US officials scheduled a nationwide alert for mobile phones and other devices in October to test an emergency warning system, but social media posts claim the signals will have harmful health effects, with some drawing on conspiracy theories about substances in Covid-19 vaccines. The assertions are false; these broadcasts are the same used for decades and are harmless, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and independent experts.
“The emergency broadcasting system under FEMA is going to be activated… it’s not a test,” says conservative influencer Kendall Bailey in a September 19, 2023 Instagram reel with more than 20,000 likes. “It’s going to be sending these high-frequency signals… with the intention of activating nanoparticles including graphene oxide.”
A similar claim from YouTuber Jason Shurka in a now-deleted video, said the broadcast “disguised as a test” would be used to activate particles that have been inserted into billions of human beings around the world “through the obvious means.”
“Those vaccines gonna activate,” says one comment accompanying a video of Shurka on Instagram.
AFP debunked a similar claim in Romanian that liquid crystals in vaccines could be receptors for electronic signals for mind control.
Tests since 1963
FEMA is indeed planning an emergency test alert October 4 for mobile phones, radios and televisions, with a backup date of October 11, in coordination with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and wireless carriers.
These alerts “are created and sent by authorized federal, state, local, tribal and territorial government agencies through IPAWS (Integrated Public Alert and Warning System) to participating wireless providers, which deliver the alerts to compatible handsets in geo-targeted areas,” an August 3 press release said (archived here). “To help ensure that these alerts are accessible to the entire public, including people with disabilities, the alerts are accompanied by a unique tone and vibration.”
FEMA said in a September 21 email to AFP the claims of dangerous emissions are “false.”
“While FEMA and the FCC do perform a nationwide test of the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), the sole purpose of the test is to ensure that the systems continue to be an effective means of warning the public about emergencies, particularly those on the national level,” the statement said.
“The EAS and WEA are critical tools used to warn the civilian population in areas endangered by natural disasters, acts of terrorism and other man-made disasters or threats to public safety. These alerts save lives and allow people to protect property when disasters strike, and the tests we perform with our partners at the FCC are intended to ensure that the systems are working properly.”
A FEMA spokesperson said the audio signal “is the same combination of audio tones that has been used since 1963 in the original Emergency Broadcast System” with which people are familiar. “FEMA is not aware of any adverse health effects caused by the audio signal.”
Experts weigh in
Independent experts say there is no evidence these messages can have nefarious impacts.
“This would just be like receiving a text message — that instructs your phone to make the loud and somewhat annoying sound and display a message,” said Eric Swanson, a professor of physics at the University of Pittsburgh who has evaluated wireless safety for mobile carriers, in a September 21 email.
“Receiving the message is not different in terms of energy or radio waves than any other message.”
Swanson said the sound from these alerts “is no different from any other sound,” adding that a typical small speaker on a phone might produce one watt of power, which would have little impact on the body other than delivering modest vibrations.
He said: “Even if the government weirdly wanted cellphones to blast EM (electromagnetic) radiation at maximum output, and the carriers and phone manufacturers weirdly went along with it, they still wouldn’t do anything that is remotely detectable by the human body.”
Boston University engineering professor David Starobinski, who specializes in communications technologies, said that while there is debate in the scientific community about the degree of radiation from cellular networks, the emergency alerts will have no impact on this.
“There is radiation from the cell tower to the phones, but with the emergency alerts this should not be different than any other form of communication,” he told AFP in a September 22 phone interview.
He said that turning off phones would defeat the purpose of the emergency broadcast test — verifying the system to warn people of impending threats.
“It’s very important to have these systems,” he said. “These frequencies are set aside for emergencies. It’s counterproductive for people to turn off their phones, the purpose is to help them.”
AFP has fact-checked other claims about wireless technology here.