What do killer smog and wireless technology have in common?

November 13, 2022

Little fanfare commemorates the 74th anniversary of the Donora killer smog that hit my southwestern Pennsylvania hometown in October of 1948. As fall settled over that small working-class steel town, toxic, pungent, yellow-gray coal, coke and zinc fumes morphed into a deadly airborne soup that settled along the Monongahela Valley. In five days, twenty people suddenly dropped dead.

An even more lethal smog in London that killed twelve thousand four years later made the reality of air pollution impacts on human health undeniable. This set the stage for the global effort to reduce air pollution that is ongoing to this day. While the massive levels of noxious factory fumes that killed people years ago in Donora and London are no longer a problem in those areas, forest fires and industrial effluents are providing new and menacing forms of sullied air around the world today.

And there is another type of invisible, tasteless and odorless form of air pollution confronting the world today, that packs a double whammy. Invisible electromagnetic fields like those used in wireless technology for cell phones and cell towers, are invaluable and necessary for modern communication, but they are not harmless to human health or the environment. Moreover, the amount of energy needed to power the billions of devices now being operated is projected to far outpace any gains in efficiency promised with use of these devices.

The human impacts are considerable. Men who keep cell phones close to their bodies have much lower levels and inferior quality of sperm than those who do not. Damage to the fetus during pregnancy has been demonstrated in numerous studies in animals, with prenatally exposed animals developing smaller brains and testes. Studies of rodents exposed to levels of cell phone radiation comparable to what people experience every day find significant increases in very rare, very malignant cancers. Some of these same types of tumors are also increased in people who report having used phones for half an hour daily for a decade or more. Environmental consequences of the exponential growth in wireless radiation extend from trees to bees, birds, and mammals. And while some governments have begun to address adverse health effects associated with this technology, no governmental authority has yet reviewed research or set exposure limits to protect wildlife.

Recently some impressive and extensive advertisements erroneously claim that wireless technology? reduces the amount of electricity and energy consumed. A cold, hard look at the facts indicates that this is not the case. According to a study by Germany’s Federal Environment agency, streaming high-definition videos and games with wireless 3G technology can result in exponentially more greenhouse gas emissions as compared to corded fiber optic cable connections, contributing to climate change which also adversely impacts human health and the environment. (5G fared better than 3G, but still much higher than a wired connection.)

The widespread rollout of 5G will not cut energy consumption, but appears on track to worsen it substantially due to the virtually worldwide ubiquity of its use. Thus, it appears that 5G is a classic case of the Jevons Paradox. No matter how efficient any single device may be, the growth in their sheer number and their uses increasingly for mobile streaming will increase overall energy use. First, 5G clearly uses more energy than wired connections. Second, industry projects that global mobile devices will grow to 13.1 billion by 2023.

If one looks at the cost of producing, distributing, maintaining, repairing and disposing of the million new antennas and devices that will be needed in order for 5G to operate, including the billions of phones to be tossed into the trash, the picture starts to look quite different. In fact, it is true that a 5G small cell is less powerful than a tall cell tower, but that’s not the entire story. With 1,000,000 new 5G antennas needed in the U.S. alone, the amount of energy that will be needed to keep such a system going vastly exceeds any savings in efficiency that might be obtained. More importantly 5G base stations use up to 4 times more energy than 4G.

So let’s clear the air. We need a global reset on wireless technology to seek changes in hardware and software that reduce exposures to the lowest levels needed for technology to work. Years ago, one firm produced a baby-safe (for pregnant women) router. What made this router supposedly safer for babies? It remained asleep and woke up only at the lowest possible power required. Imagine if devices defaulted to the lowest energies needed to operate and were wired instead of wireless whenever possible. Seems like a good model for all devices being brought to market today, and seems well worth pursuing.


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