Why we are afraid of invisible radio waves

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This article originally appeared on VICE France.

The deployment of 5G is far from smooth. Despite its dazzling promises, such as the advent of self-driving cars and virtual reality, the fifth generation of mobile internet is seen by many as a threat. On July 14 this year, the UK banned 5G kits produced by Chinese manufacturer Huawei over safety concerns. Meanwhile, campaigners are challenging the environmental cost of the new technology, which will require huge resources just to replace the already fast 4G network.

Then there’s a group of people who oppose 5G because they think it’s a health hazard. The theory that cell phones cause cancer has been around for a while, but with little scientific basis. In its latest iteration, conspiracy theorists claim that 5G cell towers weaken our immune system and increase our vulnerability to COVID-19. Some even believe that the towers transmit the virus directly to humans – and that naturally the best way to fight the pandemic is to burn them down.

This fear of the waves may seem very crazy in 2020, but the phenomenon has been around for at least 60 years. Electromagnetic waves, power lines, microwaves, radios, radars, wind turbines and wifi modems: all have been “blamed” for causing health problems like leukemia, infertility and autism. None of these theories have been scientifically confirmed, but a mixture of miscommunication, misunderstanding of science and pure mysticism has kept them alive.

First, it is important to understand what “waves” are and how they work. The human eye can only pick up a tiny fraction of the energy traveling through the universe in the form of electromagnetic waves and other types of radiation. This tiny range of perception, known as the visible spectrum, is essentially what we call colors.

Electromagnetic radiation is classified by wavelength. What we perceive as violet travels at a wavelength of about 400 nanometers (nm). Radiation below 400 nm is known as “ultraviolet” and is invisible to humans. Another type of radiation, “ionizing radiation”, also propagates at a wavelength below 400 nm. This radiation transforms the atoms it hits into ions by stealing their electrons and breaking the chemical bonds of the molecules. In short, it is unstable and dangerous for humans. For example, radioactive materials like uranium release ionizing radiation which, in extreme amounts, can cause burns and even death.

The panic over electromagnetic radiation began in the 1950s. In the aftermath of World War II, an epidemic of the so-called “radio wave sickness” hit military outposts in Eastern Europe. People said the x-rays and speed cameras caused symptoms like fatigue, headaches, dizziness and trouble sleeping. Today the condition is known as electromagnetic hypersensitivity, but it is not recognized as a disease by medical authorities and is mostly self-diagnosed.

In 1979, electromagnetic waves began to be associated with cancer. It all started with a scientific paper that observed that in Colorado, power lines were more often found near the homes of children who were developing cancer than healthy children. The correlation has been sought in many subsequent studies, but to date no consistent evidence to support the claim has been found.

In the 1980s, when microwaves became a common household appliance, public fear of electromagnetic radiation grew, fueled by the media. Microwaves were said to cause cancer and destroy nutrients in food. Although current studies show that a working microwave oven poses no risk to human health, false reports of the Soviet Union’s 1976 microwave ban continue to surface. in time.

Health bodies such as the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health Safety say there is a “possible” link between electromagnetic radiation and cancer, particularly leukemia in children. . This is because early studies have found some correlation, although the WHO has called the evidence “weak” and their methodology has been questioned.

As for the long-term effects of electromagnetic radiation, in 2011 the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified electromagnetic radiation as “probably carcinogenic,” but with a huge caveat. They found “limited” evidence linking mobile phone use to two specific types of cancer, glioma and acoustic neuroma, and “inadequate” evidence for the other types. Other common substances like pickles and coffee are also considered carcinogenic by the WHO.

The scientific basis for panic is shaky at best, but that hasn’t stopped people from panicking about electromagnetic waves. But if scientists can’t know something for sure, non-scientists can’t understand it either. Technophobia, or the fear of technology, may well be deeply rooted in the human psyche.

Ian Hacking, a Canadian philosopher of science, has studied the phenomenon of “temporary mental illnesses”, or disorders that appear only in certain contexts and then disappear. For example, in 16th century Europe, when transparent glass became common, people were convinced that their own bodies had become glass. This “glass illusion” even affected King Charles VI of France, who dressed in special reinforced clothing to protect his fragile body. Another famous technophobic group were the Luddites – English textile workers who destroyed their weaving machines in the 19th century to protest against the domination of technology.

Today, the invisible waves that connect us to each other are seen as a similar threat. And with Big Tech using the waves to collect more and more of our personal data, people are losing faith and heading for conspiracy burrows. 5G is just the latest scapegoat.

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