A brief history of radio-phobia: new technology is always met with fear and uncertainty Sean Slater The Skeptic

In September 2019, I and few colleagues from Edinburgh Skeptics attended a lecture given by Ian M. Crane in a city centre hotel. Crane – who sadly died in early 2021 – gave a talk about the dangers of 5G and drew in several common conspiratorial tropes such as the New World Order, 9/11 truth, EU/US globalism and various others we’ve all come across over the years as skeptics.                

Obviously, this was pre-Covid and it took that pandemic to bring the alleged dangers of 5G to the wider public. I’ve written about the disingenuousness of these claims elsewhere, so there’s no need to go into these right now, but just as 5G fears were around before they became popular, so fears of Electro Magnetic Frequency radiation have been around for far longer than mobile phones have existed. Indeed, much of the scaremongering goes back to the early days of their discovery.

A quick history lesson: the ancient Greeks knew about the strange effects on hairs when a piece of amber that had been rubbed on fur was held close. Seafarers around the world came to realise that some metals, when suspended, seem to point in a consistent direction. Eventually scientists such as Volta, Galvani, Ampere, Ohm, Hertz, Faraday, and Maxwell started to measure and work out what was going on, in the process lending their names to the science of radio waves – initially called Hertzian waves. It was soon realised that electricity, magnetism, and the radiation produced, were all part of the same system.

In 1888, Hertz transmitted and received electromagnetic waves over a short distance and within a few years, the first practical applications were developed in communications – albeit over relatively short distances.

In 1895, Roentegan discovered X-rays and within months, it was being used in a clinical setting, given the obvious practical ability to see bone structures within the body. However, the necessary huge exposure times caused burning and damage to the patients. There was an understanding that these waves could be extremely harmful.

The first real medical applications in the early years of the 20th century were accompanied by fears from both the public and other clinicians. The Los Angeles Daily Times in 1903 reported on a conference in a local hotel where demonstrations of:

Electro-Theraputics, X-Rays, and high frequency currents [which were] handled without insulation […] showing the value of the different forms of electrical energy in medical science.

However, the newspaper also reported that: “There were papers on ‘Radio-Phobia and radio-mania’” being presented. Clearly within a few years of the new science the public were expressing fears of the changes being wrought. Despite these fears, radiology, X-Rays and other innovations soon became commonplace in medical settings around the world.

Once Marie Curie had discovered that certain naturally occurring elements also emit radiation the public became excited by the possibilities. So much so that by the 1930’s they could buy radium infused chocolate, Cold weather clothing, cigarettes and even condoms and suppositories (although, to be fair most did not actually contain radium, they nevertheless used the name as a short-cut for glowing health).

Communication by radio became so all-encompassing to the modern world in the post war period that there was very little pushback by the general public. However, this was about to change. In 1972 the US government supported plans to stretch high-voltage transmission lines across 476 farms in rural Minnesota to meet the demands for more and more electric power in the mid-west. The farmers believed, with some justification, that their rights were being trampled on by politicians in league with big business and looked around for reasons why they did not want massive steel structures across their valuable farming land other than just because. One of these reasons was supposed dangers from electric currents and the radiation emitted by high-power transmission lines on their families and livestock living under the path of the wires.

The publicity of this cause made sure these fears soon spread among the public and by the 1980’s academics began to study what they believed were the adverse effects of living under power lines. Epidemiologist David Savitz published a 1988 paper on a childhood cancer cluster in Denver, Colorado and concluded that there was a link – though he has since gone back on this – which became the foundation of the EMF pylon scares of the 80’s and 90’s.

In November 1992, Florida businessman David Reynard appeared on the popular Larry King Live TV show talking about his late wife Suzy’s death from a rare brain tumour that he believed was caused by her heavy mobile phone use. “She had a tumour the size of a golf ball right here on the side of her head which is where the antenna would go when you’re using the phone,” Reynard said.

He sued the phone maker – NEC – in an infamous court case but was unsuccessful. However, the adverse publicity and widespread reporting of the case caused the industry to do more studies and to bring in stricter safety protocols around the radio emissions from cellphones. For a while, it looked like these scare stories would strangle the booming mobile industry. Since then, manufacturers must perform tests on what is called the Specific Absorption Rate demonstrating that their phones are within the limits set by the authorities.  

This has not stopped similar fears being made about Smartmeters, WiFi, LED lights, Bluetooth and a host of other wireless enabled devices. Usually from companies willing to sell you the ‘solution’.

Mobile phones have been more or less ubiquitous for over 30 years and radio waves have been understood, measured and controlled for well over a 100 years. It is clear that there is no widespread adverse affect of the technology on human health, if there was it would have shown itself by now. As each generation of mobile technology comes out, as each new device using wireless technology is used, so campaigners hi-jack these changes to sow fears among the wider public. The science of Electro Magnetic Frequency radiation is extremely well understood, and their use is not going away anytime soon.

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We might think of anti-5G fears as a new phenomenon, but cutting edge technology has always been met with irrational concerns
The post A brief history of radio-phobia: new technology is always met with fear and uncertainty appeared first on The Skeptic.