Electromagnetic Fields: Are They Harmful?

You know, good writing practice generally keeps the reader in suspense for a few paragraphs, building a case as to why the conclusion about to be revealed is both interesting, if not in fact vital, and valid. Our topic for this series of columns, though, has no such conclusion – indeed, the very inconclusiveness of any discussion of potential negative impacts on human health from exposure to electromagnetic radiation from the wireless devices and systems we all use every day is why this subject remains of, yes, vital concern to just about everyone. Just about everyone today is a user of and depends upon wireless communications.

But, what the heck, let’s just cut to the chase: do cell phones cause cancer? No, they do not. Neither does Wi-Fi.

Ditto for casual exposure to every consumer-grade wireless communications technology. Industrial, commercial, and especially military systems, of course, can indeed be harmful and require an additional degree of training and respect. But, for us mere mortals, the wireless emissions we’re exposed to every day are harmless

Can I prove this? Nope – one cannot, after all, prove a negative. Is more study required? Absolutely, and we owe an ongoing, comprehensive, and scientific (we’ll return to the importance of that particular term later) effort to everyone on the planet, again considering the pervasiveness of wireless solutions.

But, just for starters, keep in mind that we have over 100 years of history with wireless overall (Marconi, if you’re one of those who believes he did in fact invent radio, made his first broadcast in 1895), over 30 years with cellular (which went live in the US in 1983), and well over 30 years with wireless LANs (although Wi-Fi itself will celebrate its 20th birthday in 2017).

So, again, cutting to the chase, and not to put too fine a point on it: Where are all the dead people?

OK, to this point I have been both simplistic and biased, to say nothing of bombastic and sensationalist. Let’s take a breath, and especially a more scientific (there’s that term again, and you’ve not seen the last of it) approach to reasoning through the issues here. 

What are Electromagnetic fields?

Electromagnetism is one of the four natural forces in the universe, the others being the strong force (which holds the nucleus of atoms together), the weak force (which is responsible for radioactivity and a few other effects), and gravity.

Electromagnetic waves (I prefer to use the term radiation here, though not to be confused with radioactivity) across a very broad range of frequencies, then, are pervasive on Earth and beyond. These can be naturally occurring (for example, sunlight, lightning, gamma rays from space, and many, many more) or artificial, as is the case with wireless communications.

We divide electromagnetic radiation (so called, by the way, because the waves have both electrical and magnetic components) into two broad categories – ionizing and non-ionizing.

  • Ionizing radiation, which occurs at ultraviolet (UV, just above visible light, at wavelengths of 400 nm and shorter) frequencies and higher, is indeed harmful to living things. From sunburn to skin cancer, exposure to UV, which is invisible to the unaided human eye, can indeed be deadly. Add in x-rays (which can of course be useful for both medical diagnosis and the treatment, oddly enough, of cancer), gamma rays, cosmic rays, and the like, and we have what is likely one of the most important causes of cancer in humans – naturally-occurring ionizing radiation
  • At wavelengths greater than 400 nm, the frequencies of visible light and lower, radiation is non-ionizing. While exposure to any high-power EM field might be harmful, depending upon the circumstances, in the small doses typical of consumer electronics we’ve seen no correlation between casual exposure and any negative health impacts in humans. None. But that hasn’t stopped many from trying to establish a link, and we’ll examine some of those claims in the next installment in this series. 

No causal correlation

Farpoint Group has had a policy, from our inception in 1991, that we would literally close the business – as in completely – should any causal correlation between exposure to the systems we analyze, develop, apply, and promote, and any radiation-induced negative health impacts in humans be established.

I hold our work here to exceedingly high ethical standards, and I won’t knowingly tout products and services that cause unintended harm. So far – we’re in our 25th year, and the benefits and value of wireless have never been greater, or more essential to civilization itself – there’s no indication that we might be going away except on the occasional vacation, wireless devices in tow.

But, as I noted above, next time I’ll present the case against wireless as safe.

All Posts In This Series:

Reality Check: Your WLAN Is Already Supporting BYOD. Now What’s Your Strategy?
BYOD Doesn’t Have To Be A Challenge

1) Electromagnetic Fields: Are They Harmful?
2)Wireless and Health: Examining the “Evidence”
3)Wireless and Health: Getting to the Truth



Craig J. Mathias is a Principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm specializing in wireless networking and mobile IT. Founded in 1991, Farpoint Group works with technology developers, manufacturers, carriers and operators, enterprises, and the financial community. Craig is an internationally-recognized industry and technology analyst, consultant, conference and event speaker, and author. He currently writes columns for Boundless, Connected Futures, CIO.com, and various sites at TechTarget. Craig holds an Sc.B. degree in Computer Science from Brown University, and is a member of the Society of Sigma Xi and the IEEE.

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