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Thursday 26 April 2007

Evil Wi-Fi Mutates your Children [Lurks]

The idea that power lines and other forms of electromagnetic radiation such as microwave energy are health risks to human beings is not a new one. Then again the only real proponents of the idea are your usual crackpot pseudo-science groups with a marginal grasp of science. Powerwatch is one such pressure group that has leapt on board the issue with aplumb.
Naturally enough not a single of the many studies conducted has turned up any health concerns. The bottom line is simply this: there are two mechanisms by which some external radiation can affect us. Either by interfering with our central nervous systems by being active in low frequences or by ionising radiation possessing the the ability to create chemical changes in the the materials of our body. Electromagnetic radiation pretty much just doesn't interfer with the nervous system. A tiny tiny minority of people have sensitivity under certain specific and unusual circumstances. The subject has been examined a lot. On the second point, all electromagnetic radiation which is licensed for free transmission is of a firmly non-ionising frequency and hence the best it can ever do is heat you up a bit. Like a microwave oven.
There aren't any health risks. If there was, the sheer prevalence of all of these systems in our society would show up clear correlations. Consider how many people use mobile phones. Consider if the massive power transmitted directly next to the side of your head was a risk in even a tiny amount how this would translate to a large amount of observable health problems in heavy mobile phone uses. The correlation doesn't exist. All it does is heat the side of your head up almost imperceptively, and certainly well within the body to cool itself via normal means. These are the facts. They're concrete and well understood.
However where facts start to get to be a bit of a problem is when you combine it with the cocoon of illogical hysteria that surrounds the subject of children. Now it's one thing having ignorant hysterical parents demanding that Wi-Fi be removed from schools but it's quite another having the Professional Association of Teachers (a Union apparently) coming out and writing a letter to the Education secretary to demand a "full scientific investigation into the effects of wi-fi networks in schools".
This has all the hallmarks of your standard illogical non-scientific thinking. Apparently bad behavior in schools is up and Wi-Fi is the new thing in schools isn't it? So it must be due to that. One doesn't even know where to begin with this crap.
A Wi-Fi device transmits generally a fair whack less than 100mw of power in the microwave band. There's more power in the visible light knocking about in the room and that's actually more energetic than microwaves by a long shot. It's massively massively less power than mobile phones and of course it's not placed on the side of your head either. Any which way you examine it, there is no case to answer here.
Person gets headache. Must be Wi-Fi! There's this classics teacher that claims he's sensitive to Wi-Fi and can tell if it's on or off. He also claims he's developed sensitivity to other EM fields. Now that's actually possible. There are people who have an EM sensitivity generally to fairly powerful magnetic fields in low frequencies from 1Hz up to a couple kilohertz. Here's a study that gives some reproducable examples of some EM sensitive people and what conditions those were. This falls into the realms of low frequency signals interfering with the central nervous system, which we always knew was a possibility.
The bottom line is that there's basically infinitely more danger of mains cables with their substantial electromagnetic fields at low frequencies which there are reported cases of sensitivity to. Other culprits are CRT displays and flourescent lighting (particularly battery powered by an inverter) illiciting the kinds of reaction from people but that couldn't be more removed than Wi-Fi. There's no study showing any effects at all at microwave frequencies because they're far far too high to interfere with our central nervous system. The only real effect is that having being absorbed by common water molecules, microwave radiation dumps it's energy and heats up the absorbant material (such as us) which is how microwave ovens work. So this teacher that claims he can tell whether Wi-Fi is on or not? Bullshit.
There is some concern that things like Wi-Fi and mobile phones often tend to issue bursts of radiation in frequency patterns which are much much lower and that those bursts again fall into frequencies which can affect EM sensitive people. You're probably aware of that sound you get on any sound gear when a mobile phone checks in or you get a text. You're hearing the low frequency component of the pulsing of transmissions rather than the microwaves themselves. The microwaves can, and do, induce an electromagnetic field in conductors and that's what you're hearing. It is therefore conceivable that people with EM sensitivity could be sensitive to mobile phones due to the power.
However the actual low frequency component of the bursts is actually very low indeed. You've heard it right? That's not generally associated with EM sensitivity issues. If someone with EM sensitivity was sensitive to these bursts from mobile phones, they'd almost certainly face severe reactions from the similar frequency EM from mains cables and lighting on a constant basis.
Wi-Fi on the other hand is such a low power it doesn't have this kind of ability at all, that's why you've never heard your Wi-Fi inducing weird sounds on your amplifier. It's 10-100mw of power rather than several watts. Those are the facts and yet... if you want to be fully depressed on the subject, you can read the amusingly titled Dispelling the Wireless Myths on the Powerwatch braindrain site completely with some impressively sounding and massively flawed mathematics.
The problem is to most people Wi-Fi or radio in general is basically witchcraft they don't understand. That leaves itself open to any random correlation such as the fact it killed your cat because the same day you installed Wi-Fi the cat got run over.
Fortunately, in this case, about the only thing these crackpots can end up influencing is deployment of school networks so that they use wired networking instead. Which is hardly a disaster.


  1. This issue made it to the front page of the quality papers this week, so it came to my attention too. You say that it has no effect other than warming the head, but then there are authorative studies that show mobile phone use can increase your risk of tumors on the side of the head you're using your phone by up to 40%.
    Crackpots are saying this stuff? How about the governments head of mobile phone safety research Professor Lawrie Challis, who said that the mobile could turn out to be "the cigarette of the 21st century".
    If there are potential worries, and there seem to be smart people suggesting there is, then at least research into this is justified is it not?

  2. Righty ho then, let's get stuck in. One study in particular that I'm aware of (afaicr the only one to come up with this stuff) says that there's this correlation. It's a flawed study that's been widely criticised. We can get into that if you like but I think you'd be better off on Google. Counter that with the absolute number uno largest study of this kind ever under taken which was done by the Danish government and surveyed OVER 50% OF THE ENTIRE Danish population using mobile phones between '82 and '95 and which found NO cancer correlations whatsoever. The US undertook a major one in 2000, which combined results from a number of researchers and health institutes across the country. ""The data showed no correlation between the use of cell phones and the development of brain cancer. In addition, there was no association between the amount of cell phone usage and brain cancer."
    Yeah, and Professor Lawrie Challis was appointed in charge of a group by the government to investigate the issue. He didn't actually use that language, he agreed with it. Well if he didn't think it was important, he'd quit his job eh? There's a big study underway right now which he's in charge of and despite the fact he thinks this might be like cigarettes, apparently, the best he has to say in real terms is that there is a 'hint' of problems in the data among people who have used mobile for more than 10 years. Does this strike you something to leap upon at all? Investigate, certainly, but no published data, no findings, nada despite the near universal volume of mobile phone usage - I can't see how one can even begin to consider this as the cigarette of the 21st century.
    A key criticism of the link of mobiles phones and brain tumors is that there's no onus in proving that the mobile phones caused the brain cancer or the mechanism in which they could (because there's no known scientific way that can be the case, microwave energy is non ionising, it cannot disrupt DNA) versus the potential scenario that the tumours are spontaneous and that localised heating could advance the condition over a long period of time which at least has a slight basis in science.
    This isn't a smoking issue. There are billions of these devices in the world. They've been in use for a great many years. If it were a smoking issue, brain cancer rates would skyrocket right? Yet they haven't, it remains extremely rare and per population rates in total have remained constant. How can that happen if mobile phones are introduced on such a massive scale and have some kind of correlation?
    Please note though, I'm not saying that mobile phones aren't worthy of investigation. The simple fact one is placing a couple of watt transmitter to the side of your head is something that ought to be investigated, but it has and continues to be investigated in wide ranging studies for many years. The key point here is that if with all this incredible volume of data and studies on the effects of microwaves placed right next to the head at levels thousands of times higher than Wi-Fi, what exactly do you expect to be able to discover by investigating Wi-Fi?
    This is like trying to prove a needle in a hackstack after you dump another truck full of haystacks on top. It's not just about the chance of finding a correlation, it's about the very likelihood of it being true in the first place.

  3. I have to say I'm with Lurks on this one. From what I remember from high school physics & electronics I'm very sceptical that there'd be any effect at all for the reasons above.
    Also, practically, there's so much mobile & wifi use that we'd be seeing huge increases in illnesses and a clear correlation. There is none.
    Given that there's sooo many people in the world using mobiles, it highly likely that some of these will develop brain tumours. Of course you're far more likely to hold your mobile in your writing hand, so you could say that handedness influences the side that brain tumours develop on. How about this?
    Another one of my favourite 'seeing stuff that isn't there' is the whacky Jesus in toast stories you hear. People imposing their natural face/pattern recognition on random crud. Even I used to see faces in the anaglypta wallpaper of my boyhood room.
    So how about this one?

  4. Just to add another scaremongering point to the issue. On my favourite subject, the fate of the bees, there seems to be a growing suspicion that mobile phone radiation is somehow interfering with bee navigation mechanisms (see here).

  5. The issue is speeding up now. Our earlier protagonist Lawrie Challis has come out of the closet again and is now telling children to avoid using laptops. He does this via the esteemed scientific journal of... the Daily Telegraph. Not for any actual solid science, the result of a study, or anything like that but because he's performed the remarkable mathematical evaluation that because the antenna is close to the child (of course it's fine for adults, we can all mutate and get cancer), he's worked out that the 'exposure' to microwaves is comparable to a mobile phone. And as previously indicated, he thinks mobile phones could be the next cigarette.
    This impecable logic is spurred on because he's put this together with the fact that children are more susceptable to evil microwaves because they're more susceptable to other evil polutants like lead and UV radiation. I guess it's worth pointing out the two glaring problems with this latest ZOMG WI-FI KILLS CHILDREN story, firstly even if you put the antennas 2cm from your body (like they are in a mobile and a laptop on your lap), the laptop microwave output is still a fraction of a mobile phone. It's typically 50-100mw versus whole Watts of mobile phones. Secondly, the only thing that science has ever proven happens to any form of living tissue or any other matter in proximity to microwaves is that it heats up. There still is no unobserved effect of microwaves on matter, other than inducing currents in conductors and thermal heating (like all other forms of non-ionising radiation), and this kind of thing is relatively easy to test and has been, for a very very long time.
    Given this is that the real effect of a Wi-Fi sat on a child's lap, heating them up imperceptively, is pretty obviously absolute small beans compared to the dozens of thermal Watts pumping out of a laptop due to the power dissipation in the core components. So that leaves the only, potentially valid and at least observable in a tiny minority of cases, EM sensitivity. Eg inducing electric currents and thereby interfering with the central nervous system. Of a child's lap, apparently. What, it might make their genitals go crazy?
    Make the madness stop. Can we please have some sensible spokespersons countering this scaremongering? The whole nuts and bolts of this argument is that we've not observed any potential effects in mobile phones or other microwave and EM radiation over very very long periods of time in scientific studies. Therefore we can't prove that these things are 100% safe. Therefore there could be a risk! Therefore you should ban your child from using it!
    This kind of fucked up nonsense is getting press time from a bloke who's being employed to basically dig up any potential correlations. He seems to be overstepping his remit by some considerable margin by basically calling a whole bunch of things unproven to be safe and therefore ought to be avoided.
    The public, parents, everyone needs to fucking understand that billions of people use this stuff and have done for decades and not one worldwide scientific research forum has come close to showing a correlation of ill effects, despite many very large scale studies.
    Perhaps it would be more wise to worry about all the things that really do represent some tangible danger to your child. Of which there are so very many in this world and laptops, seriously, are not one of them.

  6. Oh yes, the bees thing the esteemed Dr_Dave thing points out is really interesting. I'm thinking to watch how this develops and blog it as a seperate issue later.

  7. I'll quickly dispel any rumours that I visit this site, but I was passed this link by a friend.
    What a fruit loop.

  8. A great wi-fi dangers discussion here: bizarre rantings of michaelo are well worth a look.Not everyone is a nutjob though, my favourite is:"I keep a canary next to my wireless modem. Whenever it stops tweeting I run out of the house screaming. It's doing my neighbours' heads in."


  9. More underhanded sensationalism debunked at Ars


  10. i have suffered for at least a year with headaches brought on by (and i kid you not) wifi routers.

    i am a pretty level headed guy, 20 years in IT and i am unable to focus, concentrate, whatever when the router is switched on - or when a laptop has its wifi enabled.

    there is definately something in it. why is it dangerous for kids - what physical differences are there between a 40 ish man and a kid. arent we all from the same speices?

    the german govt has issued advice to its citizens warning them not to use it where possible. what does the UK Govt do? sells off the airwaves to the highest bidder for 22 billion (I REPEAT 22 BILLIOOOOOON) - will the uk govt take it seriously NO! hey wakeup and smell the coffee. this is a huge conspiracy.

    3 out of 100 are hypersensitive to wifi. tests done can not prove or disprove anything and test could never hope to replicate real life where there are an assortment of paraphenalia from mobiles, bluetooth, wifi, masts, the list is endless.

    men are less potent, bees are disappearing the guy that couldnt find a link to cancer clusters is incorrect see here

    it states that 4 children from one primary school had cancer. - in the UK. for what so people could text bo**ocks and talk bo**ocks to each other. So people could surf the internet from their garden. big deal- get a life.

    we are all doomed. - i'm off down the local to carry on!!

  11. Hi there metalmickey,why is it dangerous for kids - what physical differences are there between a 40 ish man and a kid. arent we all from the same speices?Well this is the pandering to precious children that gets the headlines isn't it. The old (but still relatively modern) tactic to further a political aim by pointing at our innocent children who cannot speak for themselves. Surely common sense (and childhood experience!) suggests that children are more resilient than adults. Quicker to regenerate an injury. More likely to bounce when dropped from a window than I am. It's easy Daily Mail propoganda.3 out of 100 are hypersensitive to wifi. Where are these 700,000 British people? Avoiding Starbucks and modern office blocks presumably? Experiencing more and more headaches because more and more people in their street have installed wireless DSL routers?tests done can not prove or disprove anything and test could never hope to replicate real life where there are an assortment of paraphenaliaBut surely, if you take a scientific approach, you can prove or disprove whether WiFi (or GSM phones, or whatever) affects your headaches. We take you, we put you in a room, and we turn on/off different wireless equipment and monitor your condition. Or are you acknowledging that its not your router causing headaches, its a myriad of real life conditions that you don't think could be replicated in a lab. is Wifi worse with a prevailing wind now?