Can we have a proper study of Wi-Fi, please?
Paging James Randi
Column Well done, Sir William Stewart.
Only four weeks ago, we called for serious research into wireless radiation. The good news: Sir William Stewart - chair of the Health Protection Agency - has said that the time has come to do this research.
My only problem with this is that I honestly doubt any useful information is going to emerge from it.
OK, let's go back to 2002. The then head of the World Health Organisation, Dr Gro Harland Brundtland (former Norwegian Prime Minister), went public with the dangers of mobile phone radiation. She's a doctor. She said (I quote from a translation) "There is no doubt."
Here's her testimony, in full:
"It's not the sound, but the waves I react on. My hypersensitivity has gone so far that I even react on mobiles closer to me than about four metres," Gro explains.
When we sit with her in her office at "Helsetilsynet" in Oslo she asks if there is an active mobile phone in the room. She finds that she has developed a slight headache. The cellular phone of the photographer was turned on but without sound in the pocket of his jacket.
The earlier Minister of State [Prime Minister] never had a mobile of her own, but she has close associates who do and she earlier often received calls on their phones. She says there are reasons to be cautious about mobile phone use.
"In the beginning I felt a local warmth around my ear. But the agony got worse, and turned into a strong discomfort and headaches every time I used a mobile phone," Gro says.
She thought she could escape the pain by shorter calls, but it didn't help.
Neither did it help that she herself stopped using a mobile phone. Today it is a tool everybody uses, also at her workplace, the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva.
"I felt after a while that I had developed a sensitivity against the radiation.
"And in order not to be thought to be hysterical - that someone should believe that this was just something I imagined - I have made several tests: People have been in my office with their mobile hidden in their pocket or bag. Without knowing if it was on or off, we have tested my reactions. I have always reacted when the phone has been on - never when it's off. So there is no doubt."
How can anybody doubt such expert evidence?
And yet, I'm afraid I do doubt it. The first law of testing health treatments or hazards - a basic, fundamental, high-school level fact - is that any tests which are not double-blind are pretty much random noise.
You have to have a situation where Dr Gro herself doesn't know whether the phone is on or off. And you also have to have a situation where the person bringing the phone into the room with her doesn't know, either. It's possible, of course, that Dr Gro just didn't think it was worth mentioning "double-blind" and perhaps the translator didn't get it either. So what next?
If you watched the latest BBC Panorama report and are now in a tizzy about the damage being done to children by Wi-Fi radiation, you'll have seen another "electrosensitive" sufferer having to coat her home with tinfoil. You'll have seen her in a laboratory, wired up, doing tests to see if she can or cannot tell whether the phone is on or off. The results were described as "just in" and "apparently" showing a 60 per cent accuracy; that is to say, in 40 per cent of the cases, the phone was off, and she thought it was on; or it was on, and she thought it was off.
The BBC programme didn't mention "double-blind" either, and it was clear from the programme that the research wasn't complete, so quoting it is pretty meaningless. The level of technical detail in the show was set deliberately low, and the level of showmanship and animated graphics was deliberately high, so it's perfectly possible that it was a double-blind test, and the director thought "double-blind? sounds scary..."
So, well, nothing. Until the double-blind test is rigourously carried out a significant number of times, we have no data. And even if Dr Gro manages to prove conclusively that, as she says, she will "always react when the phone is on, never when it's off" we are still short of data. The problem is: knowing that the thing is on, and being damaged by it, are two very separate matters.
For example, I can always, quite reliably, tell if a pocket penlight torch is on or off. I get a strong indication of "light" when it's on... and I can do a LOT better than 60 per cent! - especially if you shine it into my eyes. Is it causing me damage? Apart from the effect on my retinal purple, which is temporary, no.
But she was in pain, you say. Well, again, we're nowhere near establishing that the pain is a symptom of damage. I know people who suffer severe pain just from sitting in a car. No, they aren't "imagining it" at all! - the symptoms are real. But the cause? Fear produces stress; stress produces "flight or fight" responses. Chemical changes occur in the physiology. Actually, these changes are dangerous! Adrenaline and "instant energy" fuels injected into your blood-stream have been shown to damage your arteries if they aren't burned off by vigourous exercise. Have we ruled out the possibility that the pain is the result of fear and stress?
No such scientific evidence exists for the damage caused by wireless transmissions. Oh, sure; there's evidence of odd effects: for example, chromosomal cluster fragmentation; your DNA breaks. But broken DNA doesn't cause the symptoms that Dr Gro or Sylvia complain of. You can have your DNA shredded to such a degree - by actual radioactivity - that you will die, and you will still not get the instant headache or other symptoms which electrosensitives suffer. There's tons of research, some dubious, some less dubious, all showing biological effects - but none of the effects explain the symptoms.
One should, of course, always be suspicious when a technology that makes enormous amounts of money for entrenched business interests, is declared to be harmless. Independent investigation, clearly impartial, without any risk of losing funding from those vested interests, is the only way forward.
But the way forward is NOT to start spouting nonsense about "Wi-Fi is three times more powerful than mobile phone masts!"
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." ®