Movin’ up the spectrum…WiFi, cell phones, cordless phones, etc.

To recap: we have discussed the electromagnetic spectrum and the basic physics behind the electric and magnetic fields.  Last entry we specifically looked at the health effects related to Extremely Low Frequency (<300 Hz).  I provided some references which have suggested that there may be some health effects with power distribution frequencies and I suggested some ways to mitigate ELF exposure in the home – specifically the bedroom.  In future posts, I will discuss other sources of abnormally strong ELF such as “dirty electricity” and how to repair but for now…it is on to higher frequencies which include wireless technology!

Wireless technology has provided us with some unbelievable advances in our ability to communicate instantly around the globe.  The ability to access information immediately and relay that information to nearly any place on earth is mind-boggling.  Marconi was arguably the “father of wireless technology”.  Prior to sending his famous trans-Atlantic radio signal from Signal Hill in St. John’s in 1900, he had been experimenting with communicating without the use of wires.  While this technology was not invented by Marconi, he is credited with commercializing and essentially operationalizing the work of Faraday, Maxwell, Hertz, and Tesla.  


Signal Hill in beautiful St. John’s.  The origin of long wireless transmission in 1900.


Marconi’s “wireless telegraph” essentially was piece of equipment that generated strong electrical currents and a resultant magnetic field which oscillated through the atmosphere and was received at a distant point by a receiver.  Essentially the same way radio works today!  So, how is this different from cellular phone or WiFi communication?  It is essentially the same technology as Marconi’s original invention!  The main difference is that cell phones and WiFi, use much higher frequencies and power compared with using radio waves.  

Why the move up the spectrum?  If radio wave communication works, why the need to move up to potentially more harmful levels of non-ionizing radiation?  The first main reason is clarity of communication.  If you remember the first generation of cordless phones in the 1980s with their massive antennas, they operated at 1.7 MHz. They were discontinued because of security issues (too easy to eavesdrop).  The frequencies have more or less increased since the 1980s.  Popular cordless phone frequencies are now: 900 MHz, 1.9 GHz (DECT), 2.4 GHz, and 5.8 GHz.  The 2.4 GHz frequency is a crowded market.  Not only do many cordless phones operate at this frequency, so do microwave ovens, many baby monitors and most wireless routers and WiFi technology. Any time you have two or more competing frequencies, you are bound to have interference.  If your cordless phone has static when the microwave is on or you are near a baby monitor or your wireless router – that explains it!  Before we discuss whether these frequencies have negative health effects, let’s talk about cell phones.

Cell phones essentially use the same range of frequencies we have been talking about. In general, this range of the spectrum is known as Ultra High Frequency (UHF) and covers the range from 300 MHz to 3 GHz.  Early cell phones used 800 MHz.  Most cell phones that use GSM (more on that in a later blog) can use 4 frequencies which makes them adaptable depending on the country: (850/900/1800/1900 MHz).  At this point you may have noticed that microwave ovens, baby monitors, cordless phones, and cell phones, can use the same frequency!  You may also wonder if a microwave oven needs a safety door, why don’t phones and baby monitors?!  

Before we get too paranoid, let’s remind ourselves that on the same frequency can be different amplitudes and therefore different levels of power.  Thankfully, cordless phones and cell phones and baby monitors do not come anywhere close to the power of a microwave oven!  Microwave ovens use up to 1000 W (watts) where as a cordless phone uses approx 100 mW (milliwatts).  You cannot really get any appreciable heating at 100 mW but you can really “nuke” your food at 1000 W (that’s 1, 000, 000 mW) !  In fact, the maximum power a cell phone, baby monitor, WiFi or cordless phone is allowed to operate at is 250 mW.  While anybody who has used a cell phone or cordless phone for extended periods knows, there can be mild heating, it is generally believed that it is not enough to cause tissue damage.  

So, now we know that it is really about the POWER of the UHF spectrum that separates microwave ovens from wireless technology.  The microwave oven is at least l0,000 mW stronger than wireless technology.  If not heating and not ionizing (not enough power to dislodge an electron) then what could be the mechanism for health effects?  As with the discussion regarding ELF and health, the effects are NOT instant and not necessarily obvious (like heating). The argument that wireless technology does not cause health effects is based on two things: does it cause significant heating and is it ionizing (like X-rays).  The answer is “no” to both.  BUT WAIT!  There are no immediate effects from smoking and there are no immediate effects from excessive drinking (other than getting drunk and sick). We need to look at health effects through a different lens.  We must look at health effects with a long term perspective.  Remember that this technology is very new.  

What do we know:  there are controversial studies which have shown an increase in brain cancer with cell phone use (Leher, Green, and Stock, 2010) and many studies which have shown no increase in risk.  It is important to remember how new this technology is and the fact that some studies are showing positive correlations should at least give us reason to ponder the longER term effects.  Unlike ELF, it is likely that the frequencies are too high to effect ion transport but there is evidence to suggest an increase in free radicals may be something to consider and may explain some of the positive correlations (Tomruck, Guler, and Sepici, 2010).  

So at this stage, while the results of research may not cause people to be too concerned, it should cause some people to consider the possible effects of excess free radicals.  If your lifestyle already includes factors which may increase free radicals (smoking and high fat diets), adding excess exposure to UHF may tip the scales.  

Food for thought!



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