Chalmers lecture – A World Awash with Wireless Devices: Addressing Potential Harms of the Wireless Revolution

Distinguished Lecture with Professor Kenneth R. Foster, Professor in Bioengineering, University of Pennsylvania, School of Engineering and Applied Science​

Date: 21 January 2014
Time: 13:15-14:15
Location: Lecture room HC2, Hörsalsvägen 16, Campus Johanneberg


The benefits of wireless technology are well known, but the potential harms need to be considered as well. I will focus on several possible harms of wireless technology and ethical issues that arise.

(a) ethics of research on adverse effects of RF energy. The wireless revolution has led to an increase in levels of exposure to the population to radiofrequency energy, albeit at very low levels compared to international guidelines. While the scientific evidence is generally unsupportive of claims of health hazards of RF energy at such low levels, the scientific literature is mixed and confused in many respects. The level of confusion is increasing with the emergence of many new open access journals, many with low or nonexistent standards of peer review, and the recent appearance in them of papers that report biological effects of exposure to RF energy at low levels. Some government agencies have called for technology-specific research on possible effects of RF exposure from wireless devices. To what extent are creators of wireless technology ethically obligated to address such concerns? And if more bioeffects research is needed, how should it be conducted, by whom, and how should it be evaluated?
(b) ethical responsibilities to “electrosensitive” individuals. Many individuals believe themselves to be sensitive to RF energy from devices such as Wi-Fi, SmartMeters, mobile phones and base stations, many reporting symptoms that prevent them from functioning fully in modern society. What are the ethical obligations of society towards these individuals?
(c) wireless practice of medicine. The introduction of smartphones has led to an explosive growth of “apps” including many designed to provide medical information or services to consumers. Recently, the US Food and Drug Administration has expressed concern about smartphone apps that are, in effect, medical devices, and noted its intention to require evidence of safety and effectiveness for such apps.  I review this issue with reference to apps for dermatology, a particularly troubling class of apps. The advent of wireless apps as medical devices rahses urgent ethical and regulatory issues for app developers.

Kenneth R. Foster received his PhD in physics in 1971. Since 1977 he has been at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is Professor of Bioengineering. His technical work involves studies on the interaction of nonionizing radiation and biological systems, ranging from biophysical principles of interaction to dosimetry and exposure assessment. A major secondary interest is the interaction of technology and society. For a number of years he has taught a course to biomedical engineers on “what makes medical technology work”. In addition to more than 100 articles in peer reviewed journals, he is coauthor or coeditor of two books on risk assessment and the law. He is a fellow of the IEEE and of the Americal Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering and the Editor-in-Chief of BioMedical Engineering Online, and has been involved for many years with evaluating health effects of nonionizing radiation and participating in standards setting committees.