Biomimetic file 207: Wave Soup

Why dispersion is sometimes a better alternative than concentration

electromagnetic-waves-08Image: creative commons. Radioactive decay (also known as nuclear decay or radioactivity*) is the process by which an unstable atomic nucleus loses energy (in terms of mass in its rest frame) by emitting radiation, such as an alpha particle, beta particle with neutrino or only a neutrino in the case of electron capture, gamma ray, or electron …

Highlight: “In the recent years, wireless personal communications have registered a rapid expansion particularly in the field of wireless local area networks (WLANs)…Although this framework has given numerous advantages to people, the steady increased use of these new technologies may result in greater radio-frequency exposures in homes and work places…meanwhile, the property of iron atoms contained in species red blood cells to be magnetized when exposed to an electromagnetic field has been the subject of studies in order to better understand the relationship and how this may be used to improve human safety when exposed to WLANs…”

Insight: Recently I was having a casual coffee with a friend when he asked me the following question: “sometimes when I go to crowded places in modern cities I feel unease; do you think this could be due to the concentration of electromagnetic radiations from mobile phones?” While I am used to people throwing weird questions at me, this one got me thinking and I investigated further.

Electromagnetic radiations from mobile devices are far from being uniform, as a matter of fact the intensity of the radiations will reach picks at specific times and otherwise will be quite small. For instance in the second or so before your phone rings the magnetic wave will be at its pick and it will drop sharply shortly after. Same occurs when information is sent from the device. I find the question interesting as it raises the challenge of several verses individual uses. The below points hint some elements of answers:

  1. Often products are tested for individual use but rarely for scenarios involving several devices used simultaneously and in proximity;
  2.  It is very difficult if not impossible to test a product for its long-term (e.g. latent toxicity) effects and since mobile phones have only been in use for 20 years or so that makes all of us some kind of “Guinea Pigs”;
  3. Many happening in the human body occur at a very small scale (e.g. cellular functions) and it would be surprising that the intensity of radiations emitted from mobile devices do not interact at some level and to some extent. Some claim that the range of commercial devices radiations simply do not interact with human tissues: if so, how to explain that when you hold your phone next to your ear for a short time you would definitely literally feel the heat?

Besides mobile phone, we live in a society where we are increasingly constantly bombarded with various types of waves (electromagnetic, micro waves, hertzian waves, UV, IR…) immersing us in a “wave soup”. While only time will reveal potential impacts on health, sharp increase in chronic diseases such as certain types of cancers is an indication. It would be very difficult to pinpoint a single cause as there are many other culprits which probably add on (e.g. the food we eat, air quality…).

This case actually reminds me another one I came across a few years back while in Australia. In this country the use of  fire safety alarms is quite spread and a stringent requirement for public facilities. When disposed the alarms were just treated as a common waste and ended up in land fields. At some point, a new regulation came up stating that fire alarms should be considered as an hazardous waste considering the fact that they contain radioactive* components (in small amounts). Thereafter, the fire alarms were collected and commonly disposed in a separate land field. However, a funny outcome happened: while individually the radioactivity from the devices was mild, put together all these fire alarms started to pose a very serious radiation problem which would require expensive secured facilities to contain…After this inconvenient realization, an update to the regulation made a U-turn and went back to the original setup of treating fire alarms as a normal waste so that the waste would be diluted among others and would not cause a radiation concern. Quite a funny story highlighting many failures in the regulatory process!

Are you producing or find yourselves surrounded by devises in large quantities? If so, perhaps ask yourself how does this combined concentrated environment affect safety and remember that such tests are rarely conducted by authorities which does not mean it should not be a concern…

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What is Biomimetics: the field of gaining inspiration from nature first to solve some of our most difficult challenges. Instead of coming up with our own solutions to a problematic, the odds are that species or natural systems on the planet already offer an ultimate solution. This simple fact is also another strong case to preserve species at all cost as the intellectual heritage contained within or through the study of species is both irreplaceable and invaluable…

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