Wireless Armour: A Pseudoscientific Bunch of Pants

An audio version of this post appears on The Skeptic Zone podcast, episode 290 {permalink}.

An article by technology reporter James Billington appeared on news.com.au on the 7th of May 2014, titled, “The Smart Underwear Designed to Shield Against Mobile Phone Radiation“.

“For any man who still feels a bit uneasy about the side effects of carrying around a mobile in their pocket, a new pair of underwear has been developed to protect their packet from any potentially harmful radiation”

Following, was a piece, which could well be read as an unpaid advertorial, for “Wireless Armour”, a UK startup who have developed men’s underwear which incorporates silver into its fabric to allegedly shield the wearer from electromagnetic radiation emitted by mobile phones.

The news.com.au article states,

“With scientific studies on the link between exposure to wireless radiation affecting sperm count, and with most men carrying their mobile phones in pockets or using laptops on a daily basis these boxers costing £24 ($43) when available could be the solution to that worry many males face.”

Interesting language. The news.com.au article mentions that there are “scientific studies on the link between exposure to wireless radiation affecting sperm count”, but does not actually state that any such link has been discovered, nor the outcomes of any studies. A caption beneath a photograph of the underwear similarly avoids making any direct claims, “This pair of hi-tech underwear has been designed to protect men from the potential harmful effects of mobile phone radiation.” (emphasis mine).

That said, the founder of Wireless Armour, Joseph Perkins (who holds a BSc in physics and is a former physics teacher) is quoted in the article as saying,

“Wireless Armour is designed to protect the health of a wireless generation glued to their mobile devices. The fabric has been put through rigorous testing from external electromagnetic consulting company, Wave Scientific. Results indicate that Wireless Armour fabric blocks 99.9% of harmful radiation, making the garments an extremely effective form of protection,”

Joseph Perkins seems to be making the claim that radiation from mobile devices, such as smartphones, causes harm. He’s running an Indiegogo Campaign to fund the first run of Wireless Armour and, by attaining a position as one of the “Top 10 Back of an Envelope Start-Up Ideas“, has courted the support of none other than Sir Richard Branson in his endeavours.

 

 

Well, what’s the evidence?

Fortunately, Wireless Armour are active users of Twitter (@WirelessArmour) and provided a link to “peer reviewed studies” when questioned on their claim. The link, to a page on the Environmental Working Group’s website, cites several studies – a couple which conducted lab based in-vitro analysis of sperm samples exposed to varying levels of electromagnetic radiation (the results of which are interesting, but not necessarily representative of real life situations) and several which used self-selected samples of men who were self-reporting on questionnaires – a form of data collection which is not necessarily reliable. I think it is fair to state that the studies cited are far from conclusive.

Looking at Wireless Armour’s website, other sources are also linked to support the suggestion that electromagnetic radiation emitted from cell phones can be harmful, including a website which sells “Laptop Radiation and Heat Shields” and a website, www.best-emf-health.com, which recalls the sad account of an individual who has suffered cancer, personally believes that his cancer was caused by electromagnetic radiation and goes on to attribute many health conditions, from allergies to miscarriages to multiple sclerosis to electromagnetic radiation – a fine example of what Ketan Joshi refers to as “Anything Syndrome”, in which self-reported ailments are attributed to a cause, often a technology, with no proven causal link.

On their website, Wireless Armour seem to bounce back and forth between claiming that electromagnetic radiation is harmful and stating that it is potentially harmful – in the latter case, they strongly question whether people wish to wait for conclusive evidence before taking risk-avoiding measures: “At Wireless Armour we do not want to wait around whilst the government and scientific community confirm 100% whether it is harmful to our health, we would rather protect ourselves now and find out later. Don’t Be A Test Subject!”

In response to tweets stating that radio signals have never been proven to lower sperm count or cause cancer and that the studies cited by the Environmental Working Group were nonsense, Wireless Armour responded, “You are entitled to that opinion, it is the fantastic thing about living in a free world.”

Where opinions count when it comes to making claims that information is factual and scientifically based, I am not sure.

 

wirelessarmourtweet

Storify of conversation can be viewed here.

 

So for those people who feel that the potential for harm from electromagnetic radiation, while never proven, is still something they wish to protect themselves from… how is Wireless Armour purported to work?

From Wireless Armour’s Indiegogo Campaign,

“Wireless Armour’s products have a mesh of pure Silver woven into the fabric of each item. This encases the user in a cage of metal. This is a special type of cage called a Faraday Cage, named after the man who invented it, Michael Faraday. The reason that this cage is special is because any electromagnetic radiation that hits it is distributed evenly around the cage, therefore not allowing it to enter the cage and affect what ever is stored within it”

Uh, no. While the silver weave fabric may have some shielding properties, these underpants are not behaving as a Faraday cage.

A Faraday cage is a fully enclosed container made from a mesh of highly conductive metal – often brass or copper – which blocks external static and non-static electrical fields by channeling electricity around the cage, preventing it from entering the space within. The mesh itself must be thick and contain holes which are significantly smaller than the length of the wave of the electromagnetic radiation it guards against, so that the wave is reflected, rather than allowed to permeate the mesh. Faraday cages are connected to an earth ground, to dissipate any currents induced from external or internal electromagnetic fields.

A pair of mesh underpants on the other hand, has three rather large holes – one for the wearer’s torso and two for their legs – which renders it… not a cage. Additionally, unless the wearer has a copper wire, which is attached to their underpants at one end and to a copper rod driven a metre into the ground at the other, a pair of mesh underpants are not grounded. A pair of mesh underpants are not a Faraday cage.

 

 

Wireless Armour do, however, have a backup claim. In response to questions on the plausibility of their claims regarding electromagnetic radiation’s effect on sperm and the necessity for protective underwear, Wireless Armour have stated on their Reddit thread,

“IF it comes out that EM radiation is not bad for us then people still have very comfortable underwear with all the other beneficial properties of Silver.

“We have a lot more silver in our products (above 20%) than other antimicrobial underwear (~5%) and so ours will be very good at odour resistance and stopping the growth of bacteria.”

Well, yes… but frankly, I would be much more inclined to take my $43, purchase several pairs of cheaper cotton underwear (and perhaps some soap) and maintain clean and dry nether regions. I’d like to note that if you have concerns about unpleasant smells or bacteria, a check in with your GP would perhaps be wise.

 

In summary, Wireless Armour are marketing a product that is extremely unlikely to be necessary and embracing a concern which is not scientifically supported in order to market them – and even if radiation from wireless devices did affect sperm quality, the mechanism by which they claim that their product operates is a physical impossibility. How somebody with a physics degree is unable to realise this, and why news.com.au (and several other media outlets) and indeed, Richard Branson himself, are unwilling to properly investigate such before promoting this underwear, is quite a mystery to me.

One claim I am willing to make with relative certainty however… is that Wireless Armour, are indeed, a bunch of pants.

 

As of the 11th of May 2014, neither Indiegogo, nor Richard Branson have responded to emails (sent 7th of May) explaining the nature of the claims Wireless Armour are making.

I would like to thank @weezmgk from Twitter for his help with this post, in particular for performing fact checking from a broadcast engineer’s perspective and for contacting relevant parties for comment.

 

UPDATE: An email has been received from Indiegogo’s Trust and Safety Team, dated May 13 2014, stating that,

“Indiegogo empowers campaign owners and contributors to raise money for, or support, the things that matter to them. Since Indiegogo is an equal opportunity platform, we let our users decide whether they want to contribute and support the campaign after performing their own due diligence on the company, campaign owner, and its cause.

“That being said, the campaign will stay live on our platform and continue to receiving funding. Thank you for your cooperation.”

Disappointingly, it seems that Indiegogo are comfortable supporting the marketing of sham products via their service, under the guise of “equal opportunity”. As such, I would recommend due diligence before supporting any Indiegogo campaign.

Advertisements

10 comments

  1. “You are entitled to that opinion, it is the fantastic thing about living in a free world”

    Ugh. Passive-aggressive responses like this give me the irrates. Firstly, it’s irrelevant – why make a scientific statement about your product at all if you’re going to dissolve into “that’s just like your opinion man” at the first sign of a valid critical question? (Well, obviously because insinuating your products are scientifically useful shifts more units, but hey I’m being rhetorical.) Secondly, it’s not a “free world”, but let’s let that slide as lazy twitterings. Thirdly, are we supposed to feel grateful at the subtle suggestion that we’re being allowed our opinion, and inspired by their commitment to democratic dialogue? I’d rather see a less disingenuous response to the substance of the challenge: Present the evidence that your product is even *required* (let alone whether it *works*).

    Nice post, Jo.

  2. Excellent breakdown. I was encouraged to see that the campaign on IndieGoGo has only reached about half of their funding goal, with only a few days remaining. But then I noticed they have elected to use the “flexible funding” option, which means that the “campaign will receive all funds raised even if it does not reach its goal.” I think we can guess why they didn’t go with Kickstarter.

    Further, even if this product managed to work as a proper Faraday cage (hard to see how it could, given the points made in the article), and even if wireless devices emitted DNA-damaging ionizing radiation such as upper-ultraviolet, x-ray, gamma and scarier (they don’t), there’s no evidence to suggest that a Faraday cage could provide adequate shielding.

    1. My knowledge of this topic isn’t too strong, but I was under the impression that they were grounded by definition. I will do some more reading – thank you.

    2. If a Faraday cage is not grounded, currents will flow on all surfaces of the cage instead of being drained to earth. This has the effect of making the cage behave as a high-pass filter, as RF energy with wavelengths smaller than apertures in the screening material will pass unhindered, while lower frequency energy will be conducted on the exterior surfaces (RF skin effect).
      In the specific case of these ‘magic underpants,’ which do not form a complete enclosure, currents will flow on the exterior and interior surfaces (provided the metalised fabric is indeed conductive enough to support current flow), negating the purpose of the garment entirely.
      Indeed, since this garment does not form a complete enclosure, it cannot function as a Faraday cage in any circumstance, grounded or not.
      Stay tuned for an important update on this issue coming in the next week or so.

  3. How skeptical are the skeptics? These are NOT a sham product.

    Also, while not technically a Faraday cage, as the article states, these will provide some protection from this type of radiation applying the same principles.

    From Effect of mobile telephones on sperm quality: A systematic review and meta-analysis

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412014001354

    Exposure to mobile phones was associated with reduced sperm motility (mean difference − 8.1% (95% CI − 13.1, − 3.2)) and viability (mean difference − 9.1% (95% CI − 18.4, 0.2))

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412014001354

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s