WASHINGTON - It's hard to imagine what life was like before cell phones and their necessary towers dotted the landscape from coast to coast. But an increasing body of research calls into question the safety of the electromagnetic radiation generated by power lines, Wi-Fi, cellular technology and broadcast transmissions - not only for people, but for wildlife.
A review body funded by the European Union concludes that radiation poses a potential risk to insect, bird and plant health. "The ways that the frequencies move through the air are not natural," says Theodora Scarato, executive director of Environmental Health Trust. "They are manmade, and they're different than what we've had on the earth. They're not the same as sunlight, or other electromagnetic fields that animals have been exposed to, for forever." Scarato says scientists are even more concerned about the increased use and implementation of 5G technology, which offers greater bandwidth for data on mobile devices, but requires placement of additional and more frequent transmitters across the country. Scarato adds at least 20 nations have crafted recommendations to reduce people's exposure to cellular signals, citing radiation risks.
Buglife is an EU-based charity that advocates for the life of insects and other invertebrates. And its chief executive, Matt Shardlow, says there is plenty of research raising concerns about the safety of communication towers, but there is little regulation. "What we're calling for, really for the moment, is that when we're looking at new sources of electromagnetic radiation, or introducing higher levels of electromagnetic radiation, that we also put in place proper risk assessment processes," he states.
In 2014, the U.S. Interior Department recommended to the Commerce Department that procedures be revised for who has jurisdiction over communication towers, citing the potential impact of electromagnetic radiation. Since then, efforts to study that impact or implement regulations have been halted by the Trump administration.
In the meantime, Scarato says, seven other countries - including Russia and China - have enacted radiation limits. "In the United States, we need to catch up with what's happening in the rest of the world," she stresses. "We're doing it with plastics and BPA, and look at lead. I think we need to step up our game."
More than 230 scientists have signed an appeal to the United Nations asking it to take the risks posed by electromagnetic radiation more seriously.