EMF

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.

Little Boxes Made of Whicky-Whacky – The Bamboo Charcoal ‘Hei Cube’

My apologies if I’ve just earwormed you with ‘Little Boxes’.

A few weeks ago, I was settling into bed of an evening with some light reading (Organic Gardener Magazine*) to wind down with when I spotted a relatively benign but nonetheless irritating feature in an advertorial. This is the ‘Hei Cube‘.

Hei Cube advertisement, text transcribed below.

The text reads as follows:

“Don’t forget your home-office in the spring-cleaning spree, but let the Hei Cube do the hard work for you. While it won’t dust the desk, it is said to help absorb electomagnetic waves when placed near a computer. Made from bamboo charcoal, it will also soak up unwanted odours and moisture from the room, and is 100 per cent natural and biodegradable. Available for $16.95 per cube, from purebamboo.com.au; 07 XXXX XXXX.”

Rudimentary as my radiation materials science knowledge is, the above struck me as suspicious. It bothered me enough that I went and confirmed that I was correct in my knowledge that the only materials which are capable of shielding electromagnetic fields are metals. Carboniferous material such as bamboo charcoal is completely ineffective at blocking electromagnetic waves when used in a shield. And any material placed in a cube to the side of a device emitting electromagnetic waves is completely irrelevant, electromagnetic waves do not change their direction because they find a little black cube attractive.

More troubling to me though is the suggestion that electromagnetic waves as found in household environments should pose any concern or present any risk to our health. I can understand how electromagnetic fields (EMF) may sound alarming – particularly when the ‘R’ word, radiation, is mentioned. A quick google about safety concerns about EMF brings up pages of links to sites warning of the dangers of exposure, anecdotal evidence of illness and harm abounds and there’s a substantial number of products sold which claim to protect one from the supposedly damaging radiation emanating from our televisions, computers and mobile phones.

A critical eye must be applied and a credible source of information must be found. This being a health concern, I went with the World Health Organisation.

The effects of electromagnetic radiation have been widely studied for many years now and scientific knowledge in this area is highly extensive. A recent extensive WHO review of available scientific literature concludes that based on current evidence, there are no health conditions which have been linked to exposure to low level electromagnetic radiation.

To summarise, the Hei Cube claims to protect you from electromagnetic waves which are not known to cause any harm by not affecting the electromagnetic field in any way.

As for the other claim made, that bamboo charcoal can absorb moisture and odours, there is perhaps some truth to it. Bamboo charcoal is a form of activated carbon and activated carbon is notably porous and it’s high surface area makes it capable of binding to a range of chemicals when used as an air or water filter. Whether the efficacy of a stationary cube of bamboo charcoal is noteworthy enough to make it worth $16.95 is debatable, but the claim that it will work as a desiccant (a substance which absorbs moisture) and deodoriser is at least relatively plausible. And I suppose some people may find it more aesthetically pleasing than a small bowl of bicarbonate of soda, which will also act as a desiccant and deodoriser at around a fiftieth of the price.

Note that the copy from the magazine uses language which avoids directly making a factual claim about the EMF blocking properties of the Hei Cube – “it is said to help absorb electromagnetic waves”. I do wonder how deliberate this was, whether the copy writer was aware that the claim was based on pseudoscience and worded the text accordingly, either to create room for doubt or to avoid making a false claim. Either way, I did leave a message on the magazine’s Facebook page. I received a cordial reply from the editor a few days later in which he assured me that he’d taken my message on board and let me know where to find more information on the watermelon frame I’d mentioned.

I’m planning on growing some lovely watermelons this year, an heirloom variety called ‘Moon and Stars’. And I will be growing them by exposing them to the most familiar form of electromagnetic radiation that we all encounter, sunlight!

Further reading:
What are electromagnetic fields? WHO
The Skeptic’s Dictionary – EMF

* I intend on conducting and writing up some critical assessment of the appeal organic home food production methods hold for me. Until then, I’d like to quickly state my position – I am not outright opposed to GMO (I believe that it has the potential for a great deal of good), I am far from chemophobic and I want to stress that the label ‘organic’ is not a literal one – it originated from the view of the garden as a single organism, rather than the now common interpretation that organic gardening is the exclusive use of organic compounds. Oh, and my thoughts on biodynamics? A whole lot of woo which can result in some non-magical but often delicious produce. Nom.