From radio waves to television transmissions to the earth’s own magnetosphere, electromagnetic fields (EMFs) permeate the planet. But not all EMFs are benign or beneficial. For example, directed-energy weapons – which are currently being developed by the U.S. military – demonstrate that EMFs are capable of immense destructive power. And according to numerous online health blogs, some EMFs that we take for granted as being safe may in fact be detrimental to human health.
One such EMF is WiFi – a technology that has become so enmeshed in daily life that it is hard to imagine the world without it. WiFi uses radio waves to enable wireless local area networking of digital devices such as laptops, smartphones and tablets. And since so many of us use WiFi to connect to the internet, the digital economy would struggle without it.
However, a group of five girls from Hjallerup School in Denmark may have identified a serious problem with the technology. In 2013 they conducted a science experiment that appeared to demonstrate how WiFi routers can negatively impact some organisms. And their findings earned them international attention – not to mention the interest of some professional researchers. So, is it time to unplug your router?
Well, the truth is that nobody knows for sure how WiFi may affect biological life. You see, the radio waves used by WiFi routers are a form of non-ionizing radiation. And unlike ionizing radiation – which can pose some very serious dangers – the health impacts of non-ionizing radiation are uncertain.
Furthermore, while it’s thought that WiFi poses no proven risk to human health, according to the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the links between WiFi and cancer are still not fully understood. According to the IARC, WiFi radiation may indeed carry some carcinogenic risk – although further research is required.
The students from Hjallerup School decided to undertake their own study into the matter, however. In particular, after having apparently observed some ill-effects of cell phone use, the girls investigated how WiFi might disrupt biological processes. “We all thought we experienced concentration problems in school if we slept with our mobile phones at the bedside,” Lea Nielsen told campaigning organization Stop Smart Meters in 2013. “Sometimes we also found it difficult sleeping.”
Without access to neurological instruments, the students chose instead to experiment on plants. Specifically, they divided 400 cress seeds into 12 trays. Controlling for ambient temperatures, water and sunlight, they then placed six trays in one room near some WiFi routers and six in another room away from WiFi radiation. The girls subsequently left the plants to germinate. And after 12 days, they compared the samples.
There may have been a shock in store when the plants were retrieved, too. That’s because the seeds near the WiFi routers had failed to germinate; according to Stop Smart Meters, some of them even appeared to be mutated or dead. By contrast, the cress seeds in the other room had sprouted into healthy plants. WiFi radiation, it seemed, has an extremely deleterious impact on plant life. “It is truly frightening that there is so much effect,” Nielsen told Stop Smart Meters. “We were very shocked by the result.”
And the girls’ experiment would garner considerable attention. “This has sparked quite a lively debate in Denmark regarding the potential adverse health effects from mobile phones and WiFi equipment,” their biology teacher Kim Horsevad said. In fact, the research even earned the students a place in the finals of Denmark’s “Young Scientists” contest.
“The girls stayed within the scope of their knowledge [and] skillfully implemented and developed a very elegant experiment,” Olle Johansson, a professor at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, told Stop Smart Meters. “The wealth of detail and accuracy is exemplary, [and] choosing cress was very intelligent.”
Johansson added, “I sincerely hope that [the students] spend their future professional [lives] in researching. Personally, I would love to see these people in my team.” Johansson was seemingly so inspired, in fact, that he subsequently collaborated with Belgian scientist Marie-Claire Cammaerts to apparently replicate the girls’ findings. In 2015 the pair then published their conclusions in an article for Argentina’s Phyton: International Journal of Experimental Botany.
The students’ results also appeared to echo those made by Dutch researchers three years earlier. Commissioned by the city of Alphen aan den Rijn to uncover the mystery of the municipality’s diseased and dying ash trees, the scientists could find no trace of viruses that could have been the cause. Instead, they discovered that the trees were exposed to multiple sources of WiFi radiation – and that those trees closest to the radiation appeared to be most impacted by disease.
Those findings prompted a large-scale controlled experiment to determine the exact impact of WiFi radiation on ash trees. And in November 2013, after the girls had carried their own study out, Dr André van Lammeren published his results. “During the experimental research period of five to eight months,” he wrote, “no damage like bark nodules, fissures or necrosis were found on the used ash trees.” Contrary to earlier assumptions, WiFi radiation had seemingly had no impact.
Similarly, it has been argued that the schoolgirls’ experiment was highly flawed and that its conclusions are almost certainly erroneous. Importantly, the study lacked blinds and stringent environmental controls. This in turn led to concerns that the subsequent inference that WiFi is a hazard to human health was premature.
And although the seeds in the groups exposed to WiFi had indeed failed to germinate – and this was likely as a result of their proximity to routers – the reason may well have been dehydration rather than electromagnetic radiation. In fact, a climate chamber is the only way to properly control environmental factors – such as temperature and hydration – that greatly influence when or if a seed germinates.
Likewise, the research conducted by Johansson and Cammaerts was flawed if it had been intended to act as a replication of the Danish students’ study. Firstly, Johansson and Cammaerts’ sample consisted of just two trays of cress; the girls’ experiment, on the other hand, had used six trays. The two researchers’ study had also only lasted for ten days, while the girls’ had run for 12.
Furthermore, Johansson and Cammaerts’ work examined the impact of cell phone tower radiation rather than WiFi. And, lastly, the levels of radiation observed in the pair’s experiment appeared to be no higher than those routinely experienced by casual and professional cress growers.
But according to Pepijn van Erp, a Dutch mathematician who publishes a blog aimed at debunking bad science, Johansson has a reputation for making misleading claims. Van Erp also claims that Cammaerts “is also the main author of a probably fraudulent article on the effects of GSM radiation on ants.”
And one possible reason why the girls had suffered from insomnia and concentration problems after sleeping near their cell phones could be the temptation to use the devices during the night. Another reason may be the light from the phones’ displays disrupting sleep patterns – although there is no hard proof of that being the case, either.
So, is WiFi safe? It would appear to be. “[There is] no basis to anticipate that WiFi exposure will cause any biological effects,” concluded one meta-study of the evidence in 2013. “The overwhelming consensus of health agencies around the world is that radio-frequency exposures below international… exposure limits have not been shown to produce any health hazard.”