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Home / Articles / Features / The View from Mudsock Heights /  News flash: We’re all living in a microwave oven, all the time
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Sunday, February 16,2014

News flash: We’re all living in a microwave oven, all the time

By Dennis Powell

A friend of mine is unable to have a wireless router for his computer in his house because his wife is afraid of the radiation from it.

In fact, she purchased a device that measures electromagnetic radiation, and had him largely rewire the house to reduce such radiation. It seems kind of funny, but it's not any worse than some of the other fears currently being bandied about.

Last week there was another study having to do with whether cellular telephones give you cancer. These studies are a little nutty on their face, because they assume among other things that cancer is the only disease in the world and that it is possible to establish a control – people who aren't exposed to cellular telephone radiation. Nor is it possible to control for all the other radio waves that bombard us all the time.

Perhaps you have seen or used a device called a microwave oven. Maybe you have seen someone put a container of water into it and turn it on and, in a few minutes, the water is boiling. That is because the microwave oven uses radio waves to "excite" water molecules, heating them. Ah, you say, but microwave ovens are all sealed up. Why, then, are you warned against being near them if you have a pacemaker?

Radio waves. They make water get hot. Powerful radio waves do it quickly, less powerful radio waves, not so much but more than none. We are producing a lot of radio waves. It is claimed by some that the world is getting hot. Hmmm.

Three-quarters of a century ago, WLW Radio in Cincinnati was the most powerful radio station in the country. Its transmitter cranked out a blistering – literally – 500,000 watts of radio waves. You could be some distance from the tower and "watch" the transmissions on fluorescent light bulbs, even ones that weren't installed in a fixture. They would flash as the signal modulated. There was measurable current in wire fences resulting from the transmissions.

I mention WLW because it was the most powerful domestic station ever, and it stayed at that power for only a few years. But there are, even today, numerous 50,000-watt stations. In the early days, before the need for shielding was understood, transmitter engineers tended to come down with ailments that are now thought to have had something to do with their being bombarded by radio waves. The FCC has a whole website devoted to the dangers of being too close to radio transmitters.

Which is all of passing interest but for the fact that we are surrounded by radio transmitters. Your cordless phone? Radio transmitter. Wireless router? Radio transmitter. Computer or tablet? All kinds of radio transmitter. Cellular telephone? Have you been paying attention? And those are just things that are supposed to be transmitting. Our electronic gadgets, just about all of them, leak radio waves. Remember a few years ago when the government of Sweden certified computer monitors and equipment as to the radiation they put out? But you don't need Sweden: get a cheap AM radio, tune it to a station, and set it on top of your computer. Here, my weather radio won't receive stations if it's less than three feet from my humidifier!

Try to listen to AM radio in a room illuminated by fluorescent fixtures. The radio waves from them are so strong that you won't be able to tune in any but the most powerful stations.

And now we have, well, everybody, going around holding radio transmitters to their heads, carrying them next to their reproductive parts, even sticking them in their ears – what do you think Bluetooth is?

Now, it is true: the entire electromagnet spectrum (which includes invisible light) is subject to what is called the inverse square rule, something that makes perfect sense when you think about it. Shine a flashlight on something a foot away, and it will be brightly illuminated. Move the flashlight to two feet, and it will be only a quarter as bright in any given spot it covers – because the same amount of light is now spread over four times the space. At four feet, it will be only a 16th as bright as it was at one foot. And so on. This is why people high in the stands at sporting events who try to make flash pictures are no brighter than the resulting photographs.

Anyway, the farther you are from a source of radiation, the less it might affect you because it is spread over more space.

But now imagine millions of flashlights. In fact, imagine every electrical device being a flashlight, always on. We can't see radio waves, but if we could, that's what it would look like. No darkness anywhere, ever.

Not even in Green Bank, W.Va., which is in the National Radio Quiet Zone. Short-range radio transmissions are prohibited there, but the place is still bombarded by radio waves from elsewhere.

There is no escape from second-hand radio. Or second-hand-cellphone. Walk down Court Street some afternoon and try to keep a distance from anyone using – or carrying – a cellular telephone.

Is this cause for alarm? Who knows. I personally do not think that it is. But there is no denying that we're constantly being penetrated by unseen waves from the electromagnetic spectrum. There is no escape. And radio waves do more than nothing, even tiny, weak ones.

I bring it up mostly as a service to the worriers among us, to give them something to do in case that fracking thing doesn't work out.

Editor's note: Dennis E. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. His column appears on Mondays. You can reach him at


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Thanks, Dennis!

A few comments from an electrical engineer:

1. Electromagnetic (EM) radiation includes electric and magnetic fields moving together in waves, and they inhabit the whole frequency spectrum, from very low frequency "radio" waves microwaves to light waves to ultraviolet radiation and beyond. At the upper end of the EM spectrum, individual photons start to have similar effects as do the alpha, beta and gamma rays/particles of ionizing radiation, which is the type produced in nuclear power plants.

2. Wikipedia has a good summary of EM's effect on biological systems and some cool graphics ( If I ever felt warmer around my microwave oven, I would step away and buy a new one after it finished heating my food or beverage, and otherwise not worry about it since I don't have a pacemaker.

"The effects of EMR upon biological systems (and also to many other chemical systems, under standard conditions) depends both upon the radiation's power and frequency. For lower frequencies of EMR up to those of visible light (i.e., radio, microwave, infrared), the damage done to cells and also to many ordinary materials under such conditions is determined mainly by heating effects, and thus by the radiation power. By contrast, for higher frequency radiations at ultraviolet frequencies and above (i.e., X-rays and gamma rays) the damage to chemical materials and living cells by EMR is far larger than that done by simple heating, due to the ability of single photons in such high frequency EMR to damage individual molecules chemically."

3. Power density at the recipient is the key measure for impact on biological systems, commonly measured in Watts per square meter, which you alluded to. OU's Scalia Lab measures light radiation density at its West State Street site ( As I write this on a cloudy day, it's 91 Watts per sq m. If I had a 30% efficient solar panel system 1 meter square, I could run a 25 watt device from it. The broader point is that EM waves of most frequencies are bombarding us from outer space, and have been for millenia. Yes, we are adding to it, but now much in total power? I worry more about covering up from the sun's UV rays than any other EM radiation I know of.

4. Bluetooth and WiFi signal strength tend to be about the same level, 0.1 W (20 dBm), while a GSM (ATT, for example) cell phone's transmitted signal strength is about 1 W @ (30 dBm). So it's better, all else being equal, to use a Bluetooth or VOIP headset next to my ear than a cell phone, though I don't worry much about that either since I don't talk much on my cell phone. See for a good explanation of relative power levels.

5. Digital signals can operate on much lower power than the old analog signals they are replacing, and that's a good thing for EM reduction (but since they're so efficient, that means more and more transmitters). A GPS satellite sends out a signal about equivalent to a 60W light bulb 12,000 miles up, but a GPS receiver can measure it because it's computerized and can read the digital codes superimposed on it.

A practical way to live, sez me, is to have a cutoff threshold for worrying. The carcinogenic effects of low frequency EM radiation are about the same as that of coffee, and both of those are below my cutoff threshold.




P.S. Old radio transmitters used giant vacuum tubes, which gave off lots of X-rays. The effects of those could be responsible more so than the lower frequency EM radiation from the other parts of transmitter and antenna.

Here's a report on 10,000 U.S. Coast Guard personnel exposed to such X-rays at Loran-C transmitter sites around the world from the 1940s through 2010:

I served at the Coast Guard Loran-C transmitter site near Istanbul, Turkey and also in the "home office" for Loran engineering in Cape May, NJ.