Wireless and Health: Getting to the Truth

Previously, I discussed what a electromagnetic field is. Having a baseline of the science will allow us to look at the the truth and the evidence from a level view.

The only way we are ever going to have a definitive answer to the question of wireless and health is via science – or, more specifically, a proper application of the scientific method.

As I noted last time, there’s no shortage of even scholarly-sounding papers that seem to infer a relationship between exposure to consumer-grade radiation and some form of adverse (or allegedly adverse) reaction in a living organism. And much of this has gotten the less-sophisticated among us quite worked up in some cases – despite the fact that I’ve yet to see a single one of these documents that actually represents a scientific discovery. 

And what might that involve? Simple, as follows:

  • Study design and conduct – Any good scientific inquiry must begin with researchers that are unbiased, or, since this is often difficult, a methodology that prohibits any unscientific or pre-ordained conclusions from seeping in. A good methodology here is to use a double-blind study wherein neither the subject nor the individuals conducting the test know the actual parameters of the process. I’ll provide an example below.
  • Meaningful sample size – Many studies that I’ve reviewed involved only a small number of experimental subjects, which are often blood cells, sperm cells, or a very small group of people. Given the potentially huge number of variables involved here (for example, subject age, place of residence, environmental exposures, genetics, occupation, personal and family medical history, etc.), it’s important to average out any potentially complicating but statistically-irrelevant variables from any study.
  • Reproducibility – Similarly, no study can be deemed valid until it has been performed in a different setting by a different group of researchers, following the same methodology but with different subjects. A single test might be flawed, and perhaps biased by unintentional errors or even intentional misstatements or claims by the researchers. Yes, I’ve seen this – first hand.
  • Limiting the number of independent variables – Each study should be carefully designed to explore only one variable, rather like benchmarking wireless LANs. Any variables affecting the results must be carefully factored out.
  • Researcher and subject qualifications – And, finally, it’s important to vet the skills and reputations of the researchers and to carefully vet any subjects as well, lest those with a particular agenda creep in. Just as we wouldn’t trust the validity of a study of plumbing technology performed by a licensed master electrician to be valid, well, you get this idea…

One example of a potentially-valid test for electrohypersensitivity (again, the claim by some individuals that they suffer some degree of harm in the presence of an electromagnetic field) might be conducted as follows: Place the subject in a Faraday cage, which prevents electromagnetic energy from getting in or out of the cage (these are often used to test wireless equipment). A researcher would then announce to the subject that they were being exposed to energy at frequency f and power level a (for amplitude). Two knobs on a console would be used to adjust these parameters. The researcher would follow a script and note any response from the subject.

Except, as in any good double-blind study, the researcher would not know what the knobs actually do. And I would personally start with those knobs doing precisely nothing, so as not to cause any actual harm in the even there is such a thing as electrohypersensitivity, even though, of course, there is not. At least as far as we know today, anyway. 

Look – we have vast, large-scale experience involving most of the population of this planet and exposure to a broad range and variety of electromagnetic waves. There are about as many cell phone as people on Earth, along with billions of Wi-Fi and other devices operating in the unlicensed bands.

As I noted when at the beginning of this series, we can’t prove a negative, and we must always seek the truth with respect to the health-related aspects of any consumer technology – we owe that to ourselves, our children, and every other person on the planet.

All of us, even those who have based their (interim, I hope) conclusions on flawed data, have the same goal – no compromise to safety while using our personal communications devices (and, yes, that speaks to talking on the phone while driving, but I digress, at least for the moment). But I am convinced that, at the end, we really have nothing to worry about.

Again, after over 100 years – where are all the dead people? Next time, I’ll look at how we take the evidence and examine the truth.

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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