Disconnected thinking

[As ever, you can read this on the BBC News website. And while the tinfoil hat brigade is already assembling there are some voices of sanity]

Students at Canada’s Lakehead University have to be careful how they connect to the internet because wifi is banned on large parts of the campus.

University president Fred Gilbert, whose academic interests include wildlife management, environmental studies and natural resources science, is worried about the health impact of the 2.4Ghz radio waves used by wireless networks

Last year he decided to adopt the precautionary principle and refused to allow wifi in those areas that have what he calls ‘hard wire connectivity’ until it is proved to be  safe.

Gilbert believes that ‘microwave radiation in the frequency range of WiFi has been shown to increase permeability of the blood-brain barrier, cause behavioural changes, alter cognitive functions, activate a stress response, interfere with brain waves, cell growth, cell communication, calcium ion balance, etc., and cause single and double strand DNA breaks’.

Unfortunately he is wrong, and his students are suffering as a result.

While the heating effects of high exposures to electromagnetic radiation can be damaging, the power levels of wireless connections are much lower than the microwave ovens and mobile phones which share the frequency range, and  treating them in the same way is the worst sort of scaremongering.

Yet Gilbert is not alone.

In 2003 parents sued a primary school in Chicago because it had dared to provide children with easy access to computing resources over a wireless network, and there are a number of pressure groups, campaigning organisations and ill-informed individuals who believe that wireless networks pose a threat to health and want to see them closed down.

Now it seems they have been joined by the editor of the Independent on Sunday, which this weekend filled its front page with a call for research into the ‘electronic smog’ that is permeating the nation’s schools and damaging growing childrens’ brains.

An accompanying editorial with the even-handed headline ‘high-tech horrors’ called for an official inquiry, while the article outlining the perceived dangers asked ‘is the Wi-Fi revolution a health time bomb?’

The answer, of course, is ‘no’, but that will not stop the newspaper stoking up a wave of opposition to one of the most liberating technologies to have come out of the IT revolution, limiting children’s access to networked computers at schools and even blocking plans to develop municipal wireless networks in our towns and cities.

If the journalists were really concerned about the dangers of radio frequency electromagnetic radiation on the sensitive brains of the young they should be calling for the closure of TV and radio transmission towers rather than asking us to turn off our wifi laptops.

The modulated frequencies that carry Radio 4 and and ITV into our homes are just as powerful as the wireless networks, and a lot more pervasive.

And my wireless network is only carrying data when I’m online, while Radio 3 burbles all day long, possibly exciting electrons in my brain and causing headaches.

Then there is the danger from photons of visible light streaming down onto us as we work, since these carry more energy than microwaves and could surely do more damage.

Perhaps we should demand that our children work in the dark.

The fuss over wifi is the latest manifestation of a general worry about electromagnetic radiation, one whose concerns have ranged over the years from the fields around power transmission lines to the radiation emitted by computer monitors to the microwaves put out by mobile phones.

Campaigners are often supported by those who claim to be so sensitive to electromagnetic radiation that they cannot bear to have a radio turned on in the same room because the fields affect their brains, or those who claim that using a mobile phone gives them headaches.

Unfortunately studies like that of James Rubin from the Institute of Psychiatry indicate that such people are just as likely to get a headache when they believe there is a phone signal present even if it is in fact absent, and other research into electromagnetic sensitivity is equally negative.

There is no evidence that electromagnetic radiation at radio frequencies, where the energy levels are too low to dislodge electrons and affect molecular bonding, can cause health effects except by heating tissues.

While those who want to limit the use of wifi argue that they need evidence that is it safe, the problem with trying to prove that something is safe is that you can’t.

Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science, helped us to understand that science is about falsification, about setting up hypotheses and theories and proving them wrong, because you can never prove them right.

Any theory can be overturned by new evidence, and any claim that wireless networks are completely safe could be thrown out tomorrow if we find good evidence that it isn’t.

We may come up with a hitherto unsuspected mechanism that explains a previously disregarded effect, or the evidence may be statistical and require detailed investigation.

Were that to happen we should take it seriously, but it has not happened and there is no reason to believe it will. The precautionary principle, of avoiding exposure to unecessary risk, does not apply here because there is no known mechanism by which wireless networks could cause damage.

We have a sound model of the interaction between electromagnetic radiation and organic matter that gives us little reason to believe that there will be any dangers.

For William Stewart, chairman of the Health Protection Agency and a former chief scientific adviser to the Government, to argue for an investigation on the basis of no real evidence that there is an effect, and in the absence of any plausible physical mechanism, is indefensible.

Cellphones heat the brain and could cause problems. Wifi doesn’t, and it is safe.  My daughter is sitting here as I write, her new wireless laptop beside her, and I’m a lot more worried about the damage she would do if she dropped it on her foot than I am about the impact of the low power radio waves it emits.

Bills Links

Lakehead policy

Rubin research

Independent article

US Government research and advice

7 Replies to “Disconnected thinking”

  1. I am writing this on a wi-fi enabled laptop, under overhead power cables on a train carriage carrying thousands of volts of electricity, being bombarded by my neighbour’s radiating mobile phone – on top of the broadcast TV, radio, satellite communications, background radiation and Bluetooth.

    Am I doomed? Perhaps we should all wear chainmail Farraday cages.

  2. The Gizmorance of the Techno Sheep – Dispelling the Wireless Myths

    An open letter to Bill Thompson (and the other gadget freaks).

    I admire your ostrich like attitude to wireless technologies. I can only assume that your body works along

    different lines to those of most humans and that the laws of physics and biology don’t apply to you. Or maybe you should get out more.

    For those of us who live and breathe with other people I would rather side with the “tin hat brigade” than follow your Gadget Gang of Techno Sheep (or is it Techno Lemmings?) who blindly buy gadgets and believe that the Government and Large Companies only have their well-being in mind and would never expose them to dangers in the name of profit. Oh no.

    Wake up and smell the coffee! So-called experts set (far too high) exposure limits according to measurements made years ago taking notice of a very narrow set of studies dating back even further. Non-thermal effects were conveniently excluded. Manufacturers and Wireless/Mobile Operators exploit these limits to the maximum and produce gadgets which emit up to the allowed limits to produce the best coverage and to maximise battery life for the optimum cost. All other factors, such as the safety and comfort of users, come a very poor second.

    It is YOUR understanding of the Science that is wrong! You have glibly put all of your misunderstandings and slant on the situation – 2 + 2 = 5 doesn’t it?

    I suggest that you re-acquaint yourself with the real picture at “Dispelling Wireless Myths” – with referenced studies.

    Referenced studies were strangely absent from your article – maybe none could be found to support your stilted view?

    If the Large Companies don’t totally succeed in destroying all life on the planet it will surely be the “tin hat brigade” who will inherit (the remnants of) the earth from the extinct Techno Sheep. You won’t be missed.

    Martin Sharp
    (With a Scientific and Technical background – gasp!)

  3. Pingback: pligg.com
  4. Bill – thanks for the link. Nice to be called a ‘voice of sanity’. Must tell the wife.

    Anyway, the comment from Martin above spurred me to post again on the quackometer. His reference, “Dispelling Wireless Myths”, is classic bit of selective reasoning. I particularly like the idea that you can prove people are being harmed by EMR from studies on sperm, fruit flies and storks (no kidding, go read). This is in contrast to about 35 studies that have really been done in the area of electrosensitivity and are not discussed by powerwatch. I give reasons why this may be so on my blog…

  5. Andy, you appear to entirely miss the point of the reference. The four studies were showing that clear, non-thermal, non-psychosomatic effects could be found from fairly typical RF exposure. It does not mention Electrical Hypersensitivity because that is not what it was looking at. You also claim “you can prove people are harmed by EMR” – again, this is just weasel wording on your part. This is certainly not the claim we made on the reference.

    However, I do agree that Rubin (and Wessely) have not been well enough covered by us as yet, but we do have a number of comments, particularly on the study you have referenced on your link. Simon Wessely (of whom James Rubin is the protege) is, interestingly, primarily a psychiatrist, and it would be more interesting from our perspective if someone with a more biological background would actually analyse brain responses from participants instead of rather subjective self-questionnaires. We will get onto this, as well as a number of other important papers, fairly shortly (we are re-writing a large part of the scientific analysis on the site at the moment).

    That aside, there is good peer-reviewed research showing EEG alteration from RF exposure, and that separately also contains a fair degree of interest that there are things going on.

  6. I wouldn’t be so quick to discount effects on health. I and my son have been having strange health problems and I just recently found out we live next to a radio tower and a cell tower and are 2 miles away from a dam. I discovered these things because I got a laptop and didn’t think there was WiFi out in this rural location. I have some legal problems, and someone kept hacking into my computers, BEFORE I ever went ONLINE. I didn’t think that was possible. So someone said it was through the WiFi or Bluetooth. I turned it off, physically on the computer, and in the program I disabled it, and someone was OVERRiding this and turning it back on. A bunch of malicious stuff was put on my computer and there were attacks and the first thing I did when I finally went online was download an antirootkit which pulled up all kinds of crap. So I couldn’t fix the problem, and someone said get a desktop without Vista. So I did, and on 2 different desktops, BEFORE I went online, someone was disabling features and messing around and ADDing folders to the icon desktop screen. I asked how in the world can someone do this? There was no WiFi card enabled and I wasn’t online. My son’s battery operated toys were being turned off and on too. I also had phone calls made to one organization rerouted to another business all the time and weird harassment over the phone. During this time, I and my son became very sick. I developed and he did as well, severe muscle twitching. I had pulsing pain that was unexplained as well and pain in my back, spine, and pelvis. It got to the point I could hardly walk. I was weak after 3 monhths. I and my son woke up in the middleof the night, several times, and he would wake crying and I would be in pain. I thought he was having nightmares and then I noticed his twitching was coordinated with mine. We twitched and felt pangs at the same time. It wasn’t random. I also had diarrhea and heart arrythmias and felt like I was almost going to have a seizure. It was bizarre. On top of this, the worst aching feeling in my back, pelvis and spine and then the day after I told my doctor I was dying (after going to his office many times), it stopped. It just went away but then my son and I still had twtiching and couldn’t sleep at night. During this time, these last months, I began hearing radio on my phone. So no big deal, someone said get a filter at Office Depot. I put the filter on and it blocked the radio (which was very loud–I could make out everything, weather, news, music) for a couple days and then it got cranked up again and I was hearing it past the filter, loud. I was told by a computer tech who has done work for the FBI and police that the only way someone could get into my desktops was through a microwave dish pointed in my direction, sending out a pulse and picking up info on my computer, or by riding radio frequency but it would have to be very high. He said only very strong levels of microwaves could enable battery operated things to be turned on. Also, before all these problems and the hacking, my original computer fried. It burned up. Then my heater, on the same wll, melted, and then christmas Nona lights at the base were melting. Someone said maybe it was electrical but the wall is fine and other things plugged in haven’t been affected. I wonder if someone directs a dish it could do this? I don’t know. But something has been going on. I have some of the symptoms of radiation and my blood tests indicate this as well, though I did have a recent bone scan which uses radioactive material (but it wouldn’t affect blood that much supposedly). I didn’t come up with the idea about microwaves and RF…I just wanted an explanation.

    Don’t tell ME this stuff isn’t harmful. They need to do more studies, and I hope it’s with consent.

    My legal problems, by the way, have just so happened to involve a coulpe of bad apples from the FBI who have managed to obstruct justice with help of FBI and police buddies, and there are monied parties who are with the Catholic church that I guess I’ve “offended” as well. My problems began with litigation with the Catholic church. I have had major problems ever since. But this is new. What’s not coincidental, is that right before this all began, it was right before Thanksgiving, and I found out some information about these parties and how they’re connected, some, by marriage. Big discoveries and then I started having computer and health problems that were unexplained.

  7. Oh, and, guess what worked to alleviate the pain? THe only thing that helped during this time, when narcotics did NOTHING to touch the pain, and Over the counter, by handfuls, did nothing…the only thing that provided INSTANT and complete relief, was being immersed in water, in the tub.

    I later found out magnetic fields don’t cross into water.

    As soon as I would get out, my body hurt instantly again. It wasn’t a “comfort technique”. The water completely took the pain away and I didn’t know why. It didn’t make any sense. I took high levels of prescribed narcotics and they did NOTHING for this pain. Only water immersion.

    Explain that.

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