Any new technology can have dangers and side effects that aren't obvious right away. When the U.S. tested the atomic bombs, for example, there wasn't a good understanding of radiation. You had unprotected people watching the tests from far too close. Plus, radioactive glow-in-the-dark watches, pills and other products were also in high demand in the late '40s and '50s.
Over the decades, we've gotten a lot better about checking new technology for side effects, but we can still run into something completely unexpected. For example, texting on smartphones is fast and convenient, but it's causing an epidemic of distracted driving that's killing people. No one really saw that coming.
That brings me to something called Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity. Symptoms can include headaches, fatigue, stress, insomnia, rashes and other skin problems, muscle pain and more.
People who claim to have it, and the numbers are growing, are pointing the finger at one big culprit: Wi-Fi. The Lawson family in Los Angeles, California, for example, started having health problems after their power company installed a Wi-Fi enabled smart meter in their home back in 2012.
The family, which doesn't have any other wireless gadgets in the house, eventually got rid of it and started feeling better. However, the mother, Anura Lawson, started having symptoms again in 2014 when the school she was at installed a Wi-Fi network. She complained and the district turned off the Wi-Fi for her classroom.
So, is this an unforeseen side effect of Wi-Fi or something else?
Just like when we're talking about cellphone signals and cancer, it's helpful to remember that there are two kinds of electromagnetic radiation. Ionizing radiation, which includes ultraviolet light, X-rays and gamma rays, is the dangerous kind that gives you cancer, or can kill you outright in high doses.
Non-ionizing radiation, which includes radio waves, TV signals, microwaves (cell and Wi-Fi signals) and visible light, has very little effect on humans. In high doses, such as in a microwave oven or as a laser, it can burn you, but it isn't going to cause cancer.
However, people who claim to have an electromagnetic hypersensitivity say that microwave radiation is having another effect. They say that when they're near a Wi-Fi network, they get symptoms like headaches, rashes and the others that I mentioned above. One theory is that the radiation is triggering a histamine response, just like a food or environmental allergy.
If that is the case, it's a big problem because it's almost impossible to escape electromagnetic radiation. Wi-Fi networks are everywhere, and Facebook, Google and other companies are working on plans to blanket the entire Earth in Wi-Fi networks.
Unfortunately for people who claim to have Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity, science isn't backing them up quite yet. In a large recent study, 725 people who claim to be sensitive were put through 31 tests by King's College London, and none of them reacted to the presence of electromagnetic fields any differently than non-sensitive people.
There's also the fact that plenty of other technology puts out far stronger signals than a Wi-Fi router. About 20 minutes on an iPhone gives you the same exposure as a year of Wi-Fi. Standing next to a microwave oven exposes you to 100,000 times the radiation of standing next to a Wi-Fi router.
Plus, as with any signal, Wi-Fi gets seriously weaker the further away you stand from the transmitter. This is bad if you're trying to connect a laptop in a distant room of your house, and most people spend time trying to BOOST their signal, but it also means that being even four feet away from your router gives you very little radiation exposure. If you want to see how strong Wi-Fi signals are at any given spot, check out Wi-Fi analyzer for Android or Vistumblr for laptops.
I'm not ready to rule out a health side effect from Wi-Fi. It could be that the two to three people per million who think they have Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity are experiencing something science hasn't spotted yet. However, for the average person, I wouldn't worry about it too much just yet.