Is WiFi Bad for the Environment?


Photo by Christian Bauer. Image licensed under a Creative Commons License

What if the laptops you use to send emails, read the news, peruse shopping deals and even read digital books was somehow responsible for mass deforestation and environmental havoc? The irony of paperless technology gobbling up paper’s raw material is almost unfathomable. But is it true?

There have been many myths and urban legends surrounding technology and its effects on our health and surrounding environment. Some are blatantly rooted in nonsense, but many others may have some surprisingly solid ground beneath them.

‘The Internet is Bad for the Environment’

There is simply no direct evidence that the internet causes any negative harm to the environment. A case can be made, however, that the power it takes to run the internet is leaving our planet a little less green.

Consider all of the servers and data centers required to fuel the web. Google alone has been estimated to possess over 1 million servers to handle its 80 billion monthly searches. Google also estimates a single search produces 200 milligrams of CO2.

By their own estimates, Google’s monthly searches produce greenhouse gases that are roughly equivalent to your vehicle driving about 48 million miles, not counting oil changes. Add in the rest of the internet infrastructure and individual users and the environmental impact closely rivals the entire aviation industry.

This is just usage, mind you. If manufacturing and transportation of the hardware involved were taken into account, well, you do the math.

‘Mobile Phones Wreck Stuff’

We’ve all seen the signs warning us to turn our mobile phones off in ‘dangerous’ areas. Take a phone call while visiting your loved one in the hospital and you run the risk of knocking out her critical equipment. Call a friend to tell them you just took off, and the plane will crash. Text your friend while you’re re-fuelling the car and pump will explode.

While no planes have ever crashed from a phone call, some hospital equipment has been proven to be affected by mobile phones, though those instances have been pretty rare. No gas stations have ever blown up due to mobile phones. Common static electricity from getting out of your car is a more likely culprit in that particular myth. It’s always better to be safe than sorry, though, so best to heed the signs, especially while visiting Grandma in the hospital.

‘Mobile Towers (and Phones) Cause Cancer’

This one is pretty controversial because it may take 40 years or so for cancer to show up, but some studies on mice that replicate human conditions have shown to produce brain tumors.

RF (radiofrequency) radiation, the kind emitted by cell phones and towers, is a relatively low type of radiation when compared to gamma rays, x-rays and other known cancer causing radiation. Their long wavelengths would also seem to debunk this myth.

While some researchers have claimed to prove that chronic cell phone usage or living next to a cell phone tower could be harmful, the American Cancer Society itself state that “cell phone antennas or towers are unlikely to cause cancer” on its website.

‘Cell Phones Can Cause World Starvation’

If you believe in Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in beehives due to cell phone radiation, then yes, this is possible. Some scientists coined CCD when they connected the disappearance of large bee colonies where cell towers (or even a handset) were present. They didn’t just move their hives, they just disappeared.

Bees, of course, pollinate most of the world’s crops. No bees, no food. Disappearing bees are a real threat and the implications could certainly be devastating, but attributing their disappearance to cell phones is still a large leap at this point.

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  • CabbageMan

    This is a surprisingly level-headed discussion of some of the key facets on this topic. Thank you for this.