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Wireless footprints: the hidden environmental cost of convenience. A call for UK environmentalists to wake up to wireless pollution

Jueves 17 de febrero de 2022 · 753 lecturas

Wireless footprints: the hidden environmental cost of convenience
A call for UK environmentalists to wake up to wireless pollution

https://medium.com/@anneliefitzgerald/wireless-footprints-the-hidden-environmental-cost-of-convenience-6fcecdd8e55d

Mobile telecommunications mast. Photo: Annelie Fitzgerald
On top of the colossal cop-out in Glasgow, it’s immensely disheartening that so many environmentalists continue to ignore the huge yet hidden carbon footprint of digital technology: the data centres that underlie the internet — and the misleadingly named, ethereal-sounding ‘cloud’ — require vast amounts of infrastructure and electricity [1]. In the words of Guardian columnist John Harris, our “phones and gadgets are now endangering the planet”.
But it’s not just data capacity that consumes electricity; wireless infrastructure and gadgets do too. Generating a wireless signal requires energy, and many wireless devices emit signals fairly continuously, whether they are in use or not.
Although its focus was people’s connectivity during recent lockdowns rather than reducing carbon emissions, the UK communications regulator Ofcom has recommended using landlines to ensure more reliable phone connections. It has also advised the public to “try wired rather than wireless” and, for “the best broadband speeds”, to connect computers to routers using Ethernet cables rather than Wi-Fi.
Landlines and wired internet connections also happen to be the most energy-efficient means of communication. Internet access through Wi-Fi already increases energy use, but this soars by 15 times if access is through 3G, and can be 23 times greater through 4G. In a report titled Reinventing Wires commissioned by the US National Institute for Science, Law and Public Policy, communications technology expert Timothy Schoechle concluded that wired infrastructure is “inherently more future-proof, more reliable, more sustainable, more energy efficient” than wireless networks. This ‘inconvenient’ truth should give all environmentalists pause for thought.
Wireless is pollution
Switching to wired connectivity has the added benefit of reducing personal exposure to the radiofrequency radiation (RFR) produced by wireless devices, along with the overall man-made RFR burden within the environment. Yet, with wireless tech growing in prevalence (e.g. cordless phones, smartphones, tablets and chargers, plus wearables, smart meters, smart speakers and baby monitors), RF pollution is escalating.
Levels of anthropogenic RFR are now billions of times greater than natural background levels. In her fascinating book The Spark of Life. Electricity in the Human Body (2013), Oxford physiology professor Frances Ashcroft reminds us that living beings rely on “an unimaginably complex and continuously changing pattern of electrical and chemical signals.” Is it therefore reasonable to expect man-made RFR to have no impacts on the exquisitely small natural electromagnetic fields upon which all life depends? The authors of a paper, “Planetary electromagnetic pollution: it is time to assess its impact”, published in The Lancet Planetary Health in 2018, think not. They report that 68% of 2,246 recently evaluated studies demonstrated “significant biological effects”.

Figure: Typical maximum daily exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation from man-made and natural power-flux densities in comparison with International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection safety guidelines. Source: Priyanka Bandara and David Carpenter, “Planetary electromagnetic pollution: it is time to assess its impact”, The Lancet Planetary Health, December 2018.
In fact, current international exposure guidelines for RFR only provide protection from short-term heating and shock effects and do not take into account myriad non-thermal biological effects or the chronic, cumulative and overlapping exposures to RFR that are widespread today [2]. In addition, the Phonegate scandal revealed that 9 out of 10 mobile phones tested exposed their users to intensities of RFR that exceed the European regulatory Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) level of 2W/kg, with one in four exceeding the threshold of 4W/kg. This went unreported in the UK, where no action appears to have been taken in response by either central government or any of the devolved administrations.
With regard to human health, RFR was classified as a 2B ‘possible human carcinogen’ by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2011. More recently (2018), the US National Toxicology Program’s decade-long study on the effects of RFR concluded that there is “clear evidence” of carcinogenicity. Experts are now calling for RFR to be reclassified as a ‘known human carcinogen’, while other known effects include increased cellular stress, free radical formation, increased permeability of the blood brain barrier, genetic damage, learning and memory deficits, neurologic/neurotransmitter disorders, reproductive effects, and negative impacts on general well-being.
The fact that evidence of such effects continues to be summarily dismissed by regulatory and advisory agencies was the subject of an August 2021 ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. In this landmark case, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was adjudged to have failed to “provide a reasoned or even relevant explanation of its position that RF radiation below the current limits does not cause health problems unrelated to cancer”. Furthermore, the agency was deemed to have demonstrated “a complete failure to respond to comments concerning environmental harm caused by RF radiation.” UK regulators and agencies have shown a similar reluctance to take into account evidence of harm and are now also being challenged in the courts as a result.
Impacts on flora and fauna
While it is thus still claimed that extant exposure guidelines protect humans exposed to RFR in the range 100 kHz to 300 GHz, we happen to share this planet with an abundance of other forms of life. The 2015 International EMF Scientist Appeal noted “growing evidence of harmful effects to both plant and animal life”, while a 2018 scoping document by EU body EKLIPSE (sponsored by UK invertebrate charity Buglife), reported that wireless communications “posed a credible threat to wildlife”. The author of a number of studies on anthropogenic RFR and wildlife, biologist Alfonso Balmori has postulated that “this new ubiquitous and invisible pollutant could deplete the efforts devoted to species conservation”.
Is it mere happenstance that the ‘insect apocalypse’ — affecting flying insects in particular — coincides with the extensive roll-out of modern wireless technologies over the past few decades? A 2017 German study, for instance, identified a decline of over 75% in total flying insect biomass over 27 years, concluding that changes in weather, land use, and habitat characteristics could not explain this overall decline. Shouldn’t we be carefully studying the correlation between wireless expansion and the insect population implosion to establish whether RF pollution is playing a role in this sudden collapse?
A number of reviews have pointed in this direction: a German study from 2020 concluded that RFR could impact the vitality of insect populations, and called for the protection of habitats from RFR, while an even more recent investigation determined that RFR should be “seriously considered as a complementary driver for the decline in insects in recent studies, acting in synergy with agricultural intensification, pesticides, invasive species and climate change”[3]. RFR, as others have noted, may be a crucial overlooked factor in the decline of bees and in colony collapse disorder, while effects have been documented on beetles, wasps and ants.
The authors of another recent study, focusing on four types of insect, postulated that anthropogenic RFR could cause “changes in insect behaviour, physiology, and morphology over time”, with their research showing that a shift of just 10% of the incident power density to frequencies above 6 GHz may produce an increase in absorbed power of 3–370%, depending on the size of the insect. In the context of further wireless roll-out using higher frequencies, i.e. shorter wavelengths, this is worrying: a damaging ‘resonance effect’ may occur if the wavelength is comparable to body size.
Other studies have indicated effects in birds, microbes and amphibians [4]. For example, a study on developing frogs showed that those that were shielded by a Faraday cage from the RFR from a mobile phone mast had a mortality of 4.2%, whereas the mortality of the unshielded frogs was 90%.
Flora is not spared either: effects have been recorded on seeds, plants and trees. Waldmann-Selsam et al. (2016) discovered harm to trees near phone masts, with the initial damage on the side facing the mast eventually extending to the whole tree. Another study found evidence that “plants perceive and respond to microwave irradiation as though it was an injurious treatment”.
A report to UNESCO (2017) by naturalist Mark Broomhall documented the decline of bird, insect and bat species on Australia’s Mount Nardi (Nightcap National Park World Heritage Area), in proximity to RF telecommunications infrastructure. He concluded that “the effects of this technology […] are devastating the fabric of the continuity of the World Heritage Area, causing genetic deterioration on an insidious, massive and ever escalating scale. To truly understand what these studies reveal is to stare into the abyss.”
This bleak conclusion is echoed in a substantial three-part scientific review titled “Effects of Non-Ionizing Electromagnetic Fields on Flora and Fauna”, the final part of which was published in September 2021: “Numerous studies across all frequencies and taxa indicate that current low-level anthropogenic EMF can have myriad adverse and synergistic effects, including on orientation and migration, food finding, reproduction, mating, nest and den building, territorial maintenance and defense, and on vitality, longevity and survivorship itself.”
By disregarding the precautionary principle and failing to conduct extensive research into effects on wildlife before allowing further wireless roll-out, those responsible may be causing irreparable harm to the viability of certain species and ecosystems. As technology critic Jaron Lanier warned in Who Owns the Future? (2012), “Human nature plus good technology equals extinction.” Valuing convenience and gadgets more than the natural world may exact a very high cost, one reflected in the title of Katie Singer’s book, An Electronic Silent Spring (2014), and its allusion to Rachel Carson’s pioneering and prescient work of 1962 [5]. In short, the wireless web could prove to be a significant factor in the destruction of our planet’s web of life — something that lends a horrible irony to the names of wireless ‘smart home’ networks such as Hive and Nest…
Wireless pollution and climate change
If the wireless revolution is contributing to climate change through its growing carbon footprint, there are also many revealing parallels between the challenges of tackling climate change and wireless pollution — and our reluctance to address them. Although he downplays wireless pollution, in Don’t Even Think About It. Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (2014), climate campaigner George Marshall notes that both problems “threaten uncertain impacts that are drawn out long into the future. And in both cases we all contribute, through our consumption choices, to the problem”.
Many of the reasons Marshall adduces for inaction on climate change can be directly transposed to our failure to address wireless pollution. (Our brains, it turns out, are wired to ignore wireless pollution as well.) Both RFR and greenhouse gases, for example, are invisible emissions that we are all too prone to disregard. Yet, while atmospheric effects of greenhouse gases have now been well studied, there is sparse research into the effects of anthropogenic RFR on Earth’s natural Schumann resonance, on the ionosphere and on natural and man-made components of the atmosphere — as pointed out in The Lancet Planetary Health.
As with fossil fuels, we are at risk of technology ‘lock-in’, with wireless now woven into the fabric of most people’s lives, and more and more wireless equipment being launched: by one estimate, 55.7 billion connected devices are expected to be in use by 2025. A 2018 survey by Ofcom, titled tellingly A Decade of Digital Dependency, reported that an astounding 62% of adults in the UK stated that they couldn’t live without their smartphone. In 2020, Ofcom determined that 71% of all measured time spent online was on smartphones, while 35% of internet users only accessed the web on mobile devices (smartphones or tablets). And anthropologists now report that people see smartphones as places within which they live, rather than as devices that they use. Inhabiting these virtual “domestic spaces” entails a lot of unnecessary exposure to RFR.
Ironically, just as we finally seem to be waking up to the urgency of tackling climate change and biodiversity loss, we are letting wireless pollution get totally out of control, even deluding ourselves into thinking that more wireless can help avert climate change.
The environmental folly of 5G
With the mobile industry said to represent around 5% of global GDP, it now wields enormous financial and political clout. Democratic debate has been sidelined in the headlong rush to roll out 5G, which — along with the ‘internet of things’ it is intended to enable — has been sold to politicians as a sure-fire way of boosting jobs and economic growth.
Yet 5th generation mobile networks and connected technologies such as driverless cars will cause wireless pollution to skyrocket — literally so in one respect: Space X’s Starlink project is in the process of launching 12,000 broadband satellites into orbit, while other companies such as Oneweb, acquired by the UK government in 2020, are pursuing similar ambitions. On Earth, the ubiquitous sensors and the huge numbers of antennae necessary to expand what Harvard’s Shoshana Zuboff has dubbed the “extractive architecture” of surveillance capitalism’s “digital omniscience” (The Age of Surveillance Capitalism) will further disfigure our cities and landscapes, require vast quantities of resources, and result in unavoidable, increased RFR exposure for everyone.
In addition, 5G technology will demand greater data capacity and energy. Even the principal website promoting 5G in the UK recognises that such networks are likely to consume a “vast amount of energy” and entail huge energy bills, while the 5G waveform has also been described as a “battery vampire”. With 5G, reports the think tank The Shift Project, mobile operators will use 2.5–3 times more energy by 2025 than in 2020 (and we know from experience with other technologies that any efficiency gains tend to be cancelled out by higher consumption through a mechanism known as the Jevons Paradox). In short, 5G and its attendant ‘smart’ technologies are incompatible with commitments to sustainability and to combating climate change.
If that wasn’t enough, wireless pollution from 5G was identified in 2018 as one of fifteen emerging risks for biodiversity in the “Horizon Scan of Emerging Issues for Global Conservation and Biological Diversity” led by Professor William Sutherland of Cambridge University. The impacts of 5G on wildlife have also been the subject of a question to the Secretary of State for Health by MP Ben Lake, to which the disquieting response was: “No assessment of the potential effect of the roll out of the 5G network on wildlife and pollinators has been made” (28 June 2019). With 5G being deployed in the UK with no proper research having been done, Matt Shardlow, CEO of Buglife, has sought to raise the alarm: “It is essential that Government commissions scientific studies to understand the risks that mobile phone networks, particularly 5G, pose to the environment. This is urgent.” Needless to say, no such commitment has been forthcoming from the UK government.
On the other hand, over the past few years there has been a flurry of reports by different EU bodies raising concerns about the safety of 5G. In 2018 the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Health, Environmental and Emerging Risks (SCHEER) acknowledged that the “lack of clear evidence to inform the development of exposure guidelines to 5G technology leaves open the possibility of unintended biological consequences.” That observation resonates worryingly with the recognition in a 2019 European Parliament analysis that it is currently “not possible to accurately simulate or measure 5G emissions in the real world.”
A 2020 briefing document from the European Parliament’s Think Tank reported that “wireless radiation seems to have biological effects” and that the characteristics of 5G (millimetre waves, a higher frequency, the quantity of transmitters and the quantity of connections), made this “untested technology” of particular concern. Noting that various studies suggested that 5G would affect the health of humans, plants, animals, insects, and microbes, it advocated “a cautious approach”.
Similarly, in its 2021 report on the health impacts of 5G, the European Parliament’s Scientific Foresight Unit highlighted links between exposure to mobile telecommunications emissions and cancer, along with fertility and developmental disorders. Pointing out that various biological effects “have not been included in the determination of […] guidelines, despite the huge amount of available scientific publications demonstrating the harmfulness or potential harmfulness of those effects”, the authors called for the adoption of precautionary exposure limits and concomitant measures designed to reduce overall exposure. Current deployment of 5G, however, betrays a total disregard for the precautionary principle — or indeed for any caution at all.
A call for wisdom and sobriety
While internet-connected ‘smart’ home devices should be boycotted for sound environmental reasons, the tech industry has proven masterly at green-washing 5G, along with anything else dubbed ‘smart’. Many environmentalists — just like politicians — have been seduced by hyperbolic industry promises of a dematerialised, energy-efficient, low-carbon future, and taken in by its “inevitability rhetoric” (Zuboff).
The situation in the UK is particularly dire, as most prominent environmentalists continue to turn a blind eye to the RF pollution generated by this enormous sector of the economy. The Green Party of England and Wales, for example, has blocked wireless pollution debate motions at successive conferences, with leadership candidates and other members even lazily labelling and dismissing those with concerns as “conspiracy theorists”.
A telling example of blatant green-washing was an article in The Ecologist titled “The environmental benefits of 5G”, which merely regurgitated the conclusions of a report funded by the Scottish government [6]. Even Sir David Attenborough, Britain’s favourite naturalist, has been recruited in order to promote 5G, with Cornwall’s Eden Project also participating in the hype. Such uncritical acceptance of technological green-wash, along with widespread adoption of wireless technologies by environmental organisations, may explain how such groups have been — albeit often unwittingly — “collaborating in the destruction of nature”.
By contrast with the UK, leading environmentalists elsewhere have grasped what is at stake and are mobilising. For instance, California’s Greens have called for the application of the precautionary principle with regard to 5G, while France’s president has faced a revolt by Green-party mayors over 5G roll-out and a call for a moratorium on 5G from the recent Citizens’ Convention on Climate. In a report published late last year the French High Council for the Climate also stated that 5G would have a “significant impact” on electricity consumption in France — accounting for somewhere between 16 TWh and 40 TWh by 2030. In addition, over 700 research scientists at universities and engineering schools in France have signed a petition calling for a boycott of 5G technology on environmental and health grounds: “At a time when we have no other reasonable solution than energy sobriety to ensure a liveable future, the very idea of deploying this network and the extraordinary industrial production that accompanies it is crazy — obscene, even.”
In the UK, such conscientious perspicacity is sadly lacking. Besides RF pollution, all too many environmentalists largely overlook the various environmental impacts of wireless tech: its growing carbon footprint, its insatiable need for rare earths and other scarce resources, its generation of more toxic e-waste (planned obsolescence is “an inherent characteristic of wireless”), and its unsustainable goal of selling us more stuff. As George Monbiot put it recently, “In this age of environmental crisis and collapse, of government lies and corporate power, we need our nature defenders to rise like lions after slumber. Instead, they queue at the abattoir gate like sedated lambs.”
Given the environmental impacts of our ‘smart’ phones and gadgets, it’s time to be far more cautious about using wireless, both as individuals and as a society. We all need to reduce our wireless footprints — alongside our carbon footprints — and we must be far more discriminating about the type of technology we choose to develop and deploy in the first place. “Is 5G really useful?” asked members of the Paris-based Shift Project in an op-ed published in Le Monde in January last year. Their conclusion: a resounding ‘no’.
A moratorium on the roll-out of 5G is urgently needed, and all those who care about life on Earth should unite in vigorously campaigning for one. Now is not the time for dithering, deflection or division, but for principled, meaningful and decisive collective action. Now is not a time for lambs, but for lions.
Annelie Fitzgerald PhD is a member of Wiser Wireless Wales.
Further Reading
Sally Beare: “How Green is 5G?” Envirotec Magazine, Nov. 2021.
Richard Maxwell & Toby Miller: How Green is your Smartphone? (Polity Press, 2020).
Paul Mobbs: “The Invisible, and Growing, Ecological Footprint of Digital Technology” and “Why the Mobile Phone is Incompatible with an Ecological Lifestyle”.
Notes
[1] The Shift Project identifies a “worrying growth” (+6%/year) in the impact of digital technology on greenhouse gas emissions that is incompatible with remaining within a 2°C rise in global temperatures, The Environmental Impact of Digital Tech: 5-Year Trends and Governance of 5G, 2021. (See also: Climate: the Unsustainable Use of Online Video and LEAN — ICT: In Favour of Digital Sobriety.)
[2] Although they do not count RFR among anthropogenic electric field sources, see also Sam J. England and Daniel Robert, The ecology of electricity and electroreception, Biol. Rev. (2021).
[3] The Guardian’s environment editor, Damian Carrington, failed to mention RFR as a potential factor in an article about an alarming 2019 scientific review of the reasons behind insect decline, in which he quoted Matt Shardlow, CEO of Buglife, and added: “In [Shardlow’s] opinion, the review slightly overemphasises the role of pesticides and underplays global warming, though other unstudied factors such as light pollution might prove to be significant.” Given that Buglife had initiated the 2018 EKLIPSE review, subsequently issuing a press-release titled “Could our obsession with mobile technology destroy wildlife?”, it is remarkable that Carrington did not refer explicitly to anthropogenic RFR as a potential factor, instead (presumably) merely lumping this growing form of pollution together with “other unstudied factors such as light pollution”. It must be noted, however, that the Guardian consistently avoids coverage of RF pollution, something that is perhaps not unrelated to the wireless footprint intrinsic to its current business model — and inadvertently highlighted in a recent self-promotion campaign: “On everyone’s mobile. In no one’s pocket. The Guardian.”
[4] The 2021 ruling against the US Federal Communications Commission referred to above stated: “The record contains substantive evidence of potential environmental harms. Most relevantly, the record included a letter from the Department of the Interior voicing concern about the impact of RF radiation from communication towers on migratory birds” (p. 22).
[5] See also Cindy Russell, Wireless Silent Spring (2018); Ulrich Warnke, Bees, Birds and Mankind. Destroying Nature by Electrosmog (2008). The Physicians for Safe Technology website provides an extensive bibliography of research on effects on wildlife and the environment.
[6] Since its current editor took the reins in October 2017, The Ecologist has published scant critical coverage of 5G (and wireless tech), in contrast to its French counterpart, Reporterre, which published a series of five investigative articles on 5G in 2019 alone.