. If you pump a few hundred watts of microwaves into something, it will warm up enough that the temperature levels enable chemical reactions, which is how your microwave cooks. But a 0.5W microwave oven, that doesn't even focus its energy in a cage but radiates it everywhere? Your food would cool down as fast as it heats up. And Wi-Fi transmission strengths are typically a lot less than that.

    If there was a possible physical mechanism, or even significant statistical evidence of an effect that might indicate a new mechanism that we've not seen before, then there might be reason for caution. But until then, the evidence all points to "it does nothing".

      I might remind you that visible light is non ionizing but chlorophyll (photosynthesis) uses it to power a plant cell by moving electrons around... Second, there are structures in your cells that move ions around via voltage gated channels. Biophysical modelling suggests EMF at non thermal energies is powerful enough to modify these gates and affect ion flow. Experiments have found this to be the case, specifically affecting voltage gated calcium channels. A plausible mechanism has been suggested for how this stimulation can follow positive pathways enhancing growth and negative pathways increasing oxidative stress. For further details -

        Good link, thanks. So there can be potential cellular effects other than ionising or thermal (things are never that simple), but apparently pretty subtle if these haven't been well-explored yet, and don't seem to be showing up in the large-scale statistical studies looking for negative effects. As always, more study needed to be certain...

    There are problems when 'experts' with a particular viewpoint (and books or other products to sell) are interviewed without other experts being able to debate the relevant science (physics in this case). There are also problems with some journals in which some of the 'experts' publish.

    Catalyst fell into this problem previously when choosing a nutritionist with qualifications from a non-accredited source and his fellow book authors (who also sold a range of very expensive supplements).

    When an interviewer appears amazed at her 'experts' findings and fails to interview other scientists in the same manner, we (the public) should be skeptical.

      I would suggest an expert in cell biophysics would be the best qualified. Cells do things that are quite counter-intuitive from a basic physics and chemistry perspective...

    Where are all the spikes in hand cancers? I mean, you use your hand with your phone more than your head, so if using a mobile causes brain cancers, surely it must do the same to your hand!

    The blog entry comparing wifi vs. a microwave is especially silly. Basically they're comparing the power output from an entire classroom vs. a microwave oven.
    - 90% of the wifi radio signals will never hit a human being.
    - 90% of those that do will pass straight through said humans. That's why holding a mobile to your head does not block signal.
    - You then have those same microwaves - capable of heating up a 1kg roast in two minutes - spread across, let's say 25kgx30 = 750kg of human being
    - and all of this takes five hours rather than two minutes - another factor of 150.

    So the relative level of heating is 0.1 x 0.1 x (1/750) x (1/150) = 8.8x10^-8 or roughly one ten-millionth of the effect. For a thousand-watt microwave, this would be one ten thousandth of a watt. They are probably getting heated more by their overhead lights, even if they are ultra-efficient LED ones.

    By comparison, sunlight exceeds 1000W/m^2 so a human being standing outside will commonly be receiving at least 100W of EM radiation. Bandara had better not go outside.

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