Wi-Fi is not actually bad for your health, scientists say

Electronics have used the 2.4 and 5 GHz spectrum for years. These are not harmful, nor is any property unique to Wi-Fi harmful, according to new scientific evidence.

Wi-Fi is not actually bad for your health, scientists say Wireless electronics have used 2.4 and 5 GHz radio frequencies for years. These are not harmful, nor is any property unique to Wi-Fi harmful, according to new scientific evidence.

Wi-Fi's ubiquity in modern society has prompted a reactionary response among an increasingly vocal minority who claim Wi-Fi signals are hazardous to their health, a condition they call "electromagnetic hypersensitivity." Such claims are unsupported by scientific research, according to Kenneth R. Foster, professor emeritus of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, in an article for research journal Education Next published Tuesday.

Claims of adverse health effects from Wi-Fi, and other radio frequency (RF) signals, rely heavily on the colloquial use of scientific terms. Opponents of Wi-Fi quite often bandy about "radiation," which average people associate with nuclear accidents or overexposure to X-rays. Scientifically, radiation is defined as "energy moving through space," and Foster notes that "even light from a flashlight is a form of radiation." The key differentiator is that RF signals are a form of non-ionizing radiation, which is unable to damage cells and tissues.

Wi-Fi networks rely on communication between access points, which are typically mounted to the ceiling for networks deployed in schools or businesses, and client devices that communicate with them. Foster notes that "If the network is operating at full capacity (an unusual situation, even in a classroom of students accessing the network), the total amount of RF energy transmitted on the network might be roughly comparable to that from a single cell phone in use in the room... These signals come, in turn, from every device that is connected to the network, most of which are located at some distance from any given individual in the room."

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The RF signals generated by Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or phone antennas in any given device sold legally in the US is subject to testing and licensure from the FCC to ensure they conform to safety limits. The FCC's regulatory threshold is "far below any demonstrably hazardous exposure level," according to Foster.

Wi-Fi signals represent a relatively minimal amount of the total RF exposure that people are subject to in any given day. The University of Barcelona conducted a study measuring RF exposure of 529 children ages 8 to 18 living in Europe, over a three day period. Wi-Fi signals represented only 4% of total RF exposure, with 62% originating from signals from cellular base stations, 23% from broadcast TV and radio systems, and 11% from nearby cell phones. The exposure was approximately 0.001% that of the safety limits imposed by the European Commission, which are similar to those imposed by the FCC.

Studies of RF exposure beyond the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands used by Wi-Fi, similarly, do not indicate a health risk from RF signals. A report from France's Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety, issued in 2013, found that "no available data makes it possible to propose new exposure limit values for the general population."

Similarly, in 2016, the agency investigated RF exposure to children from toys, walkie-talkies, and other sources, and found that the available data from these sources were insufficient to establish—either beneficial or adverse—effects from this exposure, though noted "limited evidence" for effects of cell phone use on cognitive function or general well-being," adding that "these effects may however be linked to the use of the mobile telephones rather than to the frequencies they emit."

Foster's article also evaluates the tendency of opponents to Wi-Fi to cherry-pick research, though ultimately concludes that "Schools need to adopt appropriate policies for safe use of cell phones and the Internet by children—not because of unproven radiation hazards but to avoid the harms that these otherwise highly useful technologies can pose."

The same advice is useful for adults—smartphone manufacturers have in the last year placed an emphasis on digital wellbeing, as spending too much time using smart devices can have adverse effects, including on quality and quantity of sleep. For more, check out "New year, new habits: How to digitally detox from your smartphone."

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By James Sanders

James Sanders is a staff technology writer for TechRepublic. He covers future technology, including quantum computing, AI/ML, and 5G, as well as cloud, security, open source, mobility, and the impact of globalization on the industry, with a focus on ...