Jun 112009

I was channel-surfing for news this morning, and I caught a segment on CTV’s morning show about “dirty electricity”.

I shall refrain from calling the gentleman being interviewed using a variety of unflattering names, because it would not be polite, and in any case, it’s not the person but the message that I take issue with.

Basically, he put a bunch of electronic devices like cordless phones, baby monitors, Wi-Fi routers or even fluorescent light bulbs on a test bench, plugged them in, and then held a contraption with an antenna and a speaker close to them. The contraption was making loud noises, from which this gentleman concluded that these devices “emit radiation”, and “send dirty electricity back through the wires”.

So then… what? The whole Universe is emitting similar radiation at radio frequencies. Any warm object, including the walls of your house, emits radiation at such frequencies and higher. And why should I care?

Of course, it helps dropping a few scary phrases like, “skyrocketing rates of autism”. Oh, he wasn’t saying that they are related. Why should he? Merely mentioning autism while he’s talking about “dirty electricity” is enough to suggest a connection.

Just to be clear about it, almost all electronic devices emit radio frequency radiation that can then be picked up by a suitable receiver and converted into loud and scary noise. When I was 10 or so and got my first pocket calculator, I had endless fun holding it close to an AM receiver and listening to its “song”. Later, when I had my first programmable calculator, I could tell by listening to the sounds on a nearby radio if it was still executing a program, or even if it displayed the expected result or just showed an error condition. Modern calculators use so little power that their transmissions cannot be picked up so easily, but does this mean that the old calculators were a health threat? Of course not.

At such low frequencies, electromagnetic radiation does not interact with our bodies in harmful ways. To cause genetic damage, for instance, much shorter wavelengths would be needed, you need to go at least to the ultraviolet range to produce ionization and, possibly, damage to DNA. At lower frequencies, most emissions are not even absorbed by the body very effectively. The little energy that is being absorbed may turn into tiny currents, but those are far too tiny to have any appreciable biological impact. Note that we are not talking about holding a cell phone with a, say, 0.3W transmitter just an inch from your brain (though even that, I think, is probably quite harmless, never mind sensationalist claims to the contrary); we are talking about a few milliwatts of stray radio frequency emissions not mere inches, but feet or more from a person.

As to “dirty electricity”, any device that produces a capacitive or inductive load on the house wiring will invariably feed some high frequency noise back through the wiring. Motors are the worst offenders, like vacuum cleaners or washing machines. Is this a problem? I doubt it. House wiring already acts as a powerful transmission antenna, continuously emitting electromagnetic waves at 60 Hz (in North America); so what if this emission is modulated further by some higher frequency noise?

But even if I am wrong about all of this, and low-frequency, low-energy electromagnetic radiation has a biological effect after all… study it by all means, yes, but it is no excuse for CTV to bring a scaremongerer with his noisy gadget (designed clearly with the intent to impress, not measure) on live television.

 Posted by at 1:14 pm