Monday, 15 August 2016

Why Fear Wi-Fi? How the Irrational Fear Of Electromagnetic Radiation is Exploited.

A recently released video of a meeting held in March features Jill Stein, leader of the US Green Party and their Presidential nominee in the 2016 election, fielding a question from a kindergarten teacher regarding the "danger" Wi-Fi signals may pose to her pupils in light of increase one-to-one computer usage.

Stein's response was as follows:
 "We should not be subjecting kids’ brains, especially, to that. And we don’t follow that issue in this country, but in Europe, where they do… they have good precautions around wireless — maybe not good enough… because it’s very hard to study this stuff… We make guinea pigs out of whole populations and then we discover how many die. And this is like the paradigm for how public health works in this country and it’s outrageous, you know…"
Whilst disappointing and worryingly ignorant, especially as Stein is a physician by trade, and she's been quite rightly taken to task for them, Stein's comments reflect a wider concern not just with Wi-Fi but also with mobile phone signals and in particular mobile phone masts. And despite what Stein says, there have been many studies which show, thus far no threat from such things. Claims surrounding such forms of communication normally concern the ideas of "radiation" and the negative connotations surrounding that word that have been lingering since the atomic age.

In reality, we're constantly surrounded by electromagnetic radiation. A simple understanding of physics dispels any idea that electromagnetic radiation of the type used for Wi-Fi and mobile phone signals could cause cancer, even in cases of prolonged exposure. To understand why such things as Wi-Fi and mobile phone signals are not to be feared it's necessary to take a look at the electromagnetic spectrum.

The electromagnetic radiation used in Wi-Fi and mobile phones exists in the longwave section of the above diagram, between radio waves and microwaves. As an electromagnetic signal's wavelength shortens its frequency increases according to equation 1 (bottom left) where c is the speed of light, is the frequency and that wishbone looking thing is the wavelength.

You've likely been told that light is both a wave and a particle, but a nitpicky physicist will tell you that's only loosely true. Light can be described as both a wave model and a particle model, and combined a wave-packet, or a quanta (hence quantum physics) of light, a photon.  The energy of this packet is given by equation 2, where E is the energy and h is Planck's constant.
As both the speed of light (c) and Plank's constant (h) are unchanging (constants) it should be clear from the above that as the wavelength decreases the frequency increases, and in turn, as the frequency increases the energy of the light also increases. So clearly the right side of the above diagram represents high-energy, high-frequency electromagnetic radiation. This is high energy radiation is also known as ionising radiation. When photons interact with an electron in an atom, they are often absorbed and the electron, which can only occupy an allowed orbit with an associated energy value, moves up to an excited state. If the supplied energy is sufficient the electron escapes the atom altogether, the atom is ionised in other words. 

So you can see from the diagram above, the ionisation energy of an electron in the ground state around a hydrogen nucleus is 13.6 eV. Larger atoms have larger ionisation energies, which is simple to understand, more protons in the nucleus mean a stronger positive charge and therefore a stronger "pull" on the negative electrons ( for simplicity I'm ignoring an effect known as shielding which prevents this from being a strictly linear relationship). Electrons are far more likely to be found in a ground state than an excited state, as electrons in such a state quickly emit photons of the necessary energy to drop down to a lower excited state or the ground state.

So let's see if a photon of the electromagnetic radiation found in Wi-Fi signals is sufficient to ionise hydrogen. I'll switch to word because Blogspot doesn't have an equation option....

This is the photoelectric effect discovered by Einstein and explained why increasing intensity of light shining on a metal doesn't increase the yield of electrons despite the increase in photons. Not just any photon will do. It has to have the correct energy value. Ionising radiation can indeed lead to cancer and other health problems arising from damaged DNA, but we've seen above, Wi-Fi signals are far from ionising.

So what about mobile/cell phone signals? They tend to have a wavelength of roughly 30cm or 0.3 m so have a corresponding energy of 0.000004 eV, even further away from ionising even the loosest held electron.
So why does such ignorance still persist?

 Unsurprisingly, where ignorance and fear lurk there is a pretty penny is to be made from the exploitation of the same, and the prolonged cultural fear the word radiation carries has been turned into quite a cottage industry. Where this was once focused on fears of a nuclear attacks (left), now the focus is on the more common and mundane. For example boxer shorts manfacturer Spartan offer gentlemen protection for their sperm from being "blasted" by their mobile devices. A promotional video on Vimeo for the company urges people share news of their product. I'll oblige them...


The Spartan Boxer/Brief is snake oil for the modern age. You absolutely should not buy that product. Mobile Phone radiation is not cooking your sperm! Don't pay $40 for a pair of underwear that does nothing!

Other products make even more, frankly, laughable claims to exploit on the fear and ignorance of their customers, Take Y-paint (as opposed to Y-fronts. Haw haw), a product which claims to block "high-frequency" electromagnetic waves but yet in the description, the manufacturer describe it's efficacy against radio waves and microwaves... LOW-FREQUENCY radiation!

I could go on with these bullshit products, let's instead come around to where we started. Like the manufacturers of these and thousands of similar products, Jill Stein, who has lots of laudable goals to be fair, is also selling fear. Whilst Donald Trump preys upon the fears and ignorance of narrow-minded and right wing republican voters, touching on issues of immigration, race and religion, Stein preys on the voters who haven't been exposed to decent scientific explanations for modern advances such GMOs, vaccines and Wi-Fi and mobile signals, and in many cases are scientifically illiterate.

As Trump supporters ignorantly and hypocritically fear other races, religions and sexualities whilst basking in their own freedoms, Stein supporters fear and distrust the very foundations of the modern world whilst basking in its benefits.

Are both equally bad? Nope. But "That guy is far worse than me!" has never been the best defence has it?