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.
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.