One of the more intriguing elements of Twitter founder and CEO Jack Dorsey’s much-discussed wellness routine are his regular 30-minute visits to a tent in his garage.
It’s not just any tent. Dorsey’s tent made from a steel-infused material that blocks electromagnetic frequencies (EMF) and radio frequencies (RF), according to its manufacturer SaunaSpace. It houses a stool and four near-infrared light bulbs that turn the enclosure into a sauna-or, in SaunaSpace’s words, one’s “very own EMF-free ancestral space.”
“If I were to bring my phone in there, for instance, there’s no signal whatsoever. There’s no radiation EMF from power, from Wi-Fi, from cellular,” Dorsey said on a March episode of biohacker and fitness guru Ben Greenfield’s podcast. “It feels a little bit different because you’re not getting hit by all the EMF energy.”
Celebrating a place that cell phones can’t reach seems a curious choice for someone whose signature product encourages people to spend as much time with phones as possible. But acolytes don’t seem to mind: Since that interview, the Columbia, Missouri-based SaunaSpace has been hit with a wave of business.
“It was a pretty epic endorsement, actually,” founder and CEO Brian Richards told Quartz. “We can’t answer all the calls, we can’t follow up on all the voicemails.”
Dorsey’s tent is called the Faraday-appropriate, given that its designed to function as a Faraday cage. In the 19th century, the English scientist Michael Faraday showed that when an electrical charge hits a container completely covered in a conductive material, no charge can be detected inside the container. Today, any enclosure designed to block EMF is referred to as a Faraday cage.
SaunaSpace’s $5,499 Faraday tent is at the higher end of the many commercial products claiming to shield users from the supposedly harmful effects of EMF, from hats to jewelry, to underpants.
The degree to which EMF can negatively affect humans’ health is in dispute. What experts agree on, however, is that there is virtually zero evidence that any of these commercial products-expensive tents included-offer any health benefits.
“I think all of those are scams,” said David Carpenter, a professor of environmental health and director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the State University of New York, Albany. “A real, heavy-duty Faraday cage that people can sit in maybe reduces their exposure somewhat, but it’s not a practical solution. The reality is we’re all bathed with electromagnetic fields, everywhere we are…I think they’re just feeding on gullible people.”
There are many practical and legitimate reasons to use a Faraday cage, but improving health isn’t one of them. The structures are typically used to test sensitive electronic equipment, where even slight interference from ambient electric signals could skew results; in crime investigations, to prevent evidence being digitally wiped from seized electronics; or in military operations, to avoid enemy detection. They can also protect people from lightning strikes.
Select Fabricators, a shielding equipment manufacturer based in upstate New York, says the vast majority of its sales are to the US government and its contractors. In recent years, however, it’s had an increasing number of inquiries from individuals shopping for personal use.
“We do get phone calls a lot for personal or health reasons,” Select Fabricators’ president Andrew Pluta said. “We find that usually those don’t pan out, I would say mostly for pricing reasons.”
SaunaSpace makes no specific claims about the health impacts of its Faraday tent, other than that it will allow users to “escape the health-harming electromagnetic frequencies.”
“As the global march toward more wireless technology advances, we need better RF shielding performance,” the company’s website states. But SaunaSpace offers no evidence for why, exactly, better RF shielding is necessary, nor the particulars of how EMF harms health.
“I of course don’t have any clinical studies to show you. I don’t have that. It’s a new product,” Richards said of his Faraday tent, a form of which has been on the market since June 2018. “I can only speak to theoretically what’s going on, and it is a better-yeah, it’s better.”
SaunaSpace promises no specific health benefits as a result of using its Faraday tent. In his public endorsement, Dorsey didn’t either. (Quartz reached out to Dorsey through his company Twitter and will update this post if he has any additional comments.)
The product seems to belong to the fuzzy world of high-end wellness: an expensive thing that both buyer and seller associate with healthfulness, even in the absence of empirical evidence.
“People aren’t going to be damaged by hiding in aluminum foil. They’ll just look silly. That’s not as bad as not having your kids vaccinated,” said Bob Cahn, senior scientist emeritus at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “But its part of something larger, of people being seduced by pseudoscience.”
Sitting in a steel-coated tent is not by itself harmful. Tents are fun, as anyone who ever pitched a blanket fort as a child knows. The dangers of pseudoscience are in the alternatives they eclipse. Carpenter says he’s often contacted by people reporting profound physical distress-weakness, headaches, vision or cognitive problems-from what they believe to be electromagnetic interference. Their suffering is real, he says, even if there’s no evidence to support their belief that EMF is causing it.
People in pain become desperate, and desperate people will grasp at flimsy solutions-even if they can’t really afford them, even if they divert money, time, and effort from potentially more effective alternatives. Dorsey has nothing to lose by buying a Faraday. That’s probably not true of everyone who hears his endorsement of it.
Richards is adamant that his product has real benefits, even if there is no documented evidence to justify that claim. One solution to the lack of clinical trials would be to commission their own double-blind comparison of the Luminati, a similar personal sauna tent made of canvas, and the Faraday. The company has considered that, Richards said, but have tabled the idea because of cost-even small-scale studies can run in the tens of thousands of dollars-and because customers don’t seem to care.
“There’s not a whole lot of motivation, because of the amount of business we’re getting,” Richards said of the Faraday. “All my big customers, the famous ones, they only use that one.”