What’s wrong with wifi?

The dispute about radiofrequency emissions. Matthew Barton May 2020

A “green” technology that will help save the planet, or a dangerous threat to life on earth? Only properly conducted and truly independent science will give us the urgently needed answers.

In my last article in The Ecologist I highlighted the still largely unacknowledged carbon and ecological footprint of digital technologies, and the huge profit motives that all too easily skew a supposedly green agenda. 

Beyond these issues, a dispute has been raging for some time about the impact of radiofrequency emissions on human, animal, insect and plant health. The groundswell of public alarm and opposition now focused on 5G rollout has spread throughout the world, with protests, petitions, legal actions and grass-roots activism organised by countless groups. 

Scientists’ appeal

As of 30 April, 350 scientists and doctors had signed an appeal warning of the possibly serious health effects of adding 5G to the already EMF-saturated environment, and urging a moratorium on further rollout “until hazards for human health and the environment have been fully investigated by scientists independent from industry”.  

5G has been banned on health grounds in two major European cities – Brussels and Geneva; and in the UK, despite government warnings to comply, a growing number of councils are resisting the rollout on health grounds.

All this has elicited a vociferous fight-back from tech companies, governments, regulators and a whole culture wedded to its devices. Citing its own scientific sources, ICNIRP (International Committee on Non-Ionizing Radiation) has dismissed the safety concerns; and in the UK, the advice of Public Health England, itself based on the ICNIRP guidelines, is invariably cited to dismiss and override protests.

Greens on the fence

The Green movement is still undecided about these claims and counterclaims. So far, though, most Greens – perhaps also largely unaware of the heavy and increasing carbon footprint of digital – seem persuaded by the ICNIRP guidelines. Given the enormous momentum behind XR, and Greta Thunberg, they tend to regard this issue as a distraction from the core concern of global heating. 

Support from unlikely quarters

If anything, however, the debate and dissent continues to intensify, and even some governments are pausing for thought. As reported recently by The Financial Times, the Swiss environment agency, citing the precautionary principle and a range of “unanswered questions”, has advised cantons of the need for further testing of the impact of 5G radiation, effectively calling a moratorium on the rollout. 

Somewhat astonishingly, the US International Business Times published a piece on 14 March referring to “mounting evidence of environmental and public health hazards of wireless radiation and the internet of things” and complaining of “federal inaction” on this serious issue. The same article questions the FDA’s dismissal of its own 2018 National Toxicology Program (NTP) report showing clear evidence “that cellphone radiation caused heart tumours in rats as well as DNA damage”.

In such a fiercely contested field, how do we form a balanced judgement about these issues? Surely only by appraising the independent evidence as dispassionately as possible. 

Doubts about ICNIRP 

It is worth noting that ICNIRP, despite much-vaunted independence, is a self-selecting body that has not substantially changed its guidance since 1992, despite huge amounts of new evidence coming to light during this period. According to an in-depth report on ICNIRP for the New Zealand government by Dr Neil Cherry, Associate Professor of Environmental Health, it has “ignored all published studies showing chromosome damage. It was highly selective, biased and very dismissive of the genotoxic evidence and the epidemiological evidence of cancer effects and reproductive effects.” In a further review of ICNIRP published in February of this year, Michael Bevington gives a detailed analysis of its highly selective and therefore “unscientific approach”. And Investigate Europe has identified it as a “close-knit” private organisation with an alarming “monopoly of opinion”.

Suspected industry links

Reporting on ICNIRP for the EU Committee on the Environment and Agriculture, Jean Huss, founding member of the Luxembourg Green Party, found that it is an “NGO … suspected of having close links with the industries whose expansion is shaped by maximum threshold values for the different frequencies of electromagnetic fields”. Whatever the truth of its independence, ICNIRP focuses exclusively on thermal effects of EMFs, dismissing the now very great body of evidence for biological ones.

And yet almost all governments, authorities and companies cite ICNIRP when safety is questioned.

The counter-evidence

No less a journal than The Lancet Planetary Health found that 68% of 2,266 reviewed studies “demonstrated significant biological or health effects associated with exposure to anthropogenic electromagnetic fields…”. 

Epidemiologist and Professor Emeritus Anthony Miller found “a broad range of adverse human health effects associated with RFR… Of particular concern are the effects of RFR exposure on the developing brain in children.” 

Cancer epidemiologist Dr. Devra Davis has shown that wireless radiation results in sperm damage

These are just a very few examples from any number of independent studies that point to various types of serious risk.

Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that Lloyds of London, followed by all other insurers, will not cover adverse health effects from radiofrequency exposure.

But is this convincing enough? If such risks exist, surely we also need to understand the actual mechanisms that cause harm. Here a brief foray into the science itself seems indispensable.

What about sunlight?

Those sceptical of any harm cite the example of sunlight. It is known that sunlight’s UV rays are damaging, but only thermally-induced harm arises from over-exposure to its non-ionising frequencies in the infrared range. If sunlight is generally beneficial, why then, according to thousands of peer-reviewed papers, are there harmful biological effects from man-made EMR well below permitted levels? 

Firstly, lower frequencies generally penetrate further into the body. Unlike wifi, say, which has mainly operated at around 2.4 GHz, sunlight’s frequencies (extending down to 300 GHz) do not penetrate barriers such as low-density walls, or ceilings. Nor do they penetrate living tissues to anything like the extent of the lower (RF) frequencies used by wireless technologies. It is precisely because many frequencies used by 5G will be higher (currently planned for up to 86 GHz) that complex beam-focusing phased-array technologies and a vastly increased number of masts, poles and antennas will be required to achieve penetration and coverage. 

Secondly, sunlight (with which we have become attuned over so many millennia), is not artificially pulsed like much man-made EMR is. Many studies (e.g. Belyaev, 2015) have shown these pulse-modulated radio frequencies to be far more toxic to cellular life than continuous (non-pulsed) waves such as sunlight.

Thirdly, as reported for instance in a peer-reviewed study in Nature by D.J. Panagopoulos et al., man-made EMR has been found to have adverse biological effects, even at far lower exposure levels than natural radiation, because it is polarised. This gives rise to molecular effects in living tissue, exacerbated by multiple oscillating EM fields of the same polarisation. 

Biological mechanisms of harm

Despite copious evidence to the contrary, however, the view still prevails that there cannot be non-thermal (i.e. biological) actions of EMFs from low-energy photons because they are thought insufficiently energetic to directly influence the chemistry of cells. 

This is why the key research by Dr Martin Pall, Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry, is so important. He has succeeded in actually identifying and explaining the cellular mechanisms of biological effects from electromagnetic fields. His work has been published in numerous papers, e.g. in the Journal of Cellular and Mollecular Medicine, and widely peer-reviewed. Given his credentials and the thoroughness of his work, it seems extraordinary that bodies such as ICNIRP continue to ignore it.

Ecosystem impact

Many scientists are also concerned about the potential impact on other living creatures. In 2018, the Chair of the British Ecological Society, Professor William Sutherland, Miriam Rothschild, Professor of Conservation Biology at Cambridge University, and 24 other international environmental experts, identified anthropogenic electromagnetic radiation as one of the top 15 emerging issues that could have “unintended biological consequences”, possibly changing “biological processes such as neurotransmitter functions, cellular metabolism, and gene and protein expression in certain types of cells, even at low intensities”. Scientists of that calibre are not likely to make such statements without good reason.

Then, besides studies of RF-EMF effects on insects, frogs (A. Balmori, 2010), birds, mammals and plants, there are reports such as the longitudinal study by botanist Mark Bromhall linking a continuing increase in wireless antenna installations in an Australian national park, over a 15-year period, to species disappearance and exodus. A 2016 study also found clear damage to trees from radiofrequency radiation. 


Has the human race proceeded so far down the digital path that heeding such evidence has become unthinkable? Why do ICNIRP and the digital industry refuse to consider such grave and well-founded concerns? The sums and vested interests involved in digitalization are so great that the powers promoting – and profiting – from it will, presumably, fight tooth and nail to ignore the evidence. 

Alternative paths

Without trying to put the clock back, there are safer ways forward for digital. Locally owned wired networks have far less complexity and risk. Across North America, communities have installed their own fibre networks. As the website Connected Communities states, “wireless networks are huge energy guzzlers and unnecessarily expose us and our environment to harmful radiofrequency radiation … wiring devices to fibre is by far the best way to connect”.

As ecologists, we should, at the very least, urge a precautionary approach, and ask for comprehensive testing and review of safety before embracing wireless technologies so unquestioningly. We should refuse to be guided in our views by “authorities” whose independence is in question, and by compromised and partial rather than independent science.

This author

Matthew Barton is a poet, teacher and translator, and twice winner of the BBC’s Wildlife Poet of the Year. He has translated and edited numerous studies on cellular cancer mechanisms, and edits the Bristol poetry magazine Raceme.