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Bigfoot, UFOs and electromagnetic field sickness. What do they all have in common? One thing. They are all topics that really loony people talk about a lot.

Why is this? Why does the idea of a new species living deep in the forest draw in the fruitcake crowds, when scientists discover new species of animals all the time? Why are UFOs considered so much “tin-foil-hat” material, when there are strange military experimental craft and unusual weather phenomenon going on over our heads all the time?

And most importantly (for the purpose of this article), what about the so-called electromagnetic “radiation”? Is there any truth to the weird and wild claims found all around the Web related to wireless fields from your Wi-Fi routers and wireless cellphones causing health problems?

Let’s take a closer look at the latest research to figure out if there’s any truth to the idea that we might need to fear our mobile devices.

Can Electromagnetic Fields Cause Cancer?

Confession time. I used to have much more concern over mobile devices than I do today. Every time I placed my first-generation smartphone near a computer speaker, and I heard the buzz of induced current in the speaker coil, I realized that the wave fields coming out of that innocent-looking phone may be a little more potent than anyone realizes.

Of course, everyone who knows anything about electronics and electricity knows that such electromagnetic fields are a non-ionizing form of “radiation”, which means that there is not enough energy in the radiation to remove an electron from atoms in matter, thereby ionizing them. That’s enough energy to damage cellular DNA and cause cancer. Non-ionizing radiation typically does not put someone at risk for cancer.

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Unfortunately, it’s not that cut and dry. Words from the U.S. National Cancer Institute should calm everyone about the alleged dangers of cellphones. On its website, the Cancer Institute writes, “…to date there is no evidence from studies of cells, animals, or humans that radiofrequency energy can cause cancer.” However, following this statement, the Institute proceeds to list a number of studies that all had conflicting findings regarding whether there’s a relationship between cancer incidence and cellphone use.

Then, in May of 2011, the World Health Organization issued the following statement, which of course freaked out lots of people and sent EMF conspiracy theorists into a frenzy.

The WHO/International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B), based on an increased risk for glioma, a malignant type of brain cancer, associated with wireless phone use.

However, in the “Results” section of the same report, the authors explain that most evidence connecting wireless phones with cancer is “inadequate”, and the only reason for the warning was because of one study that showed a “40% increased risk for gliomas”. Just one study.

I’m less convinced today about any sort of cancer connection to cellphones than I was even two years ago.

Biological Effects of Electromagnetic Fields

Maybe the problem isn’t so much cancer. You see, the sun causes molecular damage because of the photochemical properties of the solar radiation. This is what can burn the skin, create free radicals, and lead to cancer. So do cellphones have any biological effects on humans? Yes, they do.

Evidence for this first comes from a FOIA document obtained by Donald Friedman in 2006 from the U.S. Army, which was a 1998 study detailing potential uses for electromagnetic radiation as a nonlethal weapon.

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A stunning admission in the document is that low frequency magnetic fields – particularly those “tuned” to a resonance wavelength – could have significantly adverse effects when directed at a human body.

A few of the proven effects listed by the Army paper included:

  • Controlled (microwave-style) heating of the core body temperature without harming organs. Essentially inducing a fever.
  • Inducing sounds heard immediately behind the head of a target (called “microwave hearing”), through short pulses of RF to induce “thermoelastic expansion” of the brain that can be “heard” by the cochlea.
  • Synchronizing electromagnetic pulses with brain neurons to disrupt normal functioning of the nervous system and incapacitate a target.
  • Inducing involuntary motion of the eyes in order to produce nausea in the victim.

These aren’t high-power devices. The paper explains that to produce the required pulse at 15 Hz, “…power requirements are not high because the duty factor is so low.”

What About Wi-Fi?

So, while carefully designed electromagnetic pulse generators developed by the U.S. Army might be capable of causing all sorts of effects on the human body, that doesn’t mean that mainstream products like smartphones or Wi-Fi routers will have similar biological effects. It’s worth repeating that any studies that found any link to cancer were inconclusive.

However, there are many more studies that show other effects on the human body and even plant life. One odd result actually came from a 9th grade Danish school, where the students, supervised by their Biology teacher, placed garden cress herb seeds in identical rooms. One with a Wi-Fi router and one without. The results were strange, to say the least.

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After 12 days, the seeds in the room without a Wi-Fi router grew normally, while those near a router mostly turned brown and died.

A first reaction would be to point out that there must have been environmental differences between the two rooms, but the Biology teacher told the media that everything about the experiment was carefully controlled. Both groups of seeds were kept equally watered, and the room temperatures were controlled via thermostat.

Given, this was a grade school experiment conducted in May of 2013 by students, so it should be taken with a grain of salt. However, Dr. Olle Johansson at the Karolinska Institutet took notice of the results and is actively working on replicating the experiment under double-blind conditions in a professional lab.

Dr. Johansson explained in a 2014 interview that the school girls were not the first to notice this effect of Wi-Fi on plants. Johansson said, “Other scientists doing extremely well-controlled studies, like in France, had already in 2008 shown that tomato plants do not like exposure from base station radiation.”

Cell Phones Can Change Brain Activity

So, the real question here is that while the odds of getting cancer from cellphones is probably slim, what are the potential dangers here?  Well, there actually do appear to be a number of very strong possibilities that have nothing to do with cancer.

For example, one study at the U. S. National Institute on Drug Abuse took brain scans of people after 50 minutes using an active cellphone near their ears, and found that there were “changes in brain glucose metabolism after cell phone use.”

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The lead scientist, Dr. Nora Valkow, explained to reporters that even though RF frequencies from phones are weak, “…they are able to activate the human brain to have an effect.” This is further evidence that RF electromagnetic fields do in fact have some effect on the human brain.

Some additional studies that provided evidence of biological effects due to EM fields included:

  • A Serbian study funded by the Ministry for Science and Technology that found that rats exposed to 4 hours a day of a 900 MHz waveform for 60 days had “significant” body mass reduction, reduced activity levels, and increased signs of anxiety and agitation.
  • A Canadian study found that rats exposed to a 50 Hz signal, 24 hours a day for 21 days had “anomalies” in the development of the hippocampus, leading the scientists to suggest that “exposure to complex magnetic fields of narrow intensity window during development could result in subtle but permanent alterations in hippocampal structure and function.”
  • A Spanish study studied rats exposed to higher frequency signals in the GHz range, and found that the thyroid gland was affected. The scientists suggested that exposure to this frequency of electromagnetic field might “alter levels of cellular stress in rat thyroid gland”.

Should You Fear Wireless?

So what’s the verdict? Can wireless radiation kill you?

The reality is that if wireless could kill you, science would have discovered that already. If and when it’s discovered that wireless signals do have a negative impact on human health, it’ll likely be a very small effect, and one that can probably be mitigated by keeping your phone use to a reasonable level, keeping it away from your head when you use it, and not placing these devices right near where you sleep.

And if you do those things already? Well then sleep well, because you probably don’t have anything to worry about.

Image Credit: Jeff Keyzer Via Flickr, 9b Hjallerup School (garden cress herbs experiment results), White Albino Rat via Shutterstock, Types of Radiation via Shutterstock

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