Welcome to the Information Age
Our modern society has gradually embraced a culture of rapid technological innovation. Consequently, we now entrust our health and safety to the developers and business people who create and distribute these technologies, since the pace of corporate innovation has become too rapid for regulators to keep up. As members of this culture, we realize that millions of people could end up watching the latest tech toys self destruct on Youtube fail videos weeks before a government agency issues a safety warning. We accept this risk because new stuff is cool.
In this culture it is up to the consumers to inform themselves about technology. In the spirit of providing information, I have written this summary about the safety of RF radiation, using the least biased data I could find. My opinion is that there is a large amount of data presented to the public, much of which is biased towards either extreme danger or extreme safety, but I believe the truth actually lies somewhere in between. Speaking of opinions and bias, keep in mind you are reading this article on a website that also sells devices with RF radiation.
What Is RF Radiation?
RF Radiation is made up of "Radio Frequency" waves. That's the stuff that comes out of all wireless devices from phones to wearables to WiFi routers. Radio frequencies are just one section of the entire Electromagnetic Spectrum. I will only be writing about the RF part of the spectrum since that is the one associated with our company's products. If you want to get even more specific, the majority of consumer wireless devices are between the frequencies 300 MHz and 6 GHz, within the RF range.
While it is widely understood that massive amounts of RF radiation can cook you, which is demonstrated every time you use a microwave oven, this article is more focused on the typical RF radiation levels the average person would encounter. People who work with powerful RF equipment every day, or people who are exposed to abnormal levels of RF radiation for some reason, all have their own safety issues that I will not be getting into. Check out Wikipedia for the full technical details about RF frequencies if you are interested.
Let us make the assumption that the RF technology industry chooses to limit itself according to government regulation. For example, I can assure you that no mobile phone in the USA exceeds the FCC's regulations, as a quick Google search will show you that this has been examined many times over the years during numerous lawsuits. Obviously the mobile phone industry carefully complies with the government regulations simply because they could be sued by any one of their millions of customers. So regulation does exist, but this presents us with the question, who is regulating this?
WHO is regulating this! The World Health Organization (WHO) has been studying the health effects of RF radiation for decades - with a logically higher emphasis on mobile phones in recent years - and most government regulations around the world concerning RF devices are modeled on what the WHO has recommended. Without going into endless detail, the limits they came up with are different for every type of wireless device, and depend on factors like proximity to the body, or transmission frequency. A phone held right next to your brain has a different safe transmission limit than a microwave oven, for instance.
The numbers that the World Health Organization recommends to the world's applicable government agencies is what they call the SAR, or Specific Absorption Rate, or the safe amount of radiation absorption for humans. The SAR is 1.6 W/kg averaged over 1g of human tissue for frequencies 100kHz - 6GHz. Check out Health Canada's own guidelines for a complete list of confusing numbers related to SAR. Canada and USA both use 1.6 W/kg as their limit. Other countries may vary, and some don't even have regulations.
The signal strength of a modern 3G mobile phone can range from 250 mW up to a maximum of 2W. Different phone models have different signal strengths and they also automatically change their power output based on their proximity to the nearest cell tower. If you want to look up your particular mobile phone SAR rating, the FCC offers this SAR lookup feature on their website. Since that is a tedious process, here are the SAR ratings for 2 of the most widely used mobile phones these days:
Apple IPhone 6 Plus
- Head = 1.18 W/kg
- Body-worn Accessory = 1.19 W/kg
- Wireless Router (Hotspot) = 1.19 W/kg
- Simultaneous Transmission (Head) = 1.59 W/kg
- Simultaneous Transmission (Body) = 1.54 W/kg
Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge for Verizon
- Head = 0.4 W/kg
- Body-worn Accessory = 0.55 W/kg
- Wireless Router (Hotspot) = 0.96 W/kg
- Simultaneous Transmission = 1.17 W/kg
Above ratings are from "Electromagnetic Radiation Safety" blog. This blog actually shows the ratings for simultaneous phone and WiFi router functions combined. Manufacturers only provide some of these ratings in their manuals and websites. The actual SAR numbers for devices are quite hard to find online but there is plenty of criticism about how the SAR figures are measured.
This article wasn't supposed to focus on mobile phones exclusively, but I can't ignore these devices because they are so often in close proximity to our bodies, and we also use them excessively in our daily lives. So let me resolve this mobile phone radiation dilemma by pointing out that RF radiation becomes much weaker with distance. There is a huge difference in radiation absorption from a phone that is 1mm from your head, compared to one that is sitting all the way at arm's length, on your desk. So if you are concerned about dangerous SAR levels from your phone, adding one wired hands-free device will severely reduce the RF radiation you are exposed to, simply by locating the phone far away from your body. Your phone's owner's manual and even the FCC's own website suggest that you keep your phone away from your head.
Environmental RF Radiation
Assuming you took my advice, and that phone is no longer located right next to your brain, then you have wisely banished your phone's RF signal into that mysterious fog called "Environmental RF Radiation". OK, so that sounds much safer. But what if there are twenty other wireless devices sitting around your home along with your mobile phone? How much RF radiation are you being exposed to overall? Before I get to that, let's pile on even more! The radiation from the cell tower down the street, your local radio station, TV station, all the wireless devices from all your neighbours, or even add on those satellite transmissions from space, if you like. Of course, I would be a hypocrite if I didn't mention that our very own spytech.com wireless video camera would contribute yet another RF transmission to your household tally.
Unlike a stationary cellular phone that is measured easily in a lab, SAR is not used as a measurement out in the real world . In Canada these measurements are given as a percentage of the Safety Code 6 limit, which is the limit of W/m^2 of RF radiation that is considered safe for humans. Once again the SAR is used as a reference to determine this limit. A Safety Code 6 limit is calculated as the power density of 0.02619 ƒ^0.6834 (f = frequency in MHz) per meter squared over 6 minutes. That formula is used only for frequencies between 300MHz - 6 GHz. I'll cite 2 outdoor environmental radiation studies to help relate these measurements to the real world (both of these links are PDF format):
- 2002 Downtown Toronto Canada (Metro Hall) = 5.63% of Safety Code 6
- 2000 various towns around Sweden = .0006 W/m^2
The number I mentioned for "Downtown Toronto", as measured by Industry Canada, was by far the highest measured in the whole city (click on the link for a whole list of other locations). This particular location was bordered by the buildings like CBC, CN Tower, First Canadian Place, and many others, all of which have large amounts of radio, television and cellular phone tower transmitters. However, if we just look at random locations, or less urban environments like the Swedish study, the numbers are quite small in comparison to the wireless devices found in your own pocket or inside your home. For indoor sources, I will refer you to a case study from 2012 that measured the RF radiation from 24 laptops with WIFI enabled, along with 2 wireless routers, all located inside one boardroom. This should be more RF devices than an average person would have in their entire home. There are pages of data you can examine through this link, but I will cite the very highest average result they measured, which was a sensor located just 20 cm from one of the two routers:
- Case study 1 room, 24 computers (using WiFi), 2 routers = 6.6679548% of Safety Code 6
Note - other locations around the same room were all measuring at 10X lower than this number.
These are only a few examples, two of these studies were done by the Government of Canada, and one by a Swedish university, so we can assume the numbers are not industry marketing materials, or fabricated. I think we can take these numbers to mean that the amount of RF radiation we are exposed to in an average location would rarely be close to the Canadian Safety Code 6 limit. If we take the highest reading from that Downtown Toronto data, or the similar highest number from the WiFi case study, we are still talking about less than 10% of what is considered a safe limit in Canada. But what does this so-called "safe" amount of radiation mean for our health?
RF Health Effects
This is extremely controversial territory. On the one hand, billion dollar communication companies have a huge financial stake in the public's perception of whether RF radiation causes health issues. Conversely, a surprising number of conspiracy enthusiasts and Cellular Cassandras seem absolutely convinced that RF radiation means an end to humanity. The many interest groups from both sides have filled the internet with highly questionable experimental data, outrageous anecdotal evidence, scary pictures of mutant animals, and countless other outrageous claims. It is quite alarming how little credible scientific information has ever been published about devices that are now used by billions of people around the world.
One thing I can be pretty clear about is the science behind the SAR limit of 1.6 W/kg is based on tests that studied thermal health effects on adults. There is much varied and flawed data about non-thermal RF radiation effects, but very few impartial scientific studies. Even more alarming, is that there is very little data about the effects of RF radiation on children, and how it effects their development. As an example of this research shortage, the Supreme Court in Italy ruled in a 2012 case that heavy cellular phone use can cause cancer. To arrive at this ruling, the Italian court ignored any research that was funded by the mobile phone industry, which wasn't easy because most research is funded by that industry.
On the other hand, the American Cancer Society suggests that past research has failed to produce much evidence of RF radiation causing cancer. On its cellular phone page, the same organization cautions people that research on phone radiation is inconclusive, and that there are several studies currently under way that will eventually clarify the danger. This mantra about ongoing research is repeated by all the more credible medical information sources and the mobile phone industry as well. I would assume there will be some interesting research results announced in the near future so let's hope we will soon understand the effects of RF radiation better than just those Specific Absorbtion Rate studies from many years ago.
What Should You Do?
Unlike quitting smoking, there is nothing immediate you can do to eliminate environmental RF radiation from your life. Even if you remove yourself completely from civilization there are still small amounts of RF radiating around the entire universe. The good news is that an average person's exposure to RF radiation at some random location would be much lower than a person that spends time near broadcast transmitters or someone who uses radio equipment every day. Therefore, the majority of the radiation you are exposed to in life mostly comes from the devices you are actually controlling, as long as you don't spend a lot of time in unusually high level RF environments. In other words, you can lower your exposure to RF radiation simply by strategically locating, or shutting off, the RF devices in your home.
As I mentioned in the section about mobile phones, the level of RF exposure goes up dramatically as RF devices get closer to your body. Alarmingly, the latest trend in today's consumer gadget industry is "Smart" wearable devices - meaning they transmit RF radiation - which you use by attaching them all over your body. If mobile phones, that have been around for decades, are still not fully understood, the health effects of these smart devices must be a total mystery! Wearable wireless devices contradict all the medical recommendations about keeping a reasonable distance from RF devices to reduce your RF exposure to the safest level possible. Perhaps this is the trend that really needs to be scrutinized more by our technology-loving culture?
To summarize, there is not much evidence that everyday levels of RF radiation can be dangerous to your health, but there is also not much evidence that the current regulated levels of RF radiation are actually safe for your health! In such an information void, I would suggest that it is a good idea to limit your exposure to RF radiation much like you would try to limit your exposure to sugar, stress, fast food, irregular sleeping habits, sitting down too much, excessive alcohol, tobacco or drugs. All of these will damage your health once you exceed certain levels, and just like RF exposure, there is ongoing research varying opinions about what those levels are. How much people actually care about their own health and safety is another variable. The one thing we do know is that it is easy to minimize your RF exposure simply by locating all RF devices away from your body as much as possible.
There is no reason to ignore the dangers of RF radiation, just because they are unknown, because the concept of a "safe" exposure limit could easily change after the next scientific study is published. On the other hand, there is also no reason to fear RF radiation, since it is quite easy to take steps to minimize your exposure, compared to something like eliminating sugar from your diet, or overcoming a drug addiction. Like every other decision in life, you have to accumulate the best information you can find, balance the risks with the rewards, and then decide between caution and indulgence. Hopefully the material I gathered here will help you with that decision until some compelling scientific conclusions are finally released.
“Be moderate in order to taste the joys of life in abundance.”
Link Sources (click on above links to see exact pages):
- www.who.int (World Health Organization)
- www.hc-sc.gc.ca (Health Canada)
- www.fcc.gov (Federal Communications Commission USA)
- www.saferemr.com (Electromagnetic radiation safety blog written by Joel M. Moskowitz, Ph.D.., University of California, Berkeley)
- www.spytech.com (this website)
- www.ic.gc.ca (Industry Canada)
- www.salzburg.gv.at (Research authored by Prof. Dr. Yngve Hamnerius and Thomas Uddmar, Chalmers University of Technology, Goteborg, Sweden)
- www.ic.gc.ca (Government of Canada)
- www.prlog.org (Press releases)
- www.cancer.org (Website about cancer research)
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