The ‘death rays’ that never were
13.12.2021 - Astrid Tomczak-Plewka

To anti-5G activists he’s like a red rag to a bull: Martin Röösli, a professor for environmental epidemiology at the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute in Basel. But early on in his career, he was as sceptical towards the new technologies as his opponents are today.

Some people simply manage to be in the right place at the right time. Martin Röösli is surely one of them. Back in 2001, Röösli had just completed his doctoral thesis. He had first worked as a teacher before completing a degree in environmental sciences at ETH Zurich, then started a family and wrote his doctorate at the University of Basel while looking after the kids. “I was 34, and really already too old for a career in science”, he says. And then something happened that would revolutionise society: Mobile phone technology began its triumphal ascension. In the middle of it all was a young scientist who was convinced that what was happening could not be healthy. “I was utterly fascinated by the fact that a new technology was being introduced on a broad basis, but almost no one was doing any research into it”, he says.

At the time, Röösli was working at the Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine (ISPM) at the University of Bern. He began to fill this gap in research into mobile communications – and became the man of the hour. He still appears in the media now and again whenever this topic comes up. He wrote his initial report for the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) in 2002. Then in 2004, he became involved in a FOEN study aimed at “registering the concerns of the Swiss population in connection with electromagnetic fields”. This study concluded that the overwhelming majority of the population was worried about this topic, but did not suffer any symptoms. According to the report, this harboured “great potential for social conflict”. The Federal Council reacted by approving a National Research Project on the “risks of electromagnetic radiation”. In 2011, the project was completed and Röösli felt reassured. “I thought: now I can also buy a WLAN device”. He and his colleagues had “not brought to light any alarming new facts”.

Martin Röösli today holds a professorship in environmental epidemiology at the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute in Basel. The fact that he and his colleagues had found “nothing” damaging about electromagnetic radiation is ultimately also the reason why he is considered the sole expert on the topic today. He has little competition in Switzerland, because many find that the field simply offers too little of interest. The main people involved are those on the seven-member “Swiss expert group on electromagnetic fields and non-ionising radiation” (BERENIS), which Röösli heads. They all come from German-speaking Switzerland. “Of course researchers want to discover things – that’s what drives them”, he says. “And at the start, I was convinced that I would find something”.

In the middle of a religious war

In order to get to the bottom of this widespread gut feeling, Röösli spent the beginning of the new millennium driving all over Switzerland, taking measurements at antennas and carrying out tests with so-called radiation-sensitive people. He is still engaging with them today. “I find it exciting to discuss things with them”, he says. “If someone has a problem, my initial response is to show empathy”. Such as in the case of a man whom Röösli invited to his laboratory. He wanted to test whether this man could detect mobile phone radiation. But he only reacted to exposure to this radiation in four out of 10 tests. “It was sheer coincidence”, says Röösli.

But the man in question regarded his hit rate as a “good result”. Röösli can’t argue with this: “Many people simply want science to confirm their fears”. We are here in the middle of a kind of religious war in which ‘alternative’ researchers are enjoying boom times. “The typical alternative ‘expert’ is male, retired, and has never done any serious research on the topic”, says Röösli. Many of them can be found among the signatories listed on the website 5G Appeal, for example. “If you regard anyone with a doctorate as a researcher, then there are indeed more ‘researchers’ claiming that electromagnetic fields are dangerous than researchers who can prove the opposite”, says Röösli. He finds this imbalance problematic, as it provides ammunition to his opponents. One of their main allegations is that Röösli has been ‘bought’.

In fact, however, his research is funded solely by the public sector and by non-profit foundations. The latter admittedly sometimes receive money from the mobile phone industry. But Röösli has no problem with this, “as long as the industry has no influence on the projects chosen or on the bidding processes”. It also often gets forgotten in the heat of the discussion that Röösli doesn’t just say things that please the industry. For example, he has also presented a study suggesting that young people who constantly hold their mobile phones to their ear might be damaging their memory. However, this has nothing to do with antennas, but with the strength of the signal at their ear. The reason is simple: “If they have a bad connection, a mobile phone can emit up to 100,000 times more radiation than with a stable connection”, he says.

Taking a stance against “utter nonsense”

In conversation, Röösli always comes across as sober, almost a little distant. But does he really always stay so calm? After all, he is regularly attacked on social media and in comment columns as a scientific stooge of an industry that is supposedly deleterious to our health. “Of course that leaves its mark. And sometimes I feel mentally very involved”, he says. “I just try to communicate the facts as unemotionally as possible”. Although he has experienced “a few tiresome things”, it’s really only “a relatively small group” that is very militant. Besides: “The Covid-19 pandemic has given people another topic”, he says. But it does make him nervous “when people talk utter nonsense – such as how Covid and 5G are supposedly connected. That’s when I feel responsible to set things straight”.

However, for several years now, radiation from mobile communications has ceased to be the focus of Röösli’s work. Today, his prime concern is the impact of noise on our health. For example, his research group has demonstrated that there is a connection between noise and diabetes, and has proven that some 500 of annual cardiovascular deaths in Switzerland can be attributed in part to noise. He has also been able to prove that 30 km/h zones are good for our health – mainly because they serve to reduce noise pollution.

It’s well-nigh paradoxical: the more Röösli turns his attention to noise, the quieter things ought to get for him. But he’s not entirely sure about that, either. “Soon, the political debate about noise limits is going to start”, he predicts. But he thinks it is important that there will still be researchers in the future who will continue to find nothing wrong with electromagnetic fields. “All across the world, more people have a mobile phone than have access to clean water”, he says. “That’s why it’s necessary to take a really close look at these things”.

This portrait was published in Horizons, The Swiss Research Magazine on 26 November 2021.

Photo credits: Roland Schmid/13