Here's why the benefits of Wi-Fi outweigh its potential risks

A closer look at the claims that it is either safe or a silent killer.
Christopher McFadden
How safe is Wi-Fi?
How safe is Wi-Fi?


  • Wi-Fi is all around us and has been for many decades.
  • The scientific consensus is that Wi-Fi is completely safe, but science is never settled.
  • The benefits of Wi-Fi appear to greatly outweigh any potential risks.

Wireless technology is basically everywhere today. It is used to connect things like laptops, smartphones, and other electronic devices to the internet. In fact, it's likely that you're reading this article on a computer or other device with Wi-Fi active.

Wi-Fi uses electromagnetic radiation, a form of energy, to transmit data. An area known as an electromagnetic field is produced by this radiation (EMFs).

Here's why the benefits of Wi-Fi outweigh its potential risks
Is Wi-Fi harmful?

People have raised concerns that Wi-Fi radiation may contribute to various diseases, including cancer, over the years. Yet other studies point to the fact that there is no apparent impact on human health from Wi-Fi exposure.

But, which camp, if any, is correct on this matter?

Let's examine the current state of the science around Wi-Fi and cancer.

Not all radiation is equal

Wi-Fi is a form of radiation, but that doesn't mean it is dangerous. In fact, quite the opposite.

For most, the term "radiation" is a rather emotive one. It conjures up in mind an image of nuclear fallout and post-apocalyptic scenes. But radiation, in some form or another, actually surrounds you all the time.

Here's why the benefits of Wi-Fi outweigh its potential risks
Wi-Fi is everywhere.

Take sunlight, for example. It is vital for all life on Earth, few give it a second thought, but it is a form of radiation. Although some components of sunlight, such as the high-frequency ultraviolet light, can damage living tissue and are potentially very dangerous to your health if exposed in high enough doses.

Ultraviolet light is a form of radiation known as ionizing radiation. But what does that mean?

Ionizing radiation is typically bad for health in large doses or sustained exposure. This kind of radiation also includes x-rays, gamma radiation, and extreme UV, which only propagates in a vacuum. The key element here is the wavelength of the radiation type.

Ionizing radiation has enough energy to excite electrons and knock them out of orbit. The vacancy changes the chemical properties of the atoms and can cause them to break or form chemical bonds in ways that they otherwise would not - which can damage living tissue. While UV radiation can be useful, for example, for disinfecting surfaces, prolonged exposure is potentially highly detrimental and does have the potential to mutate your cells.

X-rays can also be extremely dangerous, which is why their use in medicine is carefully controlled to minimize the dose and keep it at safe levels. These controls are to protect the patient as well as the operators of the devices. For those worried about X-rays, which is reasonable, remember the exposure for most people is so limited over a lifetime that it pales in comparison to what you get in an aircraft (over the same timeframe). For example, if you were to fly from the east coast to the west coast of the U.S., you would be exposed to about 0.035 mSv (3.5 mrem) of cosmic radiation - this is less than one chest x-ray (which is around 0.02 mSv (two mrem)). In comparison, the average annual dose for natural radiation is 2.28 mSv (228 mrem).

At the other end of the EM spectrum, we find non-ionizing radiation. These rays lack the energy to ionize atoms. They include everything else, from infrared to radio waves. This includes high-energy radio waves used in walkie-talkies and even microwaves.

Here's why the benefits of Wi-Fi outweigh its potential risks
How harmful is Wi-Fi?

So, as a general rule of thumb, long wavelengths typically mean it is "safe"; short wavelengths, on the other hand, are typically "bad." And Wi-Fi very much sits in the longer wavelength of things.

But there is another important component when discussing radiation of any kind; your proximity to the source.

There are two important things to remember here, too, when discussing the safety of radiation: the actual power output and the Inverse-Square law.

Close proximity to a radiation source, like, say microwaves, would give you a higher power dosage. The average magnetron in a microwave produces around 700 to 1,000 watts, with this energy contained safely within the device. Microwaves are also very well shielded, for obvious reasons. Even if the device was defective or the shielding deteriorated, you likely wouldn't feel any effects from the "leaked" radiation (most microwaves also have safeguards which means they won't work at all if they are defective).

By comparison, even the most powerful Wi-Fi router pumps out less than one watt of microwave energy. Remember that there is some overlap with EM wavelengths between RF and microwaves.

This energy is also radiated out in a bubble-like cloud from the device. With this kind of energy output, it wouldn't be strong enough to heat up one ml of water above room temperature.

Both a microwave and a router are subject to the inverse-square law. This states that the intensity of linear wave radiation is directly inverse to the distance from the source. This means that the radiation exposure gets smaller the farther away it is. So, if the source is twice as far away, there is one fourth as much exposure.

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The classic illustration is the intensity of sunlight with distance from the Sun. So, with ever-increasing distance from the source, radiation exposure reduces exponentially. This law applies to all radiation, radio, microwaves, light, etc.

Given that the output of the router is already minuscule, the inverse square law means that the radiation intensity you receive from non-ionizing waves is inconsequential. So, all good, right? Let's see.

Is Wi-Fi actually dangerous?

The jury is still very much out on this issue. For any piece of research that supports claims of the health impacts of Wi-Fi, you'll likely find another that completely disputes such claims.

But, you can probably take some solace in the fact that Wi-Fi, or at least wireless technologies, have been around for a very long time now. While the overall cancer death rates have steadily increased over time, there does not appear to be an increase in the types of cancer some people associate with Wi-Fi over the general rate of cancer. There have been some noticeable increases in certain types of cancer often associated with Wi-Fi, such as brain tumors, but this may be more a product of the aging of the so-called "boomer" population into their senior years rather than strictly because of exposure to Wi-Fi radiation.

Such technology has also been studied and scrutinized for a very long time too.

One of the most comprehensive studies was conducted by John Moulder, professor emeritus of radiation oncology at the Medical College of Wisconsin. He co-authored a review of the available Wi-Fi health research in 2013. According to this study, Wi-Fi routers transmit and receive data via radio waves, a type of electromagnetic radiation, just like that used for your mobile phone.

Here's why the benefits of Wi-Fi outweigh its potential risks
Or is it dangerous?

At least since the 1950s, when there were worries about Navy servicemen being exposed to potent shipboard radar, researchers have been studying radio waves and human health. The type of radiation linked to Wi-Fi has been the subject of research for 50 to 60 years, Moulder explained in an interview with Time in 2018.

We now know from scientific studies that electromagnetic radiation at high frequencies can increase tumor growth and cancer. One example is the UV radiation from the Sun and its association with skin cancer, as we've previously mentioned.

Extremely high levels of electromagnetic radiation (EM) exposure can harm you, even at lower frequencies, according to Kenneth Foster, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, who adds, "but we're talking skin burns, not cancer or tumors," he told Time.

Foster collaborated with Moulder on that 2013 study we mentioned earlier. He claims that safety guidelines have been established for all electronics that generate electromagnetic radiation, from phones and microwaves to your car's keyless entry fob, based on our current understanding of radio wave intensities and hazards.

Foster and Moulder, and many other experts in the field, are of the opinion that the exposure you receive from your Wi-Fi router is hundreds of times lower than those safety guidelines. So, while, in theory, high enough doses of exposure could be problematic for your health, the amount you are typically exposed to is far below even the most conservative of limits imposed by safety limits.

It is also important to note that Wi-Fi devices are not constantly pumping out EM radiation. Most of the time, they sit idly by and only operate when sending and receiving data. Their active period can be as low as 0.1 percent of the operating period but can be more when partaking in more data-intensive processes like streaming videos or gaming.

However, these are but a few of the main issues that need to be taken into consideration when considering the safety of Wi-Fi.

Are cellphone towers dangerous?

Here's why the benefits of Wi-Fi outweigh its potential risks
How dangerous are cellphone masts?

Cellphone towers, often referred to as base stations, have been installed throughout communities in increasingly large numbers as a result of the pervasive usage of cellphones in recent years. Radiofrequency (RF) waves are used by the electronic hardware and antennas on these towers to receive and send cellphone signals.

Since cellphone towers are still in their relative infancy, it makes sense that many people are worried about any potential health impacts that the RF waves they emit may have.

However, there is currently little solid proof that being exposed to RF waves from cellphone towers has adverse consequences on one's health. This does not imply that the RF emissions from cellphone towers are completely risk-free, though. The majority of professional organizations concur that additional research is required to assist clarify this, particularly for any potential long-term impacts. There is also some question about 5G, which requires far more cell towers to operate.

But how are individuals exposed to RF waves from cellphone towers?

Well, cellphone base stations can be free-standing towers or fixed to pre-existing objects like tall buildings, trees, or water tanks. To effectively cover a specific area, the antennas need to be placed high enough. Base stations typically range in height from 50 feet (15 meters) to 200 feet (61 meters).

Most of the time, RF waves (a type of energy found in the electromagnetic spectrum between FM radio waves and microwaves) are used by cellphones to communicate with neighboring cell towers. They are types of non-ionizing radiation, just like FM radio waves, microwaves, visible light, and heat. This indicates that they do not directly harm the DNA within cells, as is assumed to be the case with ionizing kinds of radiation such as x-rays, gamma rays, and ultraviolet (UV) rays, as we previously discussed.

However, RF waves do have the capacity to heat bodily tissues to very high levels. However, cellphones and towers consume significantly less energy than would be required to do this.

Here's why the benefits of Wi-Fi outweigh its potential risks
Cellphone masts can expose your to RF radiation.

A signal is delivered from the phone's antenna to the closest base station antenna whenever a cellphone call is placed. This signal causes the base station to reply by allocating an open RF channel to it. The voice data is transmitted to the base station via RF waves. A switching center then routes the call to its intended recipient after receiving the voice signals. Following that, voice signals are passed back and forth throughout the call.

During calls, RF waves produced at the base station are released into the environment where individuals may be exposed to them. These RF waves are then transferred back and forth to the base station.

All is well and good, but what evidence is there that RF is dangerous?

The specific cancer-causing potential of RF waves from cellphone towers has not yet been classified by the IARC or the NTP. However, some other agencies have commented on cell tower safety.

Here's why the benefits of Wi-Fi outweigh its potential risks
Various agencies do no consider cellphone masts a risk to human health.

Regarding cellphone masts near residences or educational institutions, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) stated the following:

“[R]adiofrequency emissions from antennas used for cellular and PCS [personal communications service] transmissions result in exposure levels on the ground that are typically thousands of times below safety limits. Based on the recommendations of professional organizations and with the support of federal government agencies in charge of health and safety, the FCC set these safety limitations. Therefore, there is no justification for thinking that these towers could pose a risk to the health of adjacent inhabitants or pupils."

Regarding RF in general, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified RF radiation as "possibly carcinogenic to humans" based on a review of studies published up until 2011 and insufficient evidence for other types of cancer.

This classification is based on limited evidence of a potential increase in risk for brain tumors among cellphone users.

A technical report was recently released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) based on data from research studies that were published between 2008 and 2018, as well as general trends in cancer incidence. The committee's conclusion was that "there is insufficient evidence to indicate a causal relationship between radiofrequency radiation (RFR) exposure and [tumor growth]" based on the research that was "detailed in this report."

Here's why the benefits of Wi-Fi outweigh its potential risks
For now, it appears cellphone masts are not something to worry about.

In its "Report on Carcinogens," which covers exposures that are known to be or reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens, the National Toxicology Program (NTP) has not yet listed RF radiation.

Does Wi-Fi affect the brain?

In short, we are not entirely sure.

However, numerous scientific research studies do appear to show that Wi-Fi can have negative consequences on human health. By boosting the generation of free radicals, it promotes oxidative stress.

Cellular macromolecules like proteins, lipids, and DNA suffer oxidative damage as a result of increased oxidative stress.

The radio frequency of electromagnetic radiation released by Wi-Fi devices has been shown in certain studies to have an impact on sperm count, motility, and DNA integrity in both humans and animals.

Degenerative damage, reduced testosterone levels, higher rates of cell death, and DNA damage are potential additional alterations in the male reproductive system that can be brought on by elevated testicular temperature and raised oxidative stress levels.

Regarding female reproductive alterations, it has been demonstrated in a study published in 2016 that Wi-Fi exposure can decrease the generation and release of estrogen and progesterone, which can result in decreased reproductive effectiveness and diminished fertility. It is thought that chromosomal alterations, one of the reasons for spontaneous abortion, can also be brought on by exposure to high levels of Wi-Fi.

Studies on the impact of Wi-Fi on animal brain activity have shown that exposure to stress and Wi-Fi radiation both result in the development of anxiety-like behavior; however, memory and spatial learning abilities are unaffected. Enhanced oxidative stress in the cerebral cortex and increased acetylcholinesterase activity are two examples of the biochemical alterations seen in animal brains.

Fascinating and slightly worrying, but Wi-Fi exposure could have other impacts on the human body too. For example, excessive exposure to Wi-Fi may have some deleterious effects on the human brain.

As a result of decreased melatonin release and increased norepinephrine secretion at night, excessive Wi-Fi use has been linked to weariness, sleep deprivation, and disruptions in learning and memory.

The usage of any screen time is connected to these changes as well, so it's not necessarily a consequence of Wi-Fi exposure alone but may also have to do with the light from the screen or the overstimulation caused by screen time. Studies of the usage of Wi-Fi have shown a mixed impact on electroencephalographic recordings of brain activity, with some research reporting no effect and others demonstrating neuropsychiatric alterations.

Here's why the benefits of Wi-Fi outweigh its potential risks
Wi-Fi on the brain.

Intriguingly, a recent study published in the journal National Library of Medicine in 2012 has demonstrated that chronic Wi-Fi radiation exposure can enhance the cognitive abilities of mice with cognitive impairments resembling those caused by Alzheimer's disease.

The radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation released by mobile and cordless phones has not been shown to have any negative effects on young children's emotions or behavior.

However, a higher amount of radiation exposure from mobile phone base stations has been linked to behavioral and emotional issues in young children that are reported by the parents.

Despite a number of preliminary studies on the potentially harmful consequences of Wi-Fi exposure, it is still too early to draw any firm conclusions about potential health risks. The signal intensities employed in the majority of investigations are considerably higher than the levels of actual ambient exposure.

However, the radiofrequency signals produced by local wireless networks and wireless base stations, according to the literature, are weaker than those required by international standards. To accurately assess the consequences of Wi-Fi radiation on the human body, more reliable evidence is therefore required.

Can Wi-Fi cause cancer?

There isn't a conclusive answer to this question as of yet. That’s because there’s no solid evidence suggesting that Wi-Fi, or EMFs in general, directly cause cancer.

EMFs are "possibly carcinogenic to humans," according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organization. Thirty scientists reviewed data on the relationship between EMFs and cancer in order to create the label.

Studies on EMFs and cancer have shown inconsistent results. For instance, a 2017 assessment of the literature found that EMFs from wireless devices can raise the risk of glioma, a particular type of brain tumor. However, a 2018 study found no conclusive link between EMFs and brain tumors.

So, six of one and half a dozen of another.

But where do international safety organizations stand on the issue?

Well, mobile phones are listed as a "possible carcinogen" by the World Health Organization and the International Agency for Research on Cancer. This implies that not enough data is available to determine whether or not they are carcinogens.

A mouse study conducted in 2018 also revealed that prolonged exposure to cellphone radiation raised the incidence of several brain and heart cancers in rats. Increasing amounts of Wi-Fi and cell exposure have been linked to hormonal changes and oxidative stress in rodents, changes that could induce cancer or brain illnesses.

However, it is important to note that the design and quality of many of these animal experiments have been criticized as not being applicable to our species.

For example, several of the most alarming tests used mice that had been exposed to radiation doses many times higher than those that people experience when using wireless networks or mobile phones.

That being said, other experts on the subject claim that the level of radio wave radiation to which people (and children in particular) are exposed now is different, and this gives rise to new worries. We also have scant studies that look at long-term, cumulative exposure and at data for a comprehensive number of wireless networks and devices.

Here's why the benefits of Wi-Fi outweigh its potential risks
A modem router.

So, if you are worried about the potential risks from Wi-Fi, wireless networks can be turned off when not in use, and wireless gadgets can be kept away from your body. Even if any potential health hazards are still hypothetical, disconnecting yourself from the internet every now and again is probably a good idea for your mental health anyway.

How do I block Wi-Fi radiation?

If you are still concerned, despite our attempts to belay any worries you may have around Wi-Fi radiation, there are some things you can do to limit your exposure to it.

The first, and most obvious one, is to either not use it or turn it off when not really needed. This will solve the problem instantly, but you will have to deal with not being connected to the internet 24/7.

In addition, that only blocks Wi-Fi sources under your direct control. For other potential sources, here are some options you could explore.

1. Try to avoid living near cellphone towers

While we've covered cellphone masts/towers above, and you are still concerned about them, one option for you is to choose a home far from a cellphone tower. You don't want to live near a hidden tower like the one above.

Over time, especially with the increasing use of 5G, it will probably become an ever-increasing challenge to move away from them; you can consider moving into the country rather than living in a city. This will significantly, though not completely, reduce your exposure to EM radiation from such structures.

2. Hardwire ethernet in your home

Next, you can consider hardwiring your home with internet lines to reach every room. You can connect smart devices via internet cables instead of wirelessly. If your Wi-Fi router or baby monitor are turned off, they no longer transmit RF or Wi-Fi radiation. This is the most effective approach to removing radiation from household electronics. However, this procedure can be costly and requires devices to be physically connected.

3. Check your smart meters (if you have any)

Several years ago, there was much publicity concerning smart meter dangers. This is because smart meters transmit Wi-Fi radiation too. These meters can emit up to 60,000 micro-watts per meter squared, which is roughly 60 times the U.S. safety limit.

The U.S. safety guideline of up to 1,000 mW/m2 is also 250 times too high, according to many. You should, according to some sources, aim for 3 to 6 micro-watts per square meter.

However, remember that the inverse-square law applies to all Wi-Fi-emitting devices, irrespective of design and use.

And that brings us to the end of this brief discussion on Wi-Fi and its health impacts.

The main takeaways should be: -

  • Wi-Fi is a form of radiation
  • Wi-Fi signals are non-ionizing
  • Wi-Fi signals are mostly incredibly low strength and weaken over distance
  • While there do appear to be risks from high exposure to even non-ionizing radiation, safety levels for Wi-Fi routers are far below the minimum safe threshold

So, if you do have some reservations about the safety of Wi-Fi, we hope we have at least dampened them a little.

While, admittedly, science is not yet completely settled on this topic, the vast majority of evidence does swing more on the side of it being completely safe. Wi-Fi is so weak and non-constant that any exposure you do receive pales in comparison to more serious threats from EM radiation in your life.

So, if you are truly worried about exposure to radiation in your daily life, you'd do better routinely applying sunscreen than ditching your Wi-Fi router. That being said, turning off your router and getting outside for a few hours a day will do you, quite literally, a world of good! 

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