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WiFi in the news
In August 2007 the German government [Bundesregierung] recommended that the use of wireless (WiFi) networks (WLAN) in the workplace or at home should be avoided, if possible.
Here is the translation of the German document:
Here is the BBC Panorama 21 May 2007 (30 mins)
‘That’s interesting about the Wi-Fi – I got a wireless setup at home about four months ago and have had to stop using it because after about 20 minutes it gives me headaches, and after that I get pins and needles in my feet and hands and I start to feel really light headed and sick. I’ve gone back to a wired connection. I could feel when it was on or off, even when not in the same room.
‘The headache feels like there’s a sort of electrical thing going on between my ears, and it’s very painful between the eyes, like there’s pressure building there. It’s actually very similar to a problem a friend of mine had a few years ago with a Nokia phone, she had the same headaches and also a metallic taste in her mouth, when she changed phones it was OK again.
‘It’s a very strange thing because it’s not all Wi-Fi that does this to me, I can sit in a [public] hot spot and feel fine, but my home setup is really unpleasant, maybe because it’s at such close range. I do also get the same symptoms if I visit [local] Sainsbury’s so maybe there’s some kind of Wi-Fi thing going on up there too – I went there a few months ago for the first time in a about a year and had to leave sharpish.
‘When I can feel it, it’s like the air is heavy and thick, and I find it hard to think clearly, it’s quite hard to put into words. I heard on the news today that some expert is recommending that children don’t hold Wi-Fi devices on their lap, there’s definitely something very wrong with Wi-Fi.’
resident, West Sussex, UK
In 2007 wireless networks have been in the news a lot, as the use in schools has been revealed to be so widespread. For convenience over wiring buildings up, this doesn’t sound unreasonable. But when field strengths in school computer suites with say 20 wireless laptops is compared with those from mobile phone use, the concerns start to seem much more valid [see figures at Powerwatch].
The primary issue is whether the combination of what people report and what the science suggest, should bring about a change in policy, especially if regular prolonged exposure by teachers and children is damaging to either health or academic performance. For the difference in cost between wired network points and wireless networks, how valid is this official statement by the UK’s Health Protection Agency (in red below)?
There is no evidence to date that exposure to the RF signals from WiFi and WLANs adversely affect the health of the general population.
There can be no laboratory evidence that human health is affected by wireless networks because the necessary experiments have not been done, nor have studies been made of chronic exposure of individuals to the radiation from mobile phones. However, several international studies suggest that they pose a significant threat to health.
Also, a number of individuals have presented credible accounts of how they have been personally affected by the introduction of wireless networks and these cannot be ignored.
Any assertion that wireless networks (WLAN) must be safe because not everyone shows obvious physical symptoms, ignores the well-being of those that do. Also, these symptoms could be an early indicator of underlying damage that may eventually affect the remainder of the population.
The signals from WiFi are very low power, typically 0.1 watt (100 milliwatts) in both the computer and the mast (or router) and resulting exposures should be well within internationally accepted guidelines.
Also, the international guidelines are not appropriate. Only acute short-term exposures to unmodulated microwaves are covered. This clearly does not apply to chronic exposure to low-level digital communications as used in wireless networks.
It is also an undeclared assumption in this statement that the only harmful effects of non-ionising radiation are due to heating. Frequency, waveform and quantum effects are completely ignored, even though these are established features of normal bio-electromagnetic responses in living organisms such as humans.
The frequencies used are broadly the same as those from ‘traditional’ RF applications.
‘Traditional’ has no meaning: tradition is a subjective comparison without content, and the assumption is that carrier frequencies are the only relevant parameter. WiFi is indeed part of the IEE 802.11 standard, and the carrier frequencies are similar to those used by mobile phones. The comparison is clearly intended to suggest that everything else has a clean bill of health, and this is not the case.
The frequencies and signals used by WiFi are similar to those used by mobile phones, and recent studies have shown these to be genotoxic, and are associated with an increased risk of cancer and a loss of fertility [see also our EM fields health lists.].
Based on current knowledge, RF exposures from WiFi are likely to be lower than those from mobile phones.
Again this statement is imprecise at best. Current knowledge is not so poor that we do not know what a classroom exposure regime is like. Nor is it a valid comparison to set wireless networks against mobile phones. The comparison is intended to suggest that even if there is a doubt about excessive mobile phone use, there can therefore be no doubt about wireless networks. If there is a doubt about phones (and there is substantial doubt) the underlying assumption is that they can only be harmful on the scale of energy absorption. This is an unwarranted assumption given findings from research into modulation frequency and waveform effects on living organisms.
On the basis of current scientific information WiFi 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 WiFi equipment.
It does not take much scientific information to see that the international guidelines for exposure greatly exceed any likely exposure in a classroom. But as shown above, the issue of the relevance of those guidelines must be in considerable doubt.
The ‘consistency of evidence’ is a function of the underlying assumption of experimental conditions (ie, which parameters matter), and of what constitutes a ‘health effect’, not just a physiological response (HPA always cites sight as a harmless EMF bio-response). ‘RF exposures below guidelines’ is an uninformative broad generalisation of what factors have been examined. Some studies do indeed show a highly consistent effect on specific cell physiology, for example, in cases where that effect is highly significant for health effects.
This statement therefore appears to acknowledge that indeed evidence does exist of adverse health effects, somewhat in contradiction of the first point in the HPA statement.
It is a complete non sequitur that there is ‘therefore no reason’ for schools to avoid wireless networks.
The evidence is there, the consistency in research is there, the inadequacy of exposure guidelines is clear. And in the face of all this, it is deemed wise to chronically expose children and teachers while discussions continue, and while a perfectly acceptable alternative (wired network points) exists.
If a new drug were to be discovered that caused similar symptoms in even a minority of patients, it would probably be taken off the market and certainly not used for regular mass medication. On this basis, the case for the safe universal use of WiFi in schools has not yet been made and it would be wise to withdraw it pending further independent laboratory trials.
Failure to do this might call into question the mandate of the Health Protection Agency as a truly ‘independent body that protects the health and well-being of the population’.
(h.e.s.e.-UK is represented at the HPA EMF Discussion Group: minutes here.)
Addendum: Since the Panorama programme elicited such a response, including a substantial number of people removing domestic wireless networking, the following was added by the HPA to their statement:
‘However with any new technology it is a sensible precautionary approach, as happened with mobile phones, to keep the situation under ongoing review so that parents and others can have as much reassurance as possible. That is why our Chairman, Sir William Stewart, has stated it would be timely to carry out further studies as this new technology is rolled out. The Health Protection Agency is discussing this with relevant parties.’ [h.e.s.e.-UK remains unclear as to what kind of precautionary approach at all has been adopted with regard to mobile phones.]
During November 2006 controversy emerged in the UK news, especially about WiFi in schools. Young people are presumably more vulnerable, and clusters of computers all connecting with WiFi points certainly raise EMF levels beyond what could be called minimal. MPs and scientists called for re-examination and avoidance of WiFi in schools, and industry and engineers dismissed the idea of any risk.
Here is some of the press coverage on WiFi and schools:
Hot on the heels of this was the issue of mobile phone picocells for the home. Why not connect your GSM phone to your broadband connection? Why have a DECT phone, or a landline, when the mobile will connect you, pretty much for free, even for international calls? Hutchison 3 has a deal with Skype for just this. The competition for domestic airwaves is in tune with a need to connect every person to central communications at very low cost, whilst introducing infrastructures that don’t need contentious macrocell base stations.
Inevitably many discussions and blogs have followed, mostly discrediting any idea that any harm might come from such low energy level devices. For people able to sense, or who suffer from, small microwave transmitters, the case is unequivocal. For those majority who have no physical awareness, the issue seems equally unequivocal: people aren’t falling down all over, so how can this possibly be a problem? However, blogs and lots of people talking does not mean balanced or informative discourse, or discovery of the facts.
In the UK ‘The Cloud’ has been descending on our cities providing Internet access on the move (how did we manage without it?). This is a significant addition to the environmental microwave burden and many people are finding their city centres no-go areas except for the briefest visits, because they are made unwell to varying degrees. But it is not just the UK. Here is an account of ‘Wireless Oakland’, Michigan.