The Island of Doubt

Can WiFi shake up your molecules?

The good news from the Bay of Fundy is that the world’s largest tides may soon be generating electricity. The bad news is there’s at least one Globe and Mail copy editor who doesn’t know the difference between waves and tides.

But that’s not the most amusing news from the region. For that, we turn to Kings County, where the local authorities have decided to deny approval to install a WiFi tower because a garlic farmer is worried about the damage it will do to his crops. According to the CBC:

Lenny Levine, who has been planting and harvesting garlic by hand on his Annapolis Valley land since the 1970s, is afraid his organic crop could be irradiated if EastLink builds a microwave tower for wireless high-speed internet access a few hundred metres from his farm.

“I think over a period of time it will change the DNA of the garlic because it shakes up the molecules,” he said Tuesday.

EastLink uses microwave transmission to provide high-speed internet access to rural areas outside its wired network.

Levine said he moved to the country to get away from pollution, and he sees the radiation from the towers as another form of pollution.

“I view it with dread, fear and panic,” he said. “I don’t want to grow food under those conditions.”

Levine may have some pull on the Kings County Council, but the victory for pseudoscience will be short-lived as “a petition in support of the high speed internet tower was signed by the majority of householders in the area.” In addition, the council’s decision can be overturned by the federal government. Phew.

But in the meantime, “the people of Victoria Harbour are stuck with dial-up internet.”

So sad. And in case anyone would like to understand just why Mr. Levine’s concerns are unfounded, one of my more knowledgeable colleagues at ScienceBlogs has made it easy to understand. Read The “Built on Facts” explanation here.

Comments

  1. #1 Gerry
    September 16, 2009

    Doesn’t surprise me. Nova Scotia seems to have a huge number of ignorant stupid people. In Digby county, they tried to stop any and all windmills.

  2. #2 Alex M
    September 16, 2009

    Sorry Gerry I think your calling the kettle black.
    In the case of digby’s wind-TURBINE, common sense won and the “smart” people built a wind turbine.
    Plus one who is educated in wind power would know all the environmental effects as well as the effects it has on people who live near them.
    I believe all the pros and cons were voiced and a well informed decision was made,the “ignorant stupid people” of digby ns had nothing to do with that.
    Truth is we don’t know everything about microwave effects on garlic DNA.
    If a local farmer who has been around for longer then the Internet is afraid of wifi the rest of us should respect that regardless of what you less ignorant and stupid people think.

  3. #3 Gerry
    September 16, 2009

    Since microwaves have been produced on this continent for about 70 years at levels far higher than WiFi systems, I would think that there would be very obvious evidence of DNA damage in any organism. If DNA was that unstable, the electromagnetic radiation in any one of our homes would have killed us all a long time ago.

    The damage done by coal fired power plants exceeds by a long shot the damage done by windmills. If we do not stop putting CO2 in the air, a very large proportion of all living beings will become extinct. I really don’t think that the trivial arguments of not in my back yarders is in any way relevant. One of the residents was complaining about possible noise from these windmills while sitting on a Harley with straight pipes making its famous LOUD POTATO POTATO sound.

  4. #4 qetzal
    September 16, 2009

    Truth is we don’t know everything about microwave effects on garlic DNA.

    If a local farmer who has been around for longer then the Internet is afraid of wifi the rest of us should respect that regardless of what you less ignorant and stupid people think.

    Wrong. If the farmer thinks the microwaves will scare away the magical garlic pixies that make his crop grow, should we respect that too? What if he doesn’t want black people living near him ’cause he thinks their presence will contaminate his garlic’s aura?

    Not all beliefs should be respected or catered to.

  5. #5 Aaron Rury
    September 16, 2009

    The important aspect of this discussion missed so far is the density of photons.

    Microwaves are very bad for you if the field density is high enough. I think the threshold for such a field density is hard to quantify right now since such an experiment is ethically questionable to perform on humans. But one has to wonder what a high density of microwave field lines does to living things, especially living things that are exposed to them constantly.

    Nothing in one’s household would give off nearly as many microwave photons as a WIFI transmitter given proper safety precautions, as I think was assumed in the earlier comments. Therefore, the comparison of such a tower with household items seems rather irrelevant if not totally misguided. But I think it’s even more shortsighted to claim that because no direct link, as of yet, has been found between such transmission towers and problems in food that this person is unfounded in his desire to not have the thing close to his property. The idea that we know enough about such interactions to charge someone with conflating not knowing enough with not knowing 100%, however, just goes to show you how truly ignorant some people can be. I’m always reminded of a great quote by Thomas Edison.

    ‘We don’t know one millionth of one percent about anything.’

    It’s important to take a step back and think about these things longer before throwing people into boxes marked ‘smart’ or ‘not-smart’ based on your own agenda or ideals. It’s better to let others think you a fool than to open your mouth and confirm it.

  6. #6 <>
    September 16, 2009

    Microwaves are very bad for you if the field density is high enough.

    Yeah, they cook you. If he were worried about his garlic getting cooked he might have a better case.

    They already use ionizing radiation and chemical mutagens in “conventional” “organic” crop breeding. (It’s arguably not “conventional” because it’s a 20th century technique, but it’s considered a conventional (i.e. not using recombinant DNA techniques) breeding technique. Cultivars developed using such breeding methods are considered organic, or at least, having been developed by breeding using induced mutagenesis does not disqaulify an organism from being considered “organic”.) Maybe, if he really thinks it’s going to be altering the DNA, he should look on it as free breeding assistance, and organic at that.

  7. #7 Gerry
    September 16, 2009

    to Aaron @5
    May I invite you to read this article?
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/02/070208193301.htm
    Schoelkopf. “A single microwave photon is quite large, extending over one centimeter in length, and yet has one hundred thousand times less energy than even a visible photon.”
    It seems to me that a microwave photon would be much much to large to interact with any DNA.
    Any radiation that would be emitted by the transmitter would be attenuated as to the square of the distance. We don’t need to go as far as actually damaging anyone to establish safe limits.
    I have worked with electronics equipment all my life.I am now retired and I can tell you that even though I have been exposed to large amounts of electro-magnetic radiation, I am still healthy.;)

  8. #8 Tony P
    September 16, 2009

    Obviously Levine hasn’t heard of the inverse square law of RF power. E.g. the power falls off at the square of the distance.

    And he should be concerned with all the cell traffic, cordless phone traffic, and even broadcast radio and television.

  9. #9 qetzal
    September 16, 2009

    It’s important to take a step back and think about these things longer before throwing people into boxes marked ‘smart’ or ‘not-smart’ based on your own agenda or ideals. It’s better to let others think you a fool than to open your mouth and confirm it.

    Are you familiar with the literature on this topic? The literature that has frequently found no mutagenic effect of low power (i.e. non-thermal) exposure to high frequency radiation? Of course, there was the REFLEX study, which claimed to show DNA damage from 1.8 GHz radiation. Unfortunately, that was later shown to be completely unreproducible, and may even have been fraudulent.

    If there were no data on the effects of low power MW on DNA, you might have a point. But since there IS data, maybe you’re the one who needs to step back and re-think.

  10. #10 Dunc
    September 17, 2009

    Nothing in one’s household would give off nearly as many microwave photons as a WIFI transmitter given proper safety precautions, as I think was assumed in the earlier comments.

    Maybe not, but a typical TV transmitter is several orders of magnitude more powerful, and back in the days of black and white, they operated in exactly the same band as modern WiFi systems. They’ve been in operation for decades, and nobody has noticed any problems.

    The irony of this was illustrated when the BBC ran a terrible scaremongering documentary about home WiFi, without bothering to mention that they’d operated Crystal Palace tower blasting out 20 kW in that band in the middle of London for over 60 years.

  11. #11 Aaron Rury
    September 17, 2009

    Gerry,

    I think you’re confused about photons and their relationship to interactions with light. In the dipole limit, which is certainly valid with microwaves, the wavelength is not what causes the interaction. It’s the polarization of the electric field that drives the vast majority of such an interaction. Therefore pointing out that the wavelength is bigger than the size of a DNA molecule is neither here nor there. A sodium atom is infinitely smaller than yellow light, yet there is still an interaction. If there weren’t an interaction street lights wouldn’t work.

    qetzal,

    can you provide some citations maybe if you’re going to start citing some studies? Furthermore, were the studies done in live cells? Were they done in live organisms? I know from my own experience studying biochemical spectroscopy that in most cases these studies are done on the ensemble of DNA or other molecules in solution outside of a cell or even a micelle. How do such results translate to live organisms?

    Even more than that, several hundred studies have shown that plants are highly sensitive to radiation and even sound vibrations around them. Does it always make them die? Of course not, but there are an entire spectrum of bad outcomes for this farmer that may not stem from the outright death or genetic mutation of his crop. Maybe the garlic will taste differently or cook differently and loyal customers will look elsewhere for their seasoning needs. He may be mistaken to think make a direct connection between microwaves and DNA, but I doubt he is that far off with his concern over the tower itself.

    Still more discomforting is the idea that a handful of studies can close the book on something as complicated cell and organism reaction to higher than normal amounts of microwave radiation. There are several time scales involved and we have barely scratched the surface in the molecular physics community to say that we understand all the interactions between molecules like DNA and radiation and the effects of all such interactions. If you want to think you’ve got it figured out, that’s great. Good luck to you. But it still doesn’t make this guy’s concerns unfounded.

  12. #12 Matt Springer
    September 17, 2009

    Aaron, the issue isn’t the physical extent of the wavelength, it’s the associated energy. That energy is way, way, below the dissociation energy of the atoms in the DNA molecules. It’s not physically capable of causing any effect other than thermal ones. And it’s pretty easy to demosntrate that the thermal effect is going to be immeasurably slight unless he’s physically growing a potted plant right on the transmitter. Maybe not even then.

  13. #13 qetzal
    September 17, 2009

    Aaron Ruby asked:

    qetzal,

    can you provide some citations maybe if you’re going to start citing some studies? Furthermore, were the studies done in live cells? Were they done in live organisms?

    Most of the studies I’ve seen have been done in live cells or live animals. Here’s one review that concludes “The weight of evidence available indicates that, for a variety of frequencies and modulations with both short and long exposure times, at exposure levels that do not (or in some instances do) heat the biological sample such that there is a measurable increase in temperature, RF exposure does not induce (a). DNA strand breaks, (b). chromosome aberrations, (c). sister chromatid exchanges (SCEs), (d). DNA repair synthesis, (e). phenotypic mutation, or (f). transformation (cancer-like changes).” Here’s another review that finds “Overall, however, the preponderance of published epidemiologic and experimental findings do not support the supposition that in vivo or in vitro exposures to such fields are carcinogenic.” Here’s a study in pregnant mice that found that the “Quality of mutation assessed by sequencing the nucleotides of mutant DNAs revealed no appreciable difference between exposed and non-exposed samples.”

    Aaron also wrote:

    Even more than that, several hundred studies have shown that plants are highly sensitive to radiation and even sound vibrations around them. Does it always make them die? Of course not, but there are an entire spectrum of bad outcomes for this farmer that may not stem from the outright death or genetic mutation of his crop. Maybe the garlic will taste differently or cook differently and loyal customers will look elsewhere for their seasoning needs. He may be mistaken to think make a direct connection between microwaves and DNA, but I doubt he is that far off with his concern over the tower itself.

    You were saying something about providing citations? Do you have any that support your claim that the tower will do *anything* bad to the garlic? Maybe the garlic will taste better and the farmer will get rich. Why is it always assumed that any effects must be negative?

    If you want to think you’ve got it figured out, that’s great. Good luck to you. But it still doesn’t make this guy’s concerns unfounded.

    Again with the whole “we don’t know everything” argument. The point is that people have LOOKED for evidence that MW radiation causes DNA damage. The weight of considerable evidence says that IT DOESN’T. (So long as you’re not heating things up, of course.)

    In other words, the guy’s concerns are unfounded. And, unless you have some relevant data to support your spectrum of bad outcomes, yours are too.

  14. #14 Gerry
    September 17, 2009

    Aaron @ 11

    I suggest that you do some research into how light is produced in gas discharge lamps.

    Studies may indicate precisely what levels of electro-magnetic radiation would affect cells or DNA but our use of high level microwave radiation would have certainly shown any interaction in the last 70 yrs or so.

    This guy’s concern is unfounded!

  15. #15 Michael Varney
    September 19, 2009

    @Aaron

    “‘We don’t know one millionth of one percent about anything.””

    *sigh*

    You quote your betters, arguing using proof by authority.(1)

    It always seems that people like yourself can always fall back on the “we don’t know with 100% certainty” when their ignorant and alarmist views are crushed by empirical evidence.

    People like you will spout off on how “science can never prove anything”, like that is a weakness of science or something.(2,3)

    However, alarmist views based on ignorance and pseudo science are far weaker than the implied “weakness” of science. Heck, alarmist views cannot even be used to predict anything other than the probability of ignorance of the person who spreads them, and perhaps the gullibility quotient of those who believe them.

    Save yourself Aaron! Keep your discussions based in science, show some math and some physical reasoning. Then you may retain any credibility you lose by falling back on the “we don’t know for certain” argument.

    Oh, and to forestall the response I just “know” is brewing in your head; I will resort to science in my replies to you when you have “saved” yourself.

    =)

    1. http://jwilson.coe.uga.edu/EMT668/EMAT6680.F99/Challen/proof/proof.html

    2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_method

    3. http://www.cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/notebooks/scientific-method.html

  16. #16 Michael Varney
    September 19, 2009

    @ Alex M

    I am always curious why people like yourself say we should respect a persons ignorant opinion simply because they have been around a long time.

    Reminds me of a story about a driver, and older gentleman (86 I believe), who ran down 3 Hispanic people crossing legally at a red light in Sun City Arizona.

    He claimed that he had been driving longer than there had been roads in that part of town, much less the recently installed red light, so he was not to blame for running down those “wetbacks”.

    Oh yes… lets respect his opinion since he is older than the dirt used to bury those “wetbacks.”

    It is true that everyone has the right to have an opinion, and to voice their opinion (regardless of what the PC police will have you believe), but it sure as heck is not true that we have to respect those opinions.

    See the logic there Alex? Humm?

  17. #17 Alex M
    September 19, 2009

    @ Michael Varney
    How is that a fair comparison?
    running people over vs a farmer
    afraid of technology? get real.
    I was simply pointing out calling this farmer ignorant and stupid for being uninformed was wrong and offending.
    ignorant maybe, but “stupid is as stupid does.”
    -To Gerry- I am 100% for wind turbines and agree with you on that.

    PS what is with all the racial references in peoples comments?

  18. #18 Michael Varney
    September 20, 2009

    @ Alex M

    “If a local farmer who has been around for longer then the Internet is afraid of wifi the rest of us should respect that regardless of what you less ignorant and stupid people think.”

    The farmer acted out of ignorance. You defended his ignorance based on how long he had been farming, and said we should respect his opinion based on the criteria you used in his defense.
    You based your defense of his position on the length he has been farming. This is a weak argument, and reductio ad absurdum works rather well to negate it in this case.
    And, I see you now can see the absurdity of your argument. ;)

    “I was simply pointing out calling this farmer ignorant and stupid for being uninformed was wrong and offending.”

    Calling someone ignorant should not be offensive, if both parties realize that ignorance is curable. Ignorance is a lack of knowledge, or understanding.
    Calling someone ignorant is not wrong if it is an apt description of their state of knowledge.

    Calling someone stupid can be offensive… and that is often the point.
    Calling someone stupid is not wrong if it is an apt description.

    To reiterate, I am under no obligation to respect anyone opinion, for any reason. Heck, I can use any weird ass reason for not respecting someones opinion.

    And finally, about race… sorry… I guess to be politically correct, I have to remove all references to race in the story? Oh, wait… your offense was taken because of a knee jerk reaction to the terminology, not the context, or the lesson. You seem to take offense on other peoples behalf due to social buttons being pressed, not for any real reason.

    You sir, are professionally indignant.

  19. #19 Alex M
    September 21, 2009

    Your obviously an intelligent person so I find it difficult to understand why your taking such a stance on the topic.
    I did take offence to the remark made by gerry.
    I work in the energy industry (preferring to stay on the green and sustainable side) near Digby Nova Scotia so I’m no stranger to green collars everyday piss offs regarding people who stand in the way of human progress and gerrys reasons for making his/her first comment.
    The challenge is finding a middle ground where all parties are happy and our lives get easier.
    The (not in my back yard!) people like the farmer in question have a voice, instead of thinking and calling them ignorant and stupid it is important to consider their beliefs and RESPECT their choices and values.

    Mr Michael Varney I to become very frustrated with such people and if the tone of the article wasn’t sarcastic and biased against the farmer I would agree with most of what you said but in my own opinion name calling and sarcasm is uncalled for and to me seems to take away from your own intelligence.
    your polar extreme opinion against the elderly
    has me baffled.

    As for “You sir, are professionally indignant.”
    normally no I’m not but I see this argument played out in real life and thought I would jump in.
    The greater good is not served when both sides are ignorant to each other and acting stupid.
    With out whipping open your thesaurus and dictionary ,picking me apart sentence by sentence please address the intent and whole context of what I’m saying if you want to compare my point against yours.
    But don’t waste my time by stating that you have the right to not respect who ever you want, I’m aware of your rights, I’m aware I used sarcasm in early comments to get my point across so don’t bother with that.

    I would like to be less ignorant to your reasoning. Explain to me how you defend such behavior while remaining less ignorant and stupid then the farmer.?

    Is that a fair challenge?

  20. #20 Alex M
    September 21, 2009

    PS still wondering about the comparison.

    (running people over vs a farmer
    afraid of technology)
    Could you fill in the blanks on that one.

  21. #21 Gerry
    September 21, 2009

    Alex @19&20

    First – my view on the comparison- Just because one is old does not imply wisdom or knowledge – stupid is stupid no matter how old.

    Second – I don’t mind having discussions with relatively open minded people who can exchange ideas but I have found that people like the anti-windmill crowd in Digby county have their mind made up and have the attitude of don’t bother me with facts. If you have found a way to communicate with these persons, pls let me know. No matter where you may try to site windmills or anything else, you will find a certain number of “contrarians?” who will oppose whatever is being proposed for any number of illogical reasons. At what point do we stop taking notice of them? Do we have a duty to acknowledge all and any crackpot idea that comes along?
    I can be certain that the individuals who are trying to stop the windmills will never be convinced by any argument and will continue to try to stop you.

  22. #22 Gerry
    September 21, 2009

    PS
    And they will become “victims” if you win.

  23. #23 Michael Varney
    October 1, 2009

    @Gerry,

    LOL! Squeaky wheels and all that… they always get noticed.

    Speaking of illogical, I friend of mine working on mini wave energy generation buoys had his company refused a permit to test 100 of their generation buoys because a few people thought that the wave height would be reduced in the bay, and that would affect some tidal pools etc.

    Even after showing math, and how much energy would be drained from the waves in the bay, and that the wave height change induced would not even be measurable by any conceivable instrument, the city board still denied the permit.*

    Some people like to complain simply because they are Luddites. =)

    *(Names not used, locations not named to protect… the environment… the um… innocent?)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wave_power

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