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Demonising wi-fi is dangerous to your child’s health

The death of Horowhenua child Ethan Wyman from a brain tumor is tragic news. A family is grieving, the students of Te Horo School have lost a friend and classmate. 

Ten-year-old Ethan apparently slept with an iPod device beneath his pillow, likely listening to music or playing games on it after hitting the sack like a lot of us do. According to his dad, Damon, Ethan was just like his other siblings.

“The only difference was, Ethan had an iPod”.

Ethan’s iPod had a wi-fi chip in it to communicate with a wireless router to access the internet. Most computing devices do these days.

Damon and another Horowhenua father are now spearheading a campaign to have wi-fi hotspots removed from Te Horo School requesting that internet instead be delivered via wired, Ethernet cables.

The Te Horo School Board of Trustees has written to parents, surveying them on their views about the removal of wi-fi from the school and will make a call on it in the new year.

Damon can be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that wi-fi signals were responsible for the brain tumour that killed his son.

The problem is, as scientists often put it, correlation doesn’t imply causation.

There is no evidence to suggest Ethan’s tumour was the result of exposure to electromagnetic fields.

More importantly, there is no evidence anywhere in the peer-reviewed literature to suggest wi-fi signals pose an elevated risk of developing brain cancers.

What the research does say
The current scientific consensus on the health impacts of wi-fi signals is perhaps best summed by the United Kingdom Government’s Public Health England:

There is no consistent evidence to date that exposure to radio signals from Wi-Fi and WLANs adversely affects the health of the general population. The signals are very low power, typically 0.1 watt (100 milliwatts) in both the computer and the router (access point), and the results so far show exposures are well within the internationally-accepted guidelines from the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP). Based on current knowledge and experience, radio frequency (RF) exposures from Wi-Fi are likely to be lower than those from mobile phones. Also, the frequencies used in Wi-Fi are broadly the same as those from other RF applications such as FM radio, TV and mobile phones.

Public Health England came to this conclusion in part after reviewing the results of a study it commissioned that looked at EMF emissions from wi-fi-equipped laptops used in schools. The results were published in Health Physics:

…the main finding of this study is that the power densities around wi-fi devices are well within the ICNIRP reference level at distances of 0.5 m and more

A study undertaken at the same time, looked at the absorption of radiation from wi-fi-equipped devices into the body, specifically looking at children. The results were published in the journal Physics in Medicine and Biology in 2010 and found:

…the highest localized SAR (specific energy absorption rate) value in the head was calculated as 5.7 mW kg−1. This represents less than 1% of the SAR previously calculated in the head for a typical mobile phone exposure condition.

So exposure from wi-fi is much less than exposure from mobile phones, which are typically held next to the head.

But Ethan effectively kept his iPod next to his head because he slept with it under his pillow. Maybe his exposure was greater than if he was using a laptop connected to a wi-fi network? So what does the peer-reviewed literature say about mobile phones and brain cancers?

Again, nothing that points conclusively to mobile phone use leading to an increased chance of developing brain cancers. A few years ago, scientists published the results of the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC’s) Interphone study, a major 10-year international study that focussed on the two most common forms of brain cancer - glioma and meningioma. The study included New Zealand and at the Science Media Centre, we did a press briefing with some of the scientists involved.

Here’s how Martin Gledhill, then senior advisor at the National Radiation Laboratory summed up Interphone:

“While the full Interphone results overall do not suggest that cellphone use is associated with increased risks of brain tumours, the detailed analysis shows a small increased risk for the heaviest users (where use is quantified by hours, but not when it is quantified by the number of calls), but not for anyone else. The researchers caution against interpreting this as a cause and effect relationship as there is evidence that it could have arisen from biases in the data. The fact that laboratory research, including lifetime studies of animals, does not suggest that radiofrequency fields play a role in cancer development also weakens the likelihood that there is a causal relationship.”

Interphone is being followed up with another in-depth study that is seeking more conclusive results based on the increased usage of mobile phones since Interphone took place. Given the pervasive nature of mobile and wi-fi technology in society, this research is incredibly important.

Cherry-picking studies
Concern about wi-fi has been whipped up of late by a New Zealand-based lobby group also opposed to its use in schools.

I can’t decide whether Greg Kasper’s train wreck of an interview on Breakfast TV on the subject two weeks ago is a win for science or not.

The chairman of the lobby group Safer Wireless Technology New Zealand Incorporated aka Ban the Tower, failed to coherently articulate the group’s concerns about wi-fi technology and had to be rescued by sympathetic TVNZ host Raudon Christie several times. Just as well TVNZ hadn’t asked a scientist to sit on the couch and tackle Kasper’s claims – it would have been a bloodbath.

Kasper is a semi-retired accountant who lives in Howick and apparently “has had first-hand experience with unwanted cell towers”. If you are wondering where the scientific expertise in this group lies, its in Dr Stuart Reuben, a retired cardiologist and Toa Greening an ICT engineer. Yep, not an electro magnetic field (EMF) expert in sight.

What’s interesting about them however is that they have engaged a public relations company Passion PR to gain media exposure for a campaign they are pushing. They are not attempting to have wi-fi routers banned, though the more you dig around the Ban the Tower website the more you realise they are determined to get rid of celltowers, smart meters and wi-fi in schools.

Its press release says it wants the Government to undertake research into the “health impacts of wi-fi”. It quotes a September study published in the peer-reviewed journal International Journal of Oncology and which looks at use of cordless phones and cellphones and suggests a link between malignant brain tumors and use of mobile phones and cordless phones. Again, we went out to experts, including Gledhill, for commentary on the findings. He said:

Several analyses which pool the results from all study groups have been published. While these do not include the latest data from the Hardell group, this probably does not have a large effect as Hardell’s latest paper only adds 73 cases to the 243 covered in a previous publication. The most recent pooled analysis concluded that:

“Overall, a causal association between mobile phone use and incidence of glioma, meningioma or acoustic neuroma is not supported by the current study [ie the Lagorio pooled analysis]”.

It would be unwise to take the Hardell findings in isolation: they should be evaluated in the context of similar research, which is generally interpreted as providing no clear indication of an increased risk of brain tumours for periods of wireless phone use up to about 14 years. On the other hand, because of the possibility of long latency periods (the time between the exposure and the development of a tumour), health bodies recommend continuing research in this area.

The Hardell study didn’t even mention wi-fi– but it didn’t stop the Ban the Tower group from heading their press release: Govt urged to fund research into health impacts of wi-fi.

Media adds heat, not light
Wi-fi and celllphones and the alleged link to brain cancer is back on the media’s radar – I’ve had conversations with around a dozen journalists on the subject over the last month. That’s largely down to the Ban the Tower group’s PR campaign to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt.

However, research shows that increased media coverage of the issue leads to more people reporting feeling the effects of exposure to EMF. As the study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research found:

Media reports about the adverse effects of supposedly hazardous substances can increase the likelihood of experiencing symptoms following sham exposure and developing an apparent sensitivity to it. Greater engagement between journalists and scientists is required to counter these negative effects.

Schools as wi-fi blackspots
The Te Horo school example is a legitimate news story for the media. A school is seriously considering switching of its wireless internet coverage. I don’t need to throw any studies at you to show how important wireless access is to education.

Many of the devices kids are using at school can’t even be plugged into a wired internet connection. If you turn off the wireless network, you make it harder for kids to go online to find the learning resources they need.

For those with laptops, it means that kids have to sit near a wired connection which a typical classroom will have a limited number of – that means less time accessing the online learning resources they need. Educational applications are increasingly being targetted at the mobile phone and tablet – all of which are dependent on wi-fi or mobile reception.

Without an evidence base to justify it, turning off the wi-fi is therefore a regressive move that could hurt the development of children.

Damon Wyman may think he is doing the students of Te Horo School a favour. In fact, he is helping to generate the sort of hysteria that could lead to wi-fi networks going dark in schools across the country.

That would be a disaster.

Peter Griffin manages the Royal Society's Science Media Centre. He posts at SciBlogs.

More by Peter Griffin

Comments and questions

This hysteria is typical pseduo-scientific rubbish.

A former colleague installed cell-phone towers. Long before the broadcasting equipment was installed the complaints from the hypersensitive would start coming in blaming the towers emissions for every and any woe they might be feeling that day.

Good to see some detail here, but I'm disappointed that Peter has missed the point when it comes to radiation. Cell phones using their Wi-Fi interfaces for data operate at much lower power levels than they do when using 3g or 4g interfaces.

Providing Wi-Fi in appropriate locations (indoors) for active Smartphone users will result in a net decrease in radiated power.

As a response, I've written in detail here:

You can not be too careful when it comes to the health of the children, the next generation. Remember cigarette smoke, and asbestos dust were thought to be harmless at one time. Parents must be made aware of the dangers of radiation and restrict their childrens use of Ipads and Iphones until it is absolutely proven that they are not harmful.

Really? How do you prove a negative? (Hint: It is mathematically impossible to prove a negative).

If it was up to luddites like you we would still be sitting in caves trying to decide if fire was safe enough to use.

Go live under a blanket in the middle of nowhere if you must, but leave the rest of the world to get on with life unencumbered by your ignorance.

Hi Grumpy
Pharmaceutical companies need to prove drugs are safe before they are approved.
There has been no safety testing of the effects of wireless radiation on children. However, see researcher Gandhi's study, which shows that cell phone radiation penetrates deeper into children's brains. Also there is a recent study affiliated with NIH (Volkow) which shows that cell phone radiation speeds up glucose metabolism in the brain.
Melissa Levine,

For several years, the industries surrounding tobacco and asbestos denied any health hazards too, until the evidence was so overwhelming that they could, no longer, continue that rationale. If wi-fi also proves to have eventual, overwhelming evidence of its harm, it may well be just as catastrophic.
Until that is known, is caution not wise?

If you look at this report: from the National Cancer Institute in the US you'll see the usage of mobile devices increase exponentially while the incidence of brain cancers and tumours unchanged over the same period.

Science has looked for the obvious correlation (eg tobacco and asbestos) and seen no correlation between increased use and increased incidence.

Now science is looking for connections of a lesser nature - but is still struggle to find them.

The Interphone study that Peter mentions is very useful in this regard. You can look at peer-reviewed studies from all around the world and see what's actually been reported instead of hearsay.

One of the studies goes so far as to suggest that cellphone users are less likely to have tumours than those who don't have a cellphone.

Nobody is suggesting cellphones (or wifi or cordless phones or cellphone towers) are good for you but it does demonstrate how infinitesimal the impact of emissions from such devices is.

It takes 30 - 40 years for brain cancers to develop. We haven't been using mobile phones or Wi-Fi that long nor has there been any research performed over such a long period of time. Rather than looking at the Interphone study which was flawed because it clumped cordless phone users with the control group and therefore leads to an underestimated risk you should look at some of Lennart Hardell's studies. One thing that people also need to realise is that epidemiologists when performing studies do not take a holistic view on everyday RF exposure. Even control subjects are being irradiated by cell towers, WiFi, TV and Radio broadcasts every day. This would be like testing smokers and non smokers for cancer when both subjects are located in a room of smokers.
There is no consensus amongst scientists despite what this article suggest by referring to UK Government's thoughts on the matter. Not everyone follows ICNIRP Guidelines and ICNIRP has said their guidelines are not the final word on RF safety. ICNIRP guidelines are based on short term exposures of a thermal nature. They do not adequately address non thermal effects by claiming there is not enough known about them to include them. Non thermal effects include the capability to damage DNA by oxidative stress.
India recently reduced its RF standards to 10% of ICNIRP levels as a result of environmental studies.

There was an interesting documentary played last weekend, on this subject. I was particularly noting of the comment by a wi-fi technician, who wouldn't go within 10 metres of one transmitter when turned on, which is being used attached to school classroom buildings. I believe this 10 metre limit was a health and safely limit, which he was required to observe to comply with OSH rules.

This is just the sort of unsubstantiated rubbish with unreferenced comments that is typical of the hysteria that revolves around this sort of debate. How about naming the documentary, naming the technician and the company that has such H&S requirements?

Sorry, but I hadn't been taking notes - it was a publicly screened programme, not something I was watching for academic purposes, and certainly not something I thought I would be needing to reference in APA style.

I'd love to see that documentary. Do you have a link? The safety limit for wifi is within the boundaries of the box itself because, as Jonathan points out above, the output levels are incredibly low.

Any wifi "technician" who won't come within 10m of one that's operating is either a: not well trained or b: a charlatan who needs to be unmasked before he charges another school many dollars to do a job even I could do.

The documentary in question, was a repeat screening on TV3 on Sunday, Dec 15th, called
Inside NZ ; Is your cell phone killing you.
Originally broadcast back in 2011, it attempted to give both sides of the argument equal airtime.
It is available to view online (not at TV3), on the web by typing in the title.

Here is a clip which highlighted some facts it's on youtube "Cell Phones & Cigarettes: What do they have in Common?"

Well-made point about data over Wi-fi involving less exposure than mobile data connections. I was thinking more of the typical usage in a classroom - more likely tablets and laptops and smartphoners connected to wifi rather than the mobile network (given the cost of mobile data).

Peter puts on his tinfoil undies

Thanks Peter for this overview of the current understanding. Here's an interesting school study getting some attention:

Peter, do you play down the importance of the BioInitiative Report, updated in 2012 to include 1800 new studies, overall showing negative effects from pulsed modulated microwave radiation ie cell phone and wifi radiation?
Or the fact that the World Health Organisation has classified this radiation as a class 2B possible carcinogen. (Ok, "So is coffee" say some people - Show me one person who has ingested coffee every moment of the day for a week - how well would they be?). People are now exposed to radiation from cell phones and wifi 24/7.
ICNIRP themselves say they choose not to use the precautionary approach. Why not, when even one study - such as the easily replicable one that shows the radiation from cell phones damages sperm - should be enough to dictate a 'precautionary approach'.
These are our children we are talking about - our future generations. I for one am tired of industry profits overriding commonsense, and I suggest that people who continue to state the 'no convincing evidence' or 'the weight of evidence' lines will soon find themselves in the position of having to explain why they were so irresponsible, encouraging that risks actively be taken with our children's health.
By the way, last year's ruling of the Italian Supreme Court that a man's brain tumour was CAUSED by his cell phone and cordless phone was not incorrect, was it?
Why isn't this in the mainstream media more? Because the telecommunications companies want to keep their profits flowing in and they do not care about humanitarian values such as not causing harm to people.

You quote Martin Gledhill, who has no PhD and who ludicrously, advised people to cover their homes in chickenwire for protection against EMFs (The Aucklander, 26/11/09). Why should Gledhill's opinion outweigh the actual research and studies of the 29 authors of the BioInitiative, who have 10 MDs, 21 PhDs, 3 Msc, MA or MPHs? The Interphone Study is also cited. Do you realise that this industry funded and designed study, excluded cellphone users under 30, said one call a week was "regular" usage and classified "heavy" use as two and a half hours a week?
There are many such industry influenced studies that are inconclusive or show no effect which the industry PR machine claims to be proof of safety. Yet studies that show nothing do not actually cancel out independently-funded studies that show harm.
The first peer reviewed study linking tobacco to cancer was published in 1939, but with the assistance of inept/corrupt politicians, unscrupulous medical people and a complicit media, the industry managed to obscure the evidence until the 1970s. Schools used to have asbestos in them too. Both tobacco and asbestos were Category 2B for years.
Damon Wyman is not blaming the school's WiFi for his son's death. He is saying his son's demise prompted him to study this subject and that now he knows about it, he wants to minimise potential risk.
WiFi is no faster than hard wired nor any more reliable.
You also quote ICNIRP, who are a self-nominated and covertly-funded organisation, whose previous Chairman Prof. Anders Ahlbom, was exposed as an owner/director of a telecommunications PR company. In fact, ICNIRP was set up by Dr Mike Repacholi, whose links to the industry are well documented. ICNIRP refuses to acknowledge any athermal effects from EMFs , although D Nora Volkow has proven increased glucose production in the area of brain irradiated by cellphones (even on Mute).
No one wants to stop the new technology but we should have at least the same levels of precaution as other countries such as Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Israel and even countries with poor human rights records such as Russia, India and China.
Scientists who refuse to look at both sides of an issue and ignore the WHO's Precautionary Principle are far more of a danger to children's health than removing the pulsated microwaves emitted by WiFi from schools could ever be.

Peter, did you know that Martin Gledhill does not have a PhD and that he advised covering houses in chickenwire to reduce radiation (Aucklander, 26/11/09)? Your article gives credence to his opinion (not research), over the actual research of 29 scientists of the BioInitiative Report, who hold 10 MDs, 21 PhDs, 3 Msc, MA or MPHs.
The Interphone Study is quoted - did you know that this Study excluded cellphone users under 30 yrs? that it classified "regular" use as ONE call a week? and "heavy" use as a ridiculously low, 2 and a 1/2 hrs per week? The public are being hoodwinked into believing that industry- funded and designed studies that show a nil result or are inconclusive somehow, cancel out independently-funded studies that show harm.
Unfortunately, Damon Wyman, has been misrepresented by the media as blaming WiFi for his son's death. The loss of his boy led him to study the subject and that is why he wants the microwave emitted by WiFi, out of the school. It is not reasonable to saturate kids in a possibly carcinogenic substance ever, but especially so when there is a safer alternative. Parents at Te Horo are willing to pay for the school to be hardwired which provides faster and more reliable service anyway.
Tobacco and asbestos were Category 2B for many years. Asbestos used to be common in schools. Both industries funded 'research' and 'experts' to defend their products. The first peer reviewed study linking smoking to cancer, came out in 1939, but the public were not warned until the 1970s.
Apart from industry profit, there is no good reason why NZ should not have at least the same level of protection as Austria, Italy, Israel, Switzerland, Russia and China.

Well said Stephanie. The main point is that all RF EMF is now a class 2B carcinogen and this is a WHO/IARC categorisation. I prefer to put my faith in WHO/IARC as they are the recognised global authority of this topic.

But just to get another perspective.

Source of Funding and Results of Studies of Health Effects of Mobile Phone Use

Studies funded exclusively by industry reported the largest number of outcomes, but were least likely to report a statistically significant result.

B.Tech Information Engineering
BEMS.ORG Professional Member

This is a nearly threefold increase from the 110 million users in 2000. Globally, the number of cell phone subscriptions is estimated by the International .... It is possible that study participants who have brain tumors may remember their cell ...

My personal concern, I spend a lot of time on the Phone, My Children spend a good deal of time on Text, Internet, Etc. So Far I am confused as to what testing is still in progress, what has been deemed as Safe. Etc !