Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/04/24/open_letter/

Dark mutterings on killer Wi-Fi in schools help no one

An Open Letter to Sir William Stewart

By Guy Kewney

Posted in Government, 24th April 2007 12:08 GMT

Column Dear Sir William,

Please: either shit, or get off the pot.

When it comes to Wi-Fi radiation, there's one comment from the anti-radiation lobby that I agree with: "We need another official inquiry - as authoritative as the Stewart reports on mobile phones."

What we don't need is vague waffle of the sort which says that "Sir William is said to be 'very keen' that pupils are monitored for potential health problems", or gossip that "Sir William Stewart, the man who has issued the most authoritative British warnings about the hazards of mobiles, is becoming worried about the spread of Wi-Fi.

"The chairman of the Health Protection Agency - and a former chief scientific adviser to the Government - is privately pressing for an official investigation of the risks it may pose."

Without some authoritative comment, we are going to have to listen to stuff like this, from Alasdair Philips of campaign group Powerwatch.

Philips "believes the radiation from wireless networks is partly to blame for the rise of behavioural problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD".

Philips was quoted as saying: "The problems that many teachers are reporting, such as poor concentration and the four-fold increase in ADHD in the last 10 years are exactly the problems we would predict."

If that's what he said, he's talking nonsense. Wi-Fi has been around for what, four years? And before yesterday's switch-on in central London, in trivial amounts. But ADHD has gone up fourfold in the last 10 years. Therefore, we would predict that if Wi-Fi appeared sporadically from 2002, ADHD would start to quadruple from 1997? Only if we're daft.

He said: "I believe that rolling out wireless networks in schools should be a criminal offence without close monitoring of pupils' health."

Is he basing this on anything that was uncovered by Sir William's investigation?

Last weekend, my cornflakes were spoiled by an apparently fact-based claim in one of the UK's daily papers, that the Stewart report had exposed real dangers from mobile phones, and this had been ignored by the Government.

This doesn't square with what I found out when Sir William Stewart's original report was published. Someone is, in a word, lying.

First, the report I read was not written by Sir William. He was the chairman of the Health Protection Agency which appointed the report committee; and when the report came out, it said absolutely nothing about real dangers. You can read the report yourself here.

What did happen, however, was that at a press conference after the report was unveiled, Sir William was asked what he, personally, thought about some aspects of mobile phone radiation. And he said - personally - that he'd favour conservative approaches.

Now, that's not a stupid thing to say, and I'm not going to pretend it is. What is stupid, is to pretend that he was basing that opinion on anything in the report.

After his personal comments appeared in publications, I went and stuck my nose as far in as I could, because - on the face of it - if his comments were based on hard research, he'd found data which was unique in this field. Many scientists have spent time and money trying to establish what damage, if any, mobile phones could cause: and each time the result has been the same. They can't find any evidence of danger.

Now, "I can't find evidence of danger" is not the same as "they are harmless." And so, since mobiles are only a decade old in mass production, it remains conceivable that there is some as-yet undetected long-term, cumulative damage to human tissue, and that after the next 40 years of heavy mobile use, we'll start detecting patterns.

Sir William was asked if his report gave a clean bill of health to mobile phones and he, correctly, said no. Then - much to the astonishment of the team who worked with him on the report - he went further, and spoke of his own belief that until we did have a clean bill of health it might be wise to restrict exposure to children.

I have asked the department which commissioned this report why Sir William said this. I said: "Is there something you haven't published, which Sir William knows about?" and they said, in so many words: "We don't know, he won't say."

So I asked for an interview with Sir William. He hasn't responded.

Now, we read that "he is privately airing new concerns about the rapid spread of Wi-Fi technology, particularly in schools". This report, by an anonymous leader writer in The Independent On Sunday, is based on an article (same paper) by Geoffrey Lean.

It's quite an article. For example: "Professor Lawrie Challis, who heads the government's official mobile safety research, this year said that the mobile could turn out to be 'the cigarette of the 21st century'." And "a recent authoritative Finnish study has found that people who have used mobiles for more than ten years are 40 per cent more likely to get a brain tumour on the same side of the head as they hold their handset".

Oh, how I'd love to be the journalist who breaks this story. Frankly, I want to believe it. I'm the original sceptic when it comes to the benefits of civilisation and technology. I was with the anti-smoking lobby in the days when GPs still recommended that you took up cigarettes if you wanted to lose weight; I was a sandal-wearing beardy proclaiming the virtues of "naturally fertilised" wholefoods against refined white flour grown in synthetic superphosphate fertiliser, before the term "organic" was even used for this; I was a devoted follower of the gang who proclaimed the greenhouse effects of carbon-dioxide in the days of "Limitations To Growth" - in short, if there's a problem with electromagnetic radiation, I'd just love to be able to prove it.

What I have found, is dead end after dead end, with enthusiastic positive results giving way to "cannot be replicated" or "not done with double-blind" or "anomalous results" or, most frequently, just nothing.

Most recently, a comment on the newswireless bulletin board pointed me to a press release, issued in April 2005, quoting authoritative research by Austrian scientists. I have a press release naming the researchers: Dr Gerd Oberfeld (Land Salzburg, deptartment of environmental medicine), Dr Hannes Schimke (Salzburg University, EEG-measurements, psychophysiology, statistics) and Prof Günther Bernatzky (Salzburg University, neurodynamics and neurosignalling). The research was supported by Dr Gernot Luthringshausen (permanent member of the ethical commission of Land Salzburg, neurology and psychiatry).

Two years later, and the only reference to this research that I can find is a comment complaining about how badly it was done. It was supposed to be published in a learned journal; I can't find that publication.

The Mast Action people keep writing to me to proclaim such scientific breakthroughs, and every time I try to hunt them down I'm left with empty hands. Probably, I need to try harder - but heck, there's a limit to the amount of time I can spend. I'm not a government scientist. I don't have government money to help me look into the research that has been done and evaluate it scientifically.

The Stewart report did. It looked into every bit of research they could find on a mobile phone's effect on humans, and the published report said: "No hard evidence."

I'm tired of this.

There's a possible explanation in standard conspiracy theory. It says that all research which succeeded in showing real harm to humans was hushed up. The Salzburg University paper? - bought by some GSM consortium, buried. And all the other ones; suppressed. The Stewart report? - he was put under pressure by lobbyists who infiltrated the committee and bribed the scientists. He knows, says this theory, but he's not allowed to show his evidence. All he can do is express his private reservations.

If the conspiracy is that deeply buried, I probably can't expose it. But I can say, along with the anonymous writer of the Independent opinion piece: "Let's do an official study."

Let's spend money, repeat all the research we can find showing Wi-Fi damage to humans, see whether it can be replicated, whether there is any evidence.

And the other thing I can say is: "If you know something Sir William, stop making dark hints and vague anxious noises. Tell us what you think, tell us what you know, or think you know."

And if you can't do that, do stop bleating. ®