I Am The WiMax and I Speak for the Trees

pripyat_landscape_sm.jpg A breathless report from IDG News yesterday spread like a forest fire: Wi-Fi kills trees! Kills 'em dead! Oh n03s!!
Radiation from Wi-Fi networks is harmful to trees, causing significant variations in growth, as well as bleeding and fissures in the bark, according to a recent study in the Netherlands. All deciduous trees in the Western world are affected, according to the study by Wageningen University.
Hurray for credulity! Thousands of media sites and blogs picked up the story, adding new details, and rarely questioning the bizarre claim, despite the statement later in the same news item that only 20 trees were tested in one city, that researchers were not named, and it wasn't noted whether or not the study was published or peer reviewed. I turned, as I always do, to Gawker's Valleywag to bring sense and perspective to an issue. Wait. What? No, seriously. Valleywag's Adrian Chen found a public statement from the Dutch spectrum regulator (translation). The study took place indoors for three months with a variety of plants exposed to six Wi-Fi devices. Previous studies showed no harm. The work hasn't yet been published. I suppose BoingBoing readers are used to hearing sensational claims based on small-cadre studies issued in advance of peer review. Nonetheless, this one seemed particularly strange. Perhaps it was the combination of environmental harm, the fear of radiation (electromagnetic or otherwise), and the imprimatur of a university. Urban trees, which were apparently part of the focus of this study, are under tremendous stress, and tree cover in cities worldwide has been drastically reduced, although efforts in many places are underway to counter this. My hometown of Seattle has a loosely organized plan to plant hundreds of thousands of new trees in the coming years, for instance. Remember what happens when the trees get pissed off. fall_leaves.jpgUpdate! A commenter warns that all Northern hemisphere deciduous trees are currently undergoing some sort of chromatic die-off producing vast amounts of ground pollution and decay. Top photo from Pripyat near Chernobyl by Timm Suess via Creative Commons. Yes, that's Suess, not Seuss. Photo of leaves by mksfly via Creative Commons.


  1. It’s true, lately all the trees in the North East US are changing colors and loosing their leaves! I don’t know who to blame BESIDES wi-max!

  2. http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSN1048845320070510

    “iPods can make pacemakers malfunction: study”

    Here, Reuters reports on a study not published in a peer-reviewed journal but presented at a conference.

    This story will be forever high in Internet search relevance.

    The Interwebs doesn’t appreciate the concept of the null hypothesis (effect is due to chance), requiring skepticism until sufficient proof is produced to reject it. And the echoblogs, well they just keep on echoing.

  3. Obviously, the crop-circle hoaxers have gotten bored and aimed their aerial beam-weapon at the editors of IDG news.


    1. I had to go for the consonance, rather than accuracy (says the editor of Wi-Fi Networking News for 10 years).

  4. Surely there must be research done that proves lazy news reporters that report unconfirmed, uncreditable news tend to bring the intelligent levels of its readers?

  5. Yeah, but doesn’t it sound plausible enough? There were vague rumors that wireless signals killed the honeybees, too. Nobody has proven that it’s harmful, but isn’t it interesting that so many people think it might be? I think the news needs to find two people who look like they could be experts to argue about it.

    1. I like to get my science from rumors.

      They weren’t rumors. They were what scientists call “baseless speculation lacking even a trace of empirical evidence of scientific method.”

      “I think the news needs to find two people who look like they could be experts to argue about it.”

      Damn, I just got punked, didn’t I?

  6. I spotted a clearly brain damaged squirrel running around a tree in circles and they burying—NOT EATING!—the nut in his mouth.

  7. “I had to go for the consonance, rather than accuracy (says the editor of Wi-Fi Networking News for 10 years).”

    Are you speaking ex cathedra?

  8. Consonance is a stylistic device, most commonly used in poetry and songs, characterized by the repetition of the same consonant two or more times in short succession, as in “pitt patter” or in “all mammals named Sam are clammy”, quoth the Wikipedia.

  9. *facepalm*

    WiFi doesn’t use some magical, new death ray to transmit data. It uses the same Radio Frequency Spectrum that a million other devices use. It is retarded to claim WiFi is killing trees. The sad part is my wife gets worried after reading this shit and then I have to spend 2 hrs basically writing a paper outlining why her irrational fears are just that. The last one I had to do was map out the danger, or rather the lack-thereof, of mercury in vaccines.

    1. WiFi doesn’t use some magical, new death ray to transmit data. It uses the same Radio Frequency Spectrum that a million other devices use.

      This this so many times this. *waves hands around* I’m so sorry you end up having to do extra homework for no credit for your wife, but thank you for going to the effort. One little step at a time.

      I’m not brave enough to do the same with my co-worker, who thinks microwaves work by tearing atoms apart.

  10. Reminds me of the study proving that houseplants preferred ACDC over Bach. Or was it the other way around.

  11. SECRET: It isn’t just the “Wi-Fi”. It’s the “Wi-Fi” in combenation with the contrales!!

    Who am I to divulge this nonesens you’re probubly asking. Hah! If you saw what I saw on my tOAST this morning, you’d stop with your doubtin!

    –Sarah Pail

  12. “Thousands of media sites and blogs picked up the story”
    Who exactly picked this up?
    Apart from a few obscure blogs I cannot find any reputable news outlet that repeated this claim, let alone “Thousands”…

    1. Meet my friend Google News and his little tagalong Yahoo News. IDG News Service is syndicated to various tech publications around the world. Yahoo News redistributed it (which is a kind of wire service). Several UK and European newspapers ran it online in a form that I believe indicates it also ran in print. I will agree that I did not see a single US newspaper’s site have a reference to the story.

  13. I remember hearing in the mid 90’s about radio affected trees in Sun River Oregon. The majority of trees there grew needles that were resonant on the fire and police departments new 800mhz radio system. The needles would convert the signals into heat and the signal would be so attenuated that it would only carry a few hundred meters. The trees experienced more heating from sunshine on a cloudy day than they did even a few meters from the dispatch towers so they were fine. Sun River went back to VHF radios for fire and police dispatch.

  14. Yay, I wasn’t immediately suckered in when I first read the story. I am happy that I have the ability to remain skeptical. I consider it a good trait of mine.

  15. Here’s some information I picked up from the website of the city for which the university conducted this research (first in dutch):


    Dutch: Wageningen University onderzocht in opdracht van de gemeente Alphen a/d Rijn in hoeverre het toenemend aantal bronnen van elektromagnetische straling, zoals zendmasten, een rol zou kunnen spelen bij de verslechterde gezondheid van de bomen. Daarbij werd in een kweekcel het effect van de straling van zogenaamde wifi accesspoints op kleine Esboompjes onderzocht.

    English: The University of Wageningen conducted research for the city of Alphen a/d Rijn to which extent the increased number of sources of electromagnetic radiation, like communication towers, could play a part in the deteriorated state of health of the trees.
    For this, the effect of the radiation of so-called wifi accesspoints on small ash trees was researched in a hybernation chamber.

    Dutch: De essen werden gedurende ruim drie maanden blootgesteld aan zes stralingsbronnen met frequenties variërend van 2412 tot 2472 MHz en een vermogen van 100 mW EIRP op 50 cm afstand.

    English: The ash trees were exposed to six radiation sources with frequencies varying from 2412 to 2472 Mhz and a intensity of 100 mW EIRP at a 50 cm distance over a period of three months.

    Dutch: Bladeren nabij de stralingsbronnen vertoonden tijdens het onderzoek na een paar maanden een metaalglansuiterlijk, een verkleuring van de bladeren die het gevolg bleek te zijn van het afsterven van de buitenste cellaag van de bladeren. De metaalglans werd opgevolgd door verdroging en afsterven van een deel van het blad.

    English: Leaves near the radiation sources displayed a metallic hue appearance after a few months, a discoloration which turned out to be caused by the decay of the leaves outer layer of cells. The metallic hue was followed by a drying out and dying off of a part of the leaf


  16. I recall the (now debunked) report that hypothesized that cell-phone towers were the cause of honey bees’ mysterious deaths, and thought “if this is true, will anybody actually give up their cell phones to save the threat to the food supply? Probably not.” Now, I don’t know if this wi-fi study is accurate or not, but again I wonder: “if it IS accurate, will anybody do anything about it?” I suspect not. The human race is walking eyes-open into natural disasters of our own making, simply out of laziness, ignorance, and hubris.

  17. NASA, the EPA, and the US Dept. of Agriculture all report that toxic tropospheric ozone (the kind derived from fuel emissions, not the beneficial and naturally occurring stratospheric layer that protects from UV radiation) is the cause of BILLIONS of dollars in crop yield losses annually.

    Ozone is poisonous to vegetation, visibly damaging the stomata of foliage. Long-term, cumulative exposure such as is experienced by trees and other perennial vegetation is gradually, incrementally killing them.

    check out http://www.witsendnj.blogspot.com. There’s a link at the top to “Basic Premise” and a long list of peer-reviewed, published scientific research documenting this topic.

    People notice that trees are dying and it’s scary. They latch on to crazy theories like contrail conspiracies and radiation because it’s too painful to acknowledge that every day we pour tons of pollutants into the atmosphere to the point where the level is intolerable to the ecosystem.

    Oh, the WHO estimates that ozone kills more Americans every year than breast and prostrate cancer combined – more than automobile accidents. I guess that’s the price we are willing to pay to live our cheap-energy-gobbling lifestyle.

  18. Please don’t write off these studies too quickly! At least the Europeans are willing to set up these kinds of tests to determine possible outcomes and effects of wireless technology.

    The incidence of brain tumors has arisen in the past 10 years. My brother-in-law, an on the road salesman who spent upwards of 10 hours a day on his cell phone, died from an incurable brain tumor on the side of his head he used everyday to speak on his phone. No one in the medical world was willing to entertain the idea that his cell phone use was in any way related.

    1. I’m sorry about your brother in law, but I disagree with the contention “No one in the medical world was willing to entertain the idea that his cell phone use was in any way related.” There have been several studies I’m aware that studied this particular issue, the most recent of which was a multi-nation, tightly controlled study called Interphone.

      The studies that I’ve read look at people with brain tumors that are one side of the head (either as the complete study or part of a large cancer/cell phone study), and attempt to get information from the cancer sufferer about usage–whether it’s primarily one side or either. (Recollection bias is factored in, as most people apparently recall the side of the head they used the most was the side they got the tumor on regardless of contradictory information.)

      No smoking gun. Some people are going to get such tumors. Some of them are going to be heavy phone users. So far, the studies can’t make a connection, even with large numbers of people looked at.

  19. There was an article today about how, despite all the stories you’ve heard, cell phones can’t cause cancer. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=can-you-hear-me-now
    The magic number seems to be 480 kilojoules/mole to cause cancer. It doesn’t add up; you can’t get cancer from wearing a suit of 500 cell phones. I don’t know what WiMax rates as but I assume it is less than the sun.

    I may not be a physicist, but I knows what matters.
    – Popeye

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