The Times (London)  [Printer-friendly version]
December 11, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: For several years, the Times of London has
been reporting on emerging evidence that some people feel effects
from electromagnetic radiation produced by cell phone towers and
wireless computer networks (wi-fi). Will anyone heed these early

By Nicki Daniels

Concern about the safety of wireless networks is mounting, with people
blaming everything from headaches to cancer on the technology

It started as a low murmur, and has now risen to a persistent hum.
Thanks partly to a lively correspondence in the pages of The Times,
the debate about the safety of wireless networks is gathering
momentum. Is this new technology a threat to human health comparable
to smoking -- as some campaigners claim -- or an electric storm in a

Wireless networks -- known as wi-fi or wLAN (wireless local area
network) -- are increasingly used in schools, offices and other public
places to connect computers and laptops to the internet using
radiofrequency transmitters with no need for complex cabling. In
future, whole town centres will be transformed into wi-fi "hot spots",
enabling people to access the internet wherever they are through hand-
held devices, including mobile phones. Indeed, Milton Keynes, Norwich
and the borough of Islington, in North London, already have this WiMax

It has taken the public a while to wake up to the idea that wireless
transmitters could be less than benign. As with mobile phones, we
first embrace the liberating new technology and only later ask the
awkward questions. Perhaps, as with pharmaceuticals, the order should
be reversed. The official line on the health implications of wi-fi is
that exposure to low level electromagnetic radiation from wireless
networks is well below recommended levels and that there is no
evidence of risk. But despite these soothing words, the groundswell of
concern is mounting, with some people blaming everything from
headaches to cancer on exposure to radio-frequency fields.

As reported in this newspaper, a number of schools have dismantled
their wireless networks after lobbying from worried parents, and
others are under pressure to follow suit. In Austria the public health
department of Salzburg has advised schools and kindergartens not to
use wLAN or cordless phones. Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada,
which has 7,400 students, has removed wi-fi because of what its Vice-
Chancellor, Dr Fred Gilbert, calls "the weight of evidence
demonstrating behavioural effects and physiological impacts at the
tissue, cellular and cell level".

Some experts have also expressed concerns. In September, 30 scientists
from all over the world signed a resolution calling for a "full and
independent review of the scientific evidence that points to hazards
from current electromagnetic field exposure conditions worldwide."
Closer to home, the Irish Doctors Environmental Association (IDEA) has
asked its country's Government to carry out "a full assessment of the
health impacts of electromagnetic radiation".

"There has been no research specifically looking at the effects of
wireless networks on human health," admits Alasdair Philips, the
scientific and technical director of the lobby group Powerwatch. "But
I have seen enough anecdotal material to be convinced that some people
are affected by them."

David Dean, 43, a councillor in Merton, South London, and the managing
director of a publishing company, describes himself as a human
antenna. "The moment I go into people's houses I know whether they
have wi-fi because my head starts to buzz. I had to leave my last job
because I couldn't stand up for more than ten minutes in the office
and my boss would not remove the wi-fi. My heart raced, I had double
vision and really bad headaches. It felt as though my head was in an
arm lock. Twice I have been into homes where the children were
screaming monsters. After I suggested to the parents that they turn
off the network for two days, the kids were transformed."

Anxiety about wi-fi has focused on the effect of electromagnetic
radiation on children because they have thinner skulls, less fully
developed nervous systems and will undergo a lifetime of exposure to
cellphone technology. In his report on mobile phones, Professor Sir
William Stewart, the chairman of the Health Protection Agency (HPA),
acknowledged that radiation below guideline levels, while thought to
be safe, may have effects on the body. He therefore advocated a
precautionary approach, including close monitoring of radiation from
masts near schools and a recommendation that the beam of greatest
intensity from a mast should not fall within the grounds of a school.

"The emissions from wireless networks are very similar to those from
mobile phone base stations in terms of frequency and signal
modulation," says Philips, who, it must be said, runs a company
selling electromagnetic radiation detectors and blockers. "Many
published reports have shown ill-health affects apparently associated
with living and working close to mobile phone masts. In a Latvian
study of 966 children, motor function, memory and attention were
significantly worse in the group exposed to radiation from a pulsed
radio location station. The exposure levels were low, but similar to
those that children in classes with wLANs will be exposed to."

Dr Michael Clark, of the HPA, says published research on mobile phones
and masts does not add up to an indictment of wi-fi. "All the expert
reviews done here and abroad indicate that there is unlikely to be a
health risk from wireless networks," he says. "The few studies on
mobile phone masts that have appeared in peer-reviewed journals
claiming to observe health effects are not at all conclusive. The real
problem is deciding what level of precaution is appropriate.

"When we have conducted measurements in schools, typical exposures
from wi-fi are around 20 millionths of the international guideline
levels of exposure to radiation. As a comparison, a child on a mobile
phone receives up to 50 per cent of guideline levels. So a year
sitting in a classroom near a wireless network is roughly equivalent
to 20 minutes on a mobile. If wi-fi should be taken out of schools,
then the mobile phone network should be shut down, too -- and FM radio
and TV, as the strength of their signals is similar to that from wi-fi
in classrooms."

Philips is not reassured: "Electromagnetic radiation exposure
guidelines in the UK are designed to protect against gross heating
effects. They are not meant to protect against long-term exposure to
low levels of pulsing microwaves, such as laptops emit when
downloading. We believe that these interfere with the body's own
normal internal electrical and electro-chemical signalling systems,
leading to serious health problems, and growing children may be more
affected than adults, whose cells are not changing as rapidly."

One of the problems in conducting research is that not everybody is
affected by electromagnetic radiation in the same way. "A growing,
consistent body of literature demonstrates that a subgroup of the
population appears to suffer distressing symptoms when exposed to this
type of radiation," says Dr Elizabeth Cullen, of IDEA. Sleep
disturbances, depression, blurred vision, heart and breathing
problems, nausea and headache are among the most common symptoms.

Up to 5 per cent of the population is thought to have this
sensitivity, which is recognised in Sweden as a disability. In
Stockholm sufferers can have their homes adapted to remove or screen
out sources of electromagnetic radiation. If this proves ineffective,
they can even rent council-owned cottages in areas of low radiation.

However, Dr Clark is not persuaded that electromagnetic fields are the
cause of sensitivity. "While we accept that some people experience
genuine symptoms, which can be distressing, what causes them is
another matter. Most scientists are very sceptical because of the
published laboratory investigations of electrosensitivity. People who
are convinced that they can tell when they are in the presence of
electromagnetic radiation cannot detect the fields in double-blind
laboratory conditions."

An important study by the University of Essex, due to be published
next year in a peer-reviewed journal, may settle the matter. During
the trial, 55 people who believe that they are hypersensitive and 120
non-sensitive controls were subjected to tests of concentration and
memory while signals from second and third generation mobile phone
masts were switched on and off. The trial was double blind: neither
the researchers nor the subjects knew when the signals were firing.

Some believe that sensitivity symptoms are not the only threat posed
by electromagnetic radiation. A Swedish study suggests that there is
an increased risk of acoustic neuroma (an auditory nerve cancer) in
people who have used mobile phones for more than ten years.
Conversely, last week the results of the largest and longest-running
study on mobile phones and the risk of cancer, published in the
Journal of the National Cancer Institute, found that there was no

A literature review conducted by the International Commission for Non-
Ionising Radiation Protection concluded: "Results of epidemiologic
studies to date give no consistent or convincing evidence of a causal
relation between exposure from radio frequency fields (RFs) and any
adverse health effect. On the other hand, these studies have too many
deficiencies to rule out an association. Despite the ubiquity of new
technologies using radio frequency fields, little is known about
population exposure from RF sources, and even less about the relative
importance of different sources."

And here lies the nub of the problem. Not enough research has been
done over long enough periods on the effects of various levels of
exposure on different populations to draw any firm conclusions about
the dangers, if any, of wireless networks. As to whether the
convenience is worth the risk -- only you can decide.


Sidebar: 'I Felt Dizzy and Nauseous'

By Poppy Rhodes

"Electrosensitivity" is a rather misleading term. I'm fine around
electricity. But put me next to a BlackBerry or a wireless laptop
accessing the internet and I feel dizzy, slightly nauseous and my
flesh tingles as if it's being scrambled. It sounds bonkers I know.
But after years of denial I have had to come to terms with the fact
that aspects of this fantastic new technology do not agree with me.

We installed wi-fi in our house two years ago. We loved it. The whole
family could be online at the same time. I imagined myself working in
the garden during the summer (although I never did), and I could work
in bed. But from the moment wi-fi arrived I felt peculiar.

I mentioned casually to my husband that I could tell when he was
sending an e-mail, but he dismissed that as laughable: I must be
imagining it. So I put the idea out of my mind. But as the weeks and
months passed I began to feel iller, overwhelmed at times by intense
giddiness, headaches and a sense that I was moving through a dense
fog. Sleep was fitful and I seemed to feel constantly at a low par.

Then we went away for the Easter break to stay with friends in the
depths of remote countryside. I felt great as you tend to do when
you're on holiday. But the moment we walked back into our house I felt
giddy and nauseous again and then I knew. I wasn't neurotic. This was

I changed our router back to wired internet access. I had the
computers reconfigured so that they no longer sent out signals
searching for wi-fi and we binned the dect phones (digital cordless
phones) just to make doubly sure. My husband began to notice the
change in me within days and, finally, he believed me.

The trouble is that you can't talk about this without people thinking
that you're mad. My symptoms are minor compared to others I have heard
of. Sometimes I notice wi-fi in the wider world when it's heavy -- my
local bookshop, the Apple Mac shop, airports and an expensive hotel we
recently went to stay in. Other times I feel this scrambled fog only
when I'm near a device using this technology -- the hand-held machine
in restaurants that you tap your pin number into and laptops surfing
the web.

After months of monitoring, I'm happy knowing that it is wi-fi that
makes me feel this odd and not some other unknown disease. I avoid it
when I can. I don't see much difference between someone smoking a
cigarette or shouting into a mobile phone next to me in a public
place. If anything I think I'd prefer the cigarette.


Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.