Can we have a proper study of Wi-Fi, please?

Paging James Randi

Will Sir William Stewart's project actually be launched? We don't know. Will it find anything?

There are, sadly, grounds for doubt. To quote Dr Gro again: "We do not have scientific evidence to go out with a clear warning. It is not established that the radiation for instance can result in brain cancer. WHO has a big study going on and in two to three years from now, we will have better answers to all these questions."

That was in 2002. Answers to these questions: did they emerge from WHO in 2004 to 2005? None that I can find support Dr Gro. Quite the opposite: the WHO's official tests and official policy says there's no reason to suspect low-level radio signals of causing health problems.

And frankly, even if we did find incontrovertible evidence that "electrosensitivity" is as classifiable as pollen sensitivity, what then?

There's not the slightest doubt about pollen sensitivity. The symptoms can be disabling, requiring medication to allow the victim to go out of doors, even in the city...and yet nobody says: "Destroy all grasses! They are merely making money for the big baking combines." Because we understand that the sensitivity is not a life-threatening one. It's like having to wear dark glasses when skiing. Similarly, snow blindness isn't trivial, but we can cope with it.

If the cause of electrosensitivity symptoms turns out to be detectable, it's quite plausible that a treatment could be sought. We know how the histamine response works and we have anti-histamines. But nobody is looking for an anti-Wi-Fi treatment, however, because nobody knows how the cause and effect might be linked - mostly, because the same effects are detectable in the bodies of those who are "sensitive" and those who are not. None of them seems to cause electrosensitivity.

So you could say that I am being disingenuous in asking for a proper, scientific investigation. We don't seem to know what we're trying to study, nor do we seem to have a reliable way of detecting what is causing this problem that we can't study. And worse, we have good reason to believe that even if we do such a study, Wi-Fi radiation simply hasn't been around long enough.

We do know that the effects of different frequencies of non-ionising radiation are different. All mobile phone radio could be called "microwave", but if you try to cook your pizza with radiation at 900 MHz, you'll have to add a radiator. You need 2.4 GHz to boil water; that's the frequency where water is most effective at blocking the waves, and therefore most effective at making water hot. So maybe, just maybe, 2.4 GHz is a special frequency, which has unknown effects which don't apply to mobile phones?

As any epidemiologist will tell you, the only way around this sort of problem is hard statistics. Long-term usage should show definite trends, where more people exposed to the phenomenon have a symptom, and more people not exposed, don't; or have it in significantly smaller numbers.

And we don't have any long-term figures.

What we do know, is that Wi-Fi doesn't cause cancer, and that people who are living in a Wi-Fi area don't come down with electrosensitivity; they only get it when in the area of a known transmitter. So the good news is, no need to panic.

And finally, can we have a sense of proportion in the protests?

I entirely agree with those who say that things like the Panorama programme are "scare-mongering", because they are. The programme makers have absolutely no hard data on which to base their anxieties. But even if there does turn out to be a detectable effect, it's completely unjustified to treat it as a major problem.

My favourite clash with mast debaters on this was outside the local fire station last summer. There, a group of people stood, grim-faced and determined, in the sunshine, adamant that their children, who were within half a mile of a proposed 3G phone mast, should be spared this danger. And I can assure you that even with Factor 50 sun cream, they will have been exposed to more radiation in the hour or so they spent on the street, than they will ever "suffer" from having a Wi-Fi access point in their classroom.

As a perceptive friend put it: "I wish James Randi would investigate this." Randi spends his time trying to expose and debunk dowsers and other paranormal practitioners; and there's no doubt at all that many of them are simple tricksters. And the remaining earnest and sincere believers, even when they think they can do magic, are satisfied with "proof" that simply doesn't stand up.

If there are ways in which humans can detect microwaves then it will be really interesting to see if we can be taught to do so. But any headaches you get from that are simply not going to be the symptoms of life-threatening disease, any more than a feeling of nausea at seeing a stale fish means the rotten meat is spreading humours which will shorten your life.

In the mean time, don't imagine that the Panorama programme has advanced our knowledge by a millimetre. It was, clearly, put together by people who didn't know what they were doing; and was full of absolute howlers. The BBC website is equally well provided with evidence of ignorance, for example:

Readings taken for the programme showed the height of signal strength to be three times higher in the school classroom using Wi-Fi than the main beam of radiation intensity from a mobile phone mast.

The findings are particularly significant because children's skulls are thinner and still forming and tests have shown they absorb more radiation than adults.

The point about skull thickness related purely to mobile phones, which are placed right against the ear, and where it was shown that an adult skull absorbed all the energy. Quoting it in the context of Wi-Fi is, like much else in the report, just a dead giveaway: "You don't know what you're talking about." ®

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