Comics are in everything
Ted Nelson @ St Paul's II

Wi-Fi and health

Recently, I needed to prepare something for use at school that would act as a summary to date of this debate. I took as my markers some of the high profile coverage Wi-Fi has received over the last year. It might be worth publishing this brief overview here.

1)  There's no basis for proceeding that's worthy of our consideration other than one based on the scientific evidence. There's masses of conjecture which generates fear, uncertainty and doubt.

2)  Let's start with mobile phones and phone masts - forms of wireless communication the radiation from which is (at source) far more powerful than that emitted by the kinds of wireless access points we'd be installing.

a)  December, 2006: Journal of the National Cancer Institute, a study of 420,095 cell phone users (Danes). They began subscribing to cellular phone services between 1982 and 1995, and the study examines their cancer rates through to 2002. The study 'finds no increased risk of tumors or leukemia in subscribers'; 'Even among the 56,000 people who have used the phones for more than a decade, researchers found no increased risk of cancer'.

b)  July, 2007: the Essex University phone mast study — 'when tests were carried out under double-blind conditions, where neither experimenter nor participant knew whether the signal was on or off, the number of symptoms reported was not related to whether the mast was on or off. Two of the 44 sensitive individuals correctly judged whether the mast was on or off in all six tests, compared with five out of 114 control participants. This proportion is what is expected by chance and was not increased in the sensitive group'.

3)  Now we come to the Panorama programme, 'Wi-Fi: A Warning Signal', that ran last May and which the BBC's editorial complaints unit subsequently (November) conceded had not had 'adequate balance' and so had given 'a misleading impression of the state of scientific opinion on the issue'.

a)  There's a a succinct and clear explanation of a fundamental flaw in the Panorama programme here. From the same source: 'Wi-Fi uses radio frequency (RF) waves that are "non-ionising" - that means they are not powerful enough to knock electrons off molecules in cells. One way they could harm cells is by heating them up. But this requires much higher power than is delivered by Wi-Fi networks or mobile phones (which use similar frequencies).  As every cautious scientist will tell you, you can never prove that something is absolutely safe and no one would want to gamble with the health of children. But there is good reason for thinking that Wi-Fi is, if anything, safer than the radiation from a mobile phone. The UK's Health Protection Agency says a person sitting within a Wi-Fi hotspot for a year receives the same dose of radio waves as a person using a mobile phone for 20 minutes'.

b)  Ben Goldacre, who, of course, writes the excellent Guardian 'Bad Science' column, took the Panorama programme to pieces and has also analysed the whole melange of ideas swirling round the "electrosensitivity" theme: Electrosensitives: the new cash cow of the woo industry; Wi-Fi Wants To Kill Your Children… But Alasdair Philips of Powerwatch sells the cure! ('Of course you should be vigilant about health risks. I don't question that there may be some issues worth sober investigation around Wi-Fi safety. But this documentary was the lowest, most misleading scaremongering I have seen in a very long time.')

4)  I felt it was probably worth my including the two Independent articles from last year, Danger on the airwaves: Is the Wi-Fi revolution a health time bomb? and Wi-Fi: Children at risk from 'electronic smog' (both from April). These will have lodged themselves in the minds of some — and they're truly bad. Ian Betteridge took both apart here, concluding, 'what really matters is that the quality of the Indie's reporting on this is abysmal. Printing scare stories isn't just bad journalism - it's bad behaviour that actually damages our culture, promoting bad, hokey ideas as fact and encouraging anti-scientific and anti-rational propaganda. I'd love to ask the editor of the Indie which they prefer - a world where science and reason are encouraged, or a world of cranks, quacks and charlatans'.

A paragraph or two summing up what we can say we know and how best, then, we should proceed?  I can't really do better than these, from the Guardian article already cited in 3a above:

The World Health Organisation's advice on this is very clear. "Considering the very low exposure levels and research results collected to date, there is no convincing scientific evidence that the weak RF signals from base stations and wireless networks cause adverse health effects."  And an HPA statement issued last week is equally adamant that Wi-Fi almost certainly does not pose a problem. "On the basis of current scientific information Wi-Fi equipment satisfies international guidelines. There is no consistent evidence of health effects from RF exposures below guideline levels and therefore no reason why schools and others should not use Wi-Fi equipment.

And apart from bogus TV experiments, what do we know about the strength of Wi-Fi radiation in homes, schools and businesses? Kenneth Foster, a Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, took 356 measurements at 55 different sites in four different countries to find out. Even though he took his readings close to wireless routers, in all cases he found that the radiation level from Wi-Fi was far lower than international safety standards and often much lower than other radiation sources nearby.  Wi-Fi is a new addition to modern life and no scientist can say with her hand on her heart that it is perfectly safe - particularly in the long term. But there is no theoretical reason to expect problems and no good evidence for any harm. Of course we need more research to understand its effects more thoroughly and also sensible precautions. But misleading and irresponsible scare stories serve only to cloud the issue.

Technorati tags: , , , ,