Electronics in Our Ecosystem
A Talk by Katie Singer
for Wireless Technology and Public Health:
A Conference Sponsored by the Santa Clara County
Medical Association Alliance Foundation
October 10, 2015
A few billion years ago, before humans created TVs or mobile phones or the Federal Communications Commission, this planet was a mass of gasses, water, dust and rock. The sun heated the water, making clouds. Wind pushed clouds, generating static electricity. After a buildup of charge, lightning began to strike. A bombardment of lightning storms led to nucleic and amino acids, the building blocks of life. Early plants made oxygen and paved the way for animals.
Plants and animals evolved for survival within the Earth’s electro-chemical environment.
Thunderstorms still lead to daily variations in the Earth’s electrically-charged ground.
Studies indicate that land and sea animals as well as insects have an electrical sense. For example, bees are positively charged, and flowers are negatively charged. These charges help pollen stick to bees’ hair while they visit a flower. Bees also use their electrical sense to determine whether or not a flower has recently been visited by another bee–and to decide whether the flower is worth visiting.
To navigate, animals as diverse as migrating geese, sea turtles and wolves use the Earth’s magnetic field. Worms’ brains include a sensor–C. elegans–a microscopic structure at the end of a neuron, It looks like a nano-scale TV antenna, and it helps worms navigate underground. Other animals probably have similar sensors; scientists are still learning how they work.
All human organs, including our brains and hearts, function by electro-chemical signals. Even at rest, all cells have measurable voltage.
In other words, without electromagnetic energy, none of us would be here.
Since human existence began, we have wanted to keep healthy. We are part of a diverse web of life, an ecosystem that provides our food, water and shelter. In 535 A.D., the Romans declared that resources like “the air, running water, the sea and the shores of the sea” should be protected for the benefit of all.
The philosopher David Abrams reports that in many indigenous cultures, when even one person acquires a disease, traditional medicine people aim to restore balance between the village and the living land. “The medicine person’s primary allegiance is not to the villagers, but to the earthly web of relations in which that community is embedded.”
Early humans learned that health requires periodic rest. A rabbi once told me that by honoring the Sabbath, the other nine Commandments take care of themselves. Shabbat means “not to interfere with nature.” You’ve got to rest on Shabbat. You can’t work. You can’t light a fire, touch money, answer a phone or turn on an electric switch.
Many cultures encourage quieting the mind. They encourage us to collaborate with nature, not to control it–since we are nature, and nature is part of us. We learn which plants can heal and which can poison. We recognize that excesses of anything can harm. High doses of electrical energy–like from lightning or an electric chair–can harm or kill; and we act protectively around such power.
On observing an illness, the ancient Greeks clarified that the physician’s mandate is to First, do no harm.
The herbalist Susun Weed writes that traditionally, symptoms of disease are “not enemies to be destroyed. They’re cherished messengers who encourage us to take good care of ourselves.”
In 1998, scientists, farmers and breast cancer action groups created the Precautionary Principle, which advocates not waiting for absolute proof of a given product’s dangers. People may assume that a product is safe when it does not cause immediate, noticable adverse reactions. However, pesticides, asbestos, cigarettes, pharmaceuticals and electronics can cause harm when used over time or in combination. To act in a precautionary way, if there’s a reasonable suspicion of a product’s dangers and safer alternatives are available, just don’t use the suspicious product.
With clear guidelines for health and respect for nature, most species, including humanity, survived. We had problems, of course. We harvested some plants and hunted some animals to extinction or near extinction. We overfished. Sometimes, we raped and enslaved each other; we pillaged land. We sometimes had more children than we could properly nourish. And still, until the 20th century, most ecosystems kept relatively stable.
Besides wanting health, we humans have wanted to control electromagnetic energy. The ancient Greeks figured out how to generate electricity, but not how to store or transmit it. Around 1800, the observation that frog legs twitch in response to an electrical impulse led to the creation of electro-chemical battery storage.
By 1840, we could transmit electric signals over telegraph wire.
By 1844, we had the electromagnet and fired up the industrial revolution. By 1880, we could transmit electric power over long distances. We transitioned from visible, mechanical technologies powered by horse and mule and human muscle, then steam and hydropower, to electromagnetic technologies, whose power is mostly invisible.
We built power plants, powerlines, transformers and motors. We electrified lights. We electrified tools for cooking, washing clothes, diagnosing and treating illness; for transporting goods; for constructing roads and buildings; for communicating, entertaining and educating. We transmitted talk, music and sitcoms over radio waves. We electrified everything. Our lives became easier, and we began to believe that we had control of nature.
By 2015, about 135 years after we began laying out an electric power grid, we have nearly saturated our environment with electromagnetic fields at frequencies and amplitudes that do not exist in nature. We’ve changed the Earth’s electromagnetic environment significantly. Most of this change comes from our electric power grid, from radio and TV broadcasting antennas, and, more recently, from cell phones, cellular antennas and Wi-Fi.
Electronics require electricity. Electricity requires natural resources. And so, to keep electronics going, we extract the Earth’s natural resources.
In 1971, in Limits to Growth, climatologist Dennis Meadows warned that if we didn’t immediately and drastically curtail our use of natural resources, we could expect significant increases in drought, famine, floods and war. Most folks didn’t heed the warning. We grew our population with expectations of comfort. Corporations offered us more cars, TVs, stereos, microwave ovens and air conditioners, and we bought them. We bought food processed in factories and lost the know-how and capability to grow, hunt and preserve our own food.
In the last few decades, plants and animals have gone extinct at alarming speed. Forests have died. Soil has become acidic and infertile. Oceans have become acidic and, in some places, lifeless. And since industrialization began, humans have acquired diseases rarely seen before: Alzheimer’s, autism, diabetes, cancer, infertility, insomnia.
Let’s call “First, do no harm” and “Rest every seven days” two examples of traditional practices that discourage excess and harm. What modern regulations accompanied the introduction of electronics to our ecosystems? Let’s start in 1934, when Congress established the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC encouraged us to invent and market electronics–as long as they don’t create “harmful interference.” The engineers defined harmful interference as anything that interferes with existing radio or TV broadcasts. The definition now includes interference with cellular or Internet services. It has never included biological harm.
In 1969, inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which illuminated the hazards of pesticides, Congress established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Quickly, a division formed to study the effects of EMR exposure on health and wildlife. By the late ’80s, this division employed 36 full-time people. The EPA is still authorized to study EMR exposure’s effects on health and the environment. Since 1995, Congress has allotted this division a budget of zero.
Likewise, the Food and Drug Administration has the authority to regulate EMR emissions from powerlines, electric clock-radios and all other electronics. But Congress gives the FDA no budget to do so.
In 1996, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act. Its Section 704 prohibits municipalities from considering health or environmental concerns whenever a telecom corporation requests a permit to install a cell tower.
Few of us noticed these laws, which effectively ban self-governance regarding telecommunications and ban consideration of the public health or our environment. Corporations deployed cell towers and broadband wireless infrastructure. They offered us computers, then mobile phones, then tablets and watches–and we bought them. Intimate with virtual reality, we came to believe that we cannot function without electronics.
How do wildlife respond to exposure to electromagnetic radiation–EMR–emitted by electronics?
Exposure to man-made electromagnetic radiation can increase or decrease growth rates of plants and fungi. Exposure to RF signals can induce plants to produce more layers of growth, affect root cell structure, and induce stress response, causing biochemical changes.
British biologist Dr. Andrew Goldsworthy reports, “Trees are now dying mysteriously from a variety of diseases in urban areas all over Europe. Many have cancer-like growths under the bark. The bark may also split so that the underlying tissues become infected. These conditions can be explained as a result of exposure to lower RF fields from mobile phones, their base stations, Wi-Fi and similar sources of lower-level, non-ionizing radiation.”
In the Netherlands, in 2005, 10% of urban ash trees had radiation sickness, including a “lead-like shine” on their leaves, indicating the leaves’ oncoming death. By 2010, 70% of ash trees suffered radiation sickness.
Also in 2010, Spanish biologist Alfonso Balmori studied a common frog habitat 140 meters–about 450 feet–from a cell tower. He placed metal screens–shields–around some frogs. Two months later (frogs require two months to develop from the egg phase to the advanced stage of tadpole), the shielded frogs had a mortality of 4.2%. The unshielded frogs had a mortality of 90%.
Balmori also studied the white stork, a bird species that often lives in urban areas. He found that 40% of white stork nests within 200 meters of cellular antennas had no chicks, while only 3.3% of nests further than 300 meters from antennas had no chicks. Also, near antennas, white stork pairs frequently fought for sticks. Their sticks fell to the ground while they tried to build nests, the nests did not get built, and hatched white stork chicks frequently died.
When Swedish researchers exposed an ant colony to a mobile phone on standby, the ants left their nest immediately, took their eggs, larvae and nymphs and relocated far from the phone. Once the phone was removed, the ants returned to their original location. After 30 minutes of exposure to a Wi-Fi router, ants changed speed and foraging behavior. It took six to eight hours to resume normal foraging. Several ants never recovered and were found dead a few days later.
German scientist Ulrich Warnke reports that after cellular antennas were erected near beehives, longtime beekeepers observed “pronounced restlessness” and “a greatly increased urge to swarm” in their bee colonies. After nearby antennas went live, 65% of bee colonies abandoned their hives. GMOs, pesticides and monocultures likely also play roles in colony collapse. But ill bees typically die in or near their hives. In most cases of colony collapse, no ill or dead bees are found.
To help them navigate, bees and other creatures use cryptochromes, magnetically sensitive proteins in their eyes. Cryptochromes can sense the Earth’s magnetic fields. Exposure to EMR emitted by cell towers disrupts cryptochrome-based navigation.
Exposure to lower-level EMFs disrupts birds’ ability to navigate. Within grounded Faraday shielding, birds recover their navigational abilities.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that up to 6.8 million birds die per year in collisions with communications antennas or their guy-support wires in North America. In 2014, the Department of the Interior challenged the FCC, because it allows cell towers to emit more EMR than the Fish & Wildlife Service considers safe–and because these emissions kill migratory birds.
Ordinary citizens have also observed EMR exposure’s effects on birds: in Renton, Washington, a retired civil engineer observed that after wireless water meters were installed in his neighborhood, in 2012, the birdfeeder in his yard stayed full. This man had spent $30 per month on birdseed for years. His neighbors also noticed that after the transmitting water meters were installed, birds that had frequented their yard–which is beside a greenbelt–disappeared.
Since the operation of a mobile phone requires cell towers just about everywhere, and cellular antennas appear to harm wildlife, we might conclude that using a mobile phone threatens our ecosystem’s biodiversity.
We should also consider electronics’ use of energy, and, thereby, their effect on climate change. My talk today is being recorded on an iPhone and delivered by way of the world wide web. The Internet requires data storage; and storage requires data centers. Data centers require air conditioning. Air conditioning requires electricity and water. According to Greenpeace, if data centers were a country, they’d rank fifth in use of energy. In 2012, the NY Times reported that data centers require the equivalent of 30 nuclear power plants. Community rights leader Jane Anne Morris estimated, in 2012, that if eight billion people would pedal for six hours per day, we could power the Internet by bike generators.
Of course, this info about data centers says nothing of each user’s mobile phone or computer–the tin, lithium, coltan and other raw materials required to manufacture them; the energy required to ship, charge, operate and discard them.
We do have one federal agency stepping up to the plate. In 2014, in response to FirstNet, a nationwide broadcast system for first responders, US Fish and Wildlife recommended that the system comply with its guidelines and address potential impacts on birds from non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation emitted by FirstNet’s antennas. Essentially, Fish & Wildlife asserted that antenna placement affects bird habitat and migration. The agency has standards that protect birds. FirstNet conflicts with Fish & Wildlife’s standards.
We also have a promising lawsuit on behalf of children’s rights to a healthy ecosystem: the Atmospheric Trust Litigation, Brought about by U.S. youth, this campaign aims to force emissions reductions within the limited time remaining before the planet crosses critical climate thresholds. It aims to protect the Earth for children’s future.
Health and sustainability still require respecting nature’s messages and honoring our limitations. The idea that we can do anything we want because we have the will or the technology violates that dictum to First, do no harm.
We need to acknowledge that we’ve gained electronic conveniences at the cost of wildlife health and natural resources. I am so humbled by our situation, by my own dependence on telecom and utility corporations, by the question what’s the precautionary way to proceed?
We could pause.
We could respect each other as we struggle to recognize our behaviors’ impacts on our ecosystem and our own health.
We can research the health and environmental effects of a device we want, and go with the safest alternative. We can turn Wi-Fi off while we sleep. We can get cabled Internet access. We can ban the use of mobile devices in our own cars.
Say we agree that we need to reduce our exposure to EMR, our screen-time and our energy use. We can use electronics less. But people usually report that much as they try, resolve to reduce doesn’t last more than a day.
Cultural change takes place in groups of seven. What if neighbors, parents and colleagues formed support groups around Toril Jelter’s protocol or Victoria Dunckley’s electronic fast? Would that make efforts to reduce exposure and energy use, to improve our own health and ecosystem health more effective? Surely we won’t see significant change if only one household reduces its wireless use.
Neighbors might also get their public library to buy meters to measure magnetic and radiofrequency fields and to offer workshops about using them. A wiring error can expose a park or backyard to AC magnetic fields; the first step in canceling such electromagnetic radiation is detecting it.
We can self-regulate as much as possible while we encourage Congress to fund the EPA and the FDA to bring regulations up to date with the pace of invention.
If you turn your Wi-Fi off at night and get cabled Internet access, I’d call that a small step for your family–and a giant one for our species.
Is anyone here open to forming an alliance with six others who aim to reduce EMR exposure, screen-time and energy use?
Would you stand up?