Are There Any Wifi Health Risks?

A sign with a WiFi symbol with the title "Are There Any Wifi Health Risks?"

Modern day homo sapien is vastly connected to social networks buzzing from pocket sized gadgets always at the ready. Look around on the bus, metro train, the cafe, or the grocery store and you’ll see the majority of folks with some form of wifi-connected smart phone in their hand, multitasking while they go about their daily lives.

It’s never been easier to fire off a quick email to a work colleague, to send a text with an embedded photo to a friend, or to video chat with a loved one.

Sure, the convenience of being connected to the internet while on the go makes an active lifestyle much easier. We’re not far off from the Jetsons with our lives wrapped up in wifi enabled devices. But what impact does wifi have on one’s health? Are there wifi health risks?

Prevalent science has fallen on both sides of the argument for scaling back wifi. Some studies claim there’s little to no evidence of harmful effects from constant use of wifi devices. Others sound ominous, warning of health risks as grave as brain cancer and tumors.

So where does the truth in fact lie? Are there in fact wifi health risks to look out for?

What Is Wifi?

A glowing WiFi symbol in a person's hand.

Before we can really delve into the existing research and run the numbers on wifi health risks, it’s good to know exactly what wifi is. The word wifi is actually a play on the word Hi-Fi, which is high quality sound reproduction.

Wifi, or wireless fidelity, for its part is a trademarked term that refers to a wireless internet connection that uses 2.4 GHz Ultra High Frequency (UHF) and 5 GHz Super High Frequency (SHF) radio waves. Both radio waves propagate by sight, SHF entirely by sight and UHF with some variables in the mix.

So both can be blocked by physical structures such as hills, but can actually emit through walls for transmission. In fact wifi uses the same microwaves that power microwave ovens, radar transmitters and satellite communications.

A wireless local area network (wlan) product must meet the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers‘ (IEEE) 802.11 standards which define who can ultimately use the Wifi brand. Products that pass these standards bear the trademark “Wifi Certified.” Enter personal computers, smart phones, video game consoles, tablets, etc., which all use wifi as a means to keep their respective users connected.

Unlike wired products that use ethernet and a physical connection for example, wireless products thrive off microwaves transmitted from a hotspot anywhere from between 66 feet indoors to much greater distances outdoors. There is no physical connection involved.

And just as there is no tangible wifi connection, the amount of microwave absorption into the body is equally cloudy and hard to define. Depending on the amount of data being sent to a user, the amount of radio waves used will fluctuate.

Higher frequency radio waves for higher amounts of data for example. And in an increasingly 4G iPhone/Android world; expect to see greater use of higher frequency radio waves. It ultimately seems that the level of wifi health risks involved may be connected to the amount of data being used.

What We Know

Wifi uses microwave radio waves. These are a non-ionizing form of radiation. Non-ionizing radiation isn’t strong enough to completely remove an electron from an atom or for that matter cause devastating damage to biological tissue. Essentially you won’t be reduced to piles of dust from electromagnetic radiation.

However, electromagnetic radiation, which includes radio waves and microwaves, can excite atoms and cause burns. The University of Basel Switzerland published in a 2009 study that intermittent exposure of human cells to a 50 Hz electromagnetic field at 10 Gauss units incited a significant increase in DNA fragmentation.

What does that mean? Imagine your microwave oven heating up your favorite tv dinner before the playoff game starts. It’s piping hot after a few minutes. That’s electromagnetic radiation in a nutshell. However a typical microwave oven has 100,000 times the juice of a wifi network. So on the face of it wifi health risks would seem to be very minimal in contrast with other household items like microwave ovens.

What Are the Concerns With Wifi?

The WiFi symbol made up of coffee cream in a cup of coffee.

Some researchers have expressed concerns that even low level exposure to non-ionizing radiation causes changes to chromosomes. What does that mean?

Reduced melatonin, free radicals, and mass cell degranulation. The slippery slope here involved leads these very same researchers to suspect wifi as a link to leukemia, brain cancer and tumors.

While there’s still yet no solid evidence pointing to such hypotheses with regards to wifi itself, many a study has been conducted to find out just how dangerous wifi actually is. Unfortunately wifi came about in 2000. So no long term studies yet exist in the 20 year range to establish what if any wifi health risks exist.

Ever quick to dampen the possibility of mass hysteria from folks who’ve logged way too many hours playing Candy Crush, the UK Health Protection Agency has said that a person sitting in a wifi hotspot for a year would be exposed to the same amount of radiation as someone using a mobile phone.

However that doesn’t limit wifi from wreaking havoc on people with sensitivity or allergies to radio waves. The wifi health risks for someone sensitive to EMF can be minimal or exponentially more profound than what a normal person experiences.

What Are Some Possible Side Effects From Wifi Exposure?

Short term symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Short term memory loss
  • Irritability
  • Digestive problems
  • Irregular heart rate

Long term symptoms include:

  • Possible links to cancer
  • Possible neurological illnesses
  • Possible changes in brain function
  • Possible Irritable Bowel Disease
  • Possible damage to the intestinal mucus lining

Who Is Most At Risk:

  • 30% of people are slightly allergic to exposure and probably don’t even know it
  • 3% are moderately allergic
  • 1% is severely allergic

Occupational Exposure to Radiation in milligauss:

Occupational Exposure to Radiation Milligauss
Cable Splicers to 15 mG
Distribution Substation Operators to 34 mG
Electronics to 34 mG
Line Workers to 35 mG
Machinists to 28 mG
TV Repair Workers to 8 mG
Welders to 96 mG

While long term studies haven’t yet concluded what the full long term wifi health risks may be, the World Health Organization has come out and classified electromagnetic fields and radio waves as carcinogenic to humans.

We know carcinogens as cancer causing agents. We’ve seen more than our share of PSAs about the health risks involved with smoking for example. So if we connect the dots, we’d be lead to assume that wifi (which uses electromagnetic radio waves) is carcinogenic.

Right? Wrong. The WHO, while quick to pull the trigger on the big C word for carcinogen, equally pointed out that like everything else involved in the debate on wifi health risks; its studies have been inconclusive and “inadequate.”

The biggest concern in the study has been to occupational hazards involved with exposure to wifi. People working around towers and who install wifi for a living are certainly more at risk than your occasional gamer, your friendly neighborhood businesswoman firing off a few emails from her Blackberry, or even the cheeky types logging hardcore man hours on chatroulette.

And in some circles EMFs are directly related to the disappearance of bees. Bees are the driving force behind human survival. Without pollination human existence as we know it would cease to be.

But most troubling is what some studies suggest are the effects of wifi on the brain. While no conclusive evidence yet exists, we do know that EMFs do play a role in impacting the brain.

A graph of the electromagnetic spectrum.

But that still doesn’t rule out the possibilities of what consistent exposure to wifi may do to the rest of us. In fact, some reports suggest that our homes and office spaces actually magnify the effects of wifi exposure.

According to a report from the Global Healing Center, the wire in a bra can act as an antenna, causing sleep disorders and digestive problems. And to some activisits, many other household products explode the severity of wifi health risks.

But are we being paranoid? Is it far too early to call a term on wifi? And shouldn’t we wait until conclusive hard results surface from long term studies before we convict wifi of crimes it possibly didn’t commit?

What Scientists Refute About Wifi Concerns

A radio tower under a beautiful bluish pink sky.

Firstly, scientists make a strong case to distinguish between simple mobile phone use (which is usually at the head) and wifi use which is usually some distance away (i.e. on a desk). While general transmission from a mobile phone and a wifi access point are generally similar, exposure from a mobile phone is much higher because it is held to the head.

And what does this mean for the rest of us in the room? Scientists who fall on the side of the argument that wifi is safe and that there are no wifi health risks are saying that we shouldn’t confuse the dangers of cell phone use with general wifi use.

Secondly, while there are studies that conclude some potential cancer risk from long term cell phone use, there currently are no long term studies that directly point to wifi as being an equal risk for malignant tumors or other ailments. In fact, the consensus holds that long term use of low exposure wifi is relatively harmless. However, they will concede that children should not use tablets or laptops on their laps to remain on the safe side.

Is “relatively harmless” 100% safe? Well according to the Health Protection Agency, a person who spends one full year using wifi is exposed to about the same amount of risk from a 20 minute cell phone call. Nottingham University Emeritus Professor of Physics Lawrie Challis (and member of the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research MTHR) said to the BBC that “Wi-fi exposures are usually very small – the transmitters are low power and some distance from the body.”

In other words, nothing to see here, according to Challis and other scientists. In fact, the mere physical proximity of a wifi device to the human body greatly diminishes the level of exposure. Sure, microwave ovens and wifi transmitters use the same class of non-ionizing radiation.

But microwave ovens are 100,000 times more powerful and wifi devices aren’t attached anywhere to the human body. Even high bandwidth devices still run far less exposure than mobile phone devices that are positioned at the ear.

Sure there is cause for concern for wifi health risks, some studies posit…if exposure to radio frequency waves is significantly higher than the regulated amount for “Wifi Certified” devices. In other words, anything well over and beyond the 5Ghz threshold involved in wifi might cause a risk. But no standard wifi device operates above that threshold. Or else it wouldn’t bear the trademark wifi name.

Some things to consider in the confusion between cell phone use and wifi use:

  • Studies linking cell phone use to malignant tumors and cancers are clear to point out that these focus on cell phones and cordless phones, not wifi devices
  • Trickle down effect of nausea and headaches linked to cell phone use having a potential causal risk with wifi use has been shot down in studies saying there is no proof
  • Heat from laptops is not a product of a wifi device but the laptop itself
  • There are no joint studies linking risks of cancer from cell phone use to equal risks if replaced with wifi use

Wifi’s Report Card

So while there is no damning evidence against wifi clearly spelling out wifi health risks, we know that it exists in a family of non-ionizing radiation emitting devices (microwaves for example). Some of these devices can pose serious health risks to the human body if exposed at great quantities.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that wifi for all its low level exposure is just as dangerous as a microwave oven or a cell phone. It sits on the very low end of the totem pole, barely scraping the bottom of the food chain we’d otherwise label as EMFs.

We also know that a common effect from non-ionizing radiation is the heating of biological tissue. Granted the amount of exposure necessary to heat biological tissue is much higher than the 5Ghz ceiling associated with wifi.

Again, wifi is far too miniscule to burn the skin or excite the atoms in a human body. Consider that in contrast with the proven risk enabling devices like microwaves which operate at hundreds of thousands times the force of a wifi device.

We also know that 30% of the population is slightly allergic to the radio waves used in wifi devices and probably aren’t even aware of it. But that same 30% could be suffering from migraines or headaches brought on from poor nutrition, lack of sleep, stress, or any other number of factors that can equally be chalked up to causing the very same symptoms.

Those symptoms related to radio wave sensitivity are far too vague to be uniquely associated with one possible culprit. Who hasn’t had a headache? Who hasn’t had a bout with indigestion? Frankly there’s no firm wifi allergy test yet in existence that will point otherwise.

And lastly, we know that wifi devices aren’t clinging to our ears like our iPhones or Android smartphones when we take a call. If anything wifi transmitters and devices are some distance from the body. So we shouldn’t confuse any of the side effects from long term mobile phone use with that of wifi use.

In fact a Princeton study concluded that the exposure to radiofrequency waves from wifi is exponentially less than exposure to other RF waves in the environment. In other words, we’re looking in the wrong place for a culprit. No wifi health risks to speak of in that case.

Playing It on the Safe Side

Clouds forming the shape of a WiFi signal.

But an ounce of prevention can go a long way. If nothing else, being prudent when using wifi will at least stave off any possible threat of wifi health risks yet to be identified from ongoing and future studies.

Here are some ways in which to protect yourself from wifi radiation that may or may not be harmful to you:

  • Drink filtered water
  • Take a multivitamin and get adequate amounts of Vitamin A, C, E, and Selenium
  • Get ample amounts of Omega 3s
  • Exercise regularly
  • Limit use of your smartphone, tablet and other wifi enabled devices
  • Keep the antenna of your smartphone positioned away from your body
  • Keep your wireless router in a separate room
  • Use ethernet cable when available
  • Use wired only printers
  • Switch off your wifi at night when exposure is at its highest
  • Try to keep wireless devices at least 6 feet away from your head when you sleep

What to Do Next

If you’re not convinced either way in the debate about wifi health risks, there are a number of studies at your disposal to pick apart with your own fine toothed comb. Ask your wifi service provider for its specs on radiation levels and to read some of their literature.

And be proactive in minimizing your exposure. Getting outdoors is always a good remedy for most things. Limiting the time you spend in front of your gaming console, tablet, or PC is good for your health regardless of whether or not these devices are guilty of exposing you to dangerous levels of radiation.

And if sequestered in a work environment where you are practically glued to a computer throughout the course of the day, make it a mission to take breaks. Stretch your legs. Go for a brisk walk. Clear the cobwebs in the brain. And find a quiet moment of zen free from an internet connection.

While we may wait a few years before we conclusively know what the implications are for long term exposure to wifi, it never hurts to lead an active lifestyle. Challenge yourself to get outdoors and avoid being stationary in front of a computer. No research is necessary to tell you how beneficial those two tips are.

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