Mobile bloody masts and wireless sodding networks

We’re doomed! says the Times.

We’re doomed! says the Independent.

Not so fast! say the people of Fark.com, destroying the Indy’s alleged expert with one beautiful, beautiful link and throwing in tedious little facts about the difference between ionising and non-ionising radiation, how radiation exposure works, where wi-fi sits in the electromagnetic spectrum and why lightbulbs don’t kill you.

35 thoughts on “Mobile bloody masts and wireless sodding networks

  1. Stephen says:

    I liked the bit at the end:

    “There is no monetary reward associated with the award “Misleader of the year”.”

    Who says the Swedish have no sense of humour?

  2. Ben says:

    Don’t be worried about the effects of mobile phone radiation .. you need to have your phone and not, um, lose it… *winks* :P

  3. Gary says:

    Oh, that hurts :)

    The comments on the sunday times page are really depressing, I think. There’s a widespread belief that if someone says X is bad and anyone denies it, then X is definitely bad and the whole thing’s a cover-up. Which I’m sure is based partly on the tobacco firms’ antics over the years and the government’s incompetence over things such as BSE. But it feeds shite such as MMR scares, which result in kids not being vaccinated against really scary shit.

    What’s interesting about the Sunday Times piece – and please correct me if I’m wrong here, because I’m neither a scientist nor a statistician – is that the apparent clusters are being presented as a really scary thing. Surely for us to have an average that means some areas will have higher than average incidences of cancer, but others will have lower than average cancer rates? What I mean is, okay, there are seven out of 47,000 masts where there seems to be an unusually high level of cancer – so does that mean if we go looking, we’ll find seven masts where there’s an unusually low level of cancer?

    Does that make sense? Squander Two, you know about this kind of thing. Am I talking through my arse?

  4. rutty says:

    I wish I could read Fark at work ;¬)

    Interesting stuff. At least they didn’t report it with the same hysteria that you’d have seen in the Mail and Times

  5. mupwangle says:

    >>is that the apparent clusters are being presented as a really scary thing.

    I know sod all about this either – but isn’t there a link between family history of cancer and your chances of getting it? So if you have a family history of cancer and you don’t happen to move miles away from your family (which is still quite frequent) then surely your particular area will have a higher cancer rate than elsewhere?

  6. Gary says:

    With some cancers, yes. And of course, cancer is really, really common. Last figures I saw (office of national statistics) suggest that 1 in 3 people will get cancer and 1 in 4 will die of it.

    I hate to do this, because I’m genuinely sorry for people who are ill. However, “a quarter of the 30 staff at a special school… have developed tumours since 2000”. The ONS says 1 in 4 britons will die of cancer, and 1 in 3 people will get cancer. So one-quarter of the staff fits right in with the national average.

    To know whether to worry or not, we need to know more. What age are the staff? Cancer incidences rise big-time as you get older. What were the cancers? Excluding skin cancer the big four in the UK are (in order) breast, prostate, lung and colorectal, and we know most of the risk factors for those (heredity, smoking, diet etc). Do they smoke? What is vehicle pollution like in the area, given that particulates are known carcinogens? And so on. If the seven cases were rare cancers such as stomach cancer or oesophogeal cancer, that would ring some warning bells – although the location of the mast is correlation, not necessarily causation. There could be another explanation in the local environment or it could just be the worst kind of bad luck.

    The story also says, “another quarter have suffered significant health problems.” What problems? What are the ages, lifestyles, health records of the people concerned? There were 31 cases in the same street. How many people live there? What are the demographics?

    See what I mean? I’m not trying to dismiss the issue here – I’ve said endlessly, when there’s evidence (if there’s ever any evidence) that this stuff is dangerous, then I’ll join you in the mass panic) – but on the face of it, what the Times story is telling us is… nothing.

  7. tm says:

    >Does that make sense?

    No that makes perfect sense. To a certain extent you are superimposing one fairly random map (how many poeple in a given area get cancer) over another fairly random one (the actual location of phone masts as decided by the mutliple constraints of network requirements, suitable sites, planning permission etc) so there should logically be places of overlap in both ways – clusters and ‘non-clusters’ around phone masts as well as, of course, clusters that are in no way related to phone masts and places that have neither clusters nor phone masts.

    >vaccinated against really scary shit

    Surely part of the problem here is that vacinations have in the past been so succesful that a great many people seem to have completely forgotten exactly how dangerous measeles is. I mean when was the last time you knew of anyone who lost a child to it? I can’t recall it happening at all.

  8. Gary says:

    Measles: exactly.

    From Sense, the deafblind charity set up to combat rubella in the fifties:

    Between 1971 and 1980, 447 children were reported as born with congenital rubella syndrome. Between 1991 and 2000 only 38 cases were reported. Between 1971 and 1980, 5711 terminations were reported as a result of rubella. Between 1991 and 2000, 61 terminations were reported.

  9. Gary says:

    The mobile mast town is apparently Coleshill in Warwickshire.
    From the indy:

    Two giant mobile phone companies are to move a mast at a primary school, after parents claimed their children fell sick.

    The mast was already in use when St Edward’s RC primary school opened in Coleshill, Warwickshire 11 years ago. It is owned by O2, which rents space on it to Orange. An O2 spokesman said “there were concerns from some of the local people that there are health issues” but added that the mast posed no risks to health.

    But parents said children and staff suffered from insomnia, headaches and numbness. They conducted a survey of 22 staff who had been at the school for the 11 years, and 59 children who had been pupils for seven years.

    Their results showed 56 per cent of the children and 86 per cent of the staff had problems sleeping, 54 per cent and 59 per cent respectively were getting headaches and migraines, and 46 per cent and 95 per cent respectively reported fatigue and numbness. About 45 per cent of teachers and pupils had red eyes; other symptoms included dizziness, nosebleeds, nausea and hearing strange hums and clicks.

  10. Gary says:

    I’m talking about this elsewhere, so forgive the repetition if you’ve already seen this on the .net site. But:

    Here’s what worries me. What happens if the cancers and illnesses we’re talking about are indeed from a nasty external source that’s specific to those areas, but the masts or wireless networks aren’t the culprits? What if we attack a straw man, get rid of the stuff, and sit back and relax without having changed a single thing?

  11. mupwangle says:

    >>Their results showed 56 per cent of the children and 86 per cent of the staff had problems sleeping,

    Perhaps entirely because they believe that they’re being nuked. Stress is probably the greatest cause of insomnia.

    >>54 per cent and 59 per cent respectively were getting headaches and migraines,

    I know quite a few people who claim to have migraines when they are only headaches. Anyway – anyone with even occasional insomnia is more likely to get headaches.

    >>and 46 per cent and 95 per cent respectively reported fatigue and numbness.

    Again – symptoms of insomnia.

    >>About 45 per cent of teachers and pupils had red eyes;

    Symptoms of insomnia, alcoholism, hayfever……

    >>symptoms included dizziness, nosebleeds, nausea and hearing strange hums and clicks.

    All of which can also be attributed to insomnia.

    I started getting insomnia on and off from when I was a kid. I used to be worried about stuff like nuclear war and things. If I worry – I don’t sleep. My wife gets headaches, dizziness, red eyes, etc – mainly from lack of sleep due to worrying about stuff.

    Mibbe if the parents and teachers didn’t all tell the kids that they were being nuked by phone masts then they might sleep better and not be sick.

    Also, the majority of these symptoms have absolutely no visible or testible signs. Convenient that. I would expect the minimum of lumps, legions, mutations, etc.

    I wonder if they kept the mast but told everyone it was decommisioned then the problem would just go away….

  12. tm says:

    >I wonder if they kept the mast but told everyone it was decommisioned then the problem would just go away….

    No, we’d just be subjected to rubbish about ‘residual telephone radiation’ or something like it for the next 10 years.

    >symptoms included dizziness, nosebleeds, nausea and hearing strange hums and clicks.

    >All of which can also be attributed to insomnia.

    and at least two of which can be acheived by simply standing up if you try hard enough, FFS!

  13. Gary says:

    The various ailments are also characteristic of “sick building syndrome”, which has variously been blamed on chemicals in carpets, bacteria in ventilation systems, inadequate ventilation, inadequate or excessive heating, harsh lighting or, er, electromagnetic fields turning ordinary dust into DEATH DUST.

    [edit] Sorry, let’s try finishing the post before hitting submit. Sick Building Syndrome could be caused by… wait for it… stress.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4832744.stm

  14. David Gillies says:

    No-one has yet come up with even a halfway-plausible causative mechanism whereby microwave transmission at the power levels typical of wireless products can produce deleterious biological effects. A microwave photon at 2.45 GHz has an energy of about 10 microelectronvolts, which is about five orders of magnitude below the level at which interatomic bonds can be scissioned. The only demonstrable effect that microwaves exhibit in tissue is dielectric heating, and at the radiated power levels associated with wireless devices, the cooling capability of the circulatory system is vastly greater than the heating effect. We can rule out electric and magnetic effects, too. Field strengths are in the millivolt/m range (maybe 1V/m right next to a GSM handset), which is orders of magnitude less than the field strengths associated with common household appliances such as a hairdryer. Magnetic field strengths are similarly negligible, being in the nano- to microtesla range, therefore dwarfed by Earth’s magnetic field

    The sad fact is that most people have no idea of order-of-magnitude calculations.

  15. mupwangle says:

    >>The sad fact is that most people have no idea of order-of-magnitude calculations.

    It’s not really. But It definitely is a sad fact that these campaigners, so-called experts and the media have no idea but can still make proclaimations of imminent death.

    My last hamster got cancer and he used to live about 2 feet from my DECT phone. I wonder if that caused it. Or Death Dust ™. Or the fact that he was about 2 years old and hamsters usually die between 18 and 24 months old of natural causes anyway. Hmmm.. No. Definately the phone.

  16. Gary says:

    Hi David, thanks for that.

    No-one has yet come up with even a halfway-plausible causative mechanism whereby microwave transmission at the power levels typical of wireless products can produce deleterious biological effects.

    Indeed. It’d make for better debate if people at least tried to address that, but in my experience the debate all too often becomes one of faith:

    Commenter: I think this stuff is lethal, and we must get rid of it.
    Me: But there’s no evidence it’s even annoying, let alone dangerous.
    Commenter: I know it’s dangerous.
    Me: How do you know?
    Commenter: I just know.
    Me: You can’t know, you’ve no expertise in this area and you can’t produce any data to back up what you’re saying.
    Commenter: That’s because there’s a big cover up, and you’re part of it. Child killer!

    I’m only exaggerating a little bit.

    The reason people are getting so worked up about this is because ultimately it’s about the health of their children, and I understand that totally. But that means (I think, at least) the media has a responsibility not to peddle scare stories or to simply parrot the view of someone with an agenda, because while the stuff in the story might not exist, the negative effects of such reporting *do* exist in reality.

    Take my wee town, for example. If I look way over yonder I can see a water tower, and it’s got various mobile phone masts on it. The tower’s in quite a nice residential area, lots of families with young children (there’s another one much nearer me, but it’s not so obvious). And now every single parent in that area will think they’re slowly killing their kids. They might decide to move, and they’ll take a financial hit (at best) because of the mobile phone scare scaring off potential buyers and knocking the price down. At worst, they might not be able to sell at all, and they’ll be stuck there. And every day that they are there, they’ll believe that they’re hurting their family. Which is a recipe for ill-health if ever there was one.

  17. tm says:

    I think gary is being rather too generous some people. I find all to often when you look at the people complaining about the phone mast they strike me as being exactly the same people who would be complaining if about how damn ugly it is and how it spoils the neighborhood when you tried to get planning permission for it in the first place. I think that there is a fair amount of displaced not-in-my-back-yard-ism mixed into a lot of this.

    It looks some damn horrible, I don’t understand how it works, you can’t even SEE the radiation – IT MUST BE DOING SOMETHING BAD TO ME!!!!

    ok, ok, that is by no means the only thing at work here – but I’m pretty sure there is an element of it…

  18. Gary says:

    In some cases, yeah. But I think the key word is one you mentioned: radiation. Radiation is always bad.

    Coming back to something I mentioned earlier, there’s also the issue that over the years, firms and even the government have lied about health dangers. So when an official says something’s safe, we automatically assume they’re bullshitting us.

  19. Gary says:

    To bring in another of my hobbyhorses: I’m not so naive that I think newspapers don’t spin, or that reporters aren’t often out of their depth, or desperately underfunded, or under pressure to “scare the readers every day”. But the web 2.0 evangelists told me that the wisdom of crowds would solve this problem, because every erroneous article would be fact-checked until it squeaked. And okay, that happens – the independent article, the ST article have been talked about a lot on blogs – but people are preaching to the converted in those debates.

    What I mean by that – how many indy readers have gone looking for blogs after reading the story? There isn’t a commenting system for people to say “hang on, this looks like bullshit”. But even when there *is* a commenting system, does it make any difference? Do the people who read the story go online to see whether anyone’s rebutting the piece or adding insight? I suspect not. Judging by the comments on the ST site (at least the ones I saw earlier – can’t get the page to load just now) people are coming to the story with their minds already made up.

  20. Squander Two says:

    > I wonder if they kept the mast but told everyone it was decommisioned then the problem would just go away

    The other way around would be better: turn it off for a year or so and watch the health complaints continue to mount.

  21. Gary says:

    There have been tests like that in labs for electrosensitivity. People who believe that they are sensitive to certain EMFs and can detect them when they’re present were put in a lab and exposed to either the EMFs they’re sensitive to, or no EMFs at all. In every single study when EMFs were on, the subjects didn’t notice; when EMFs were off, the subjects thought they were on and reported symptoms accordingly. As the Radiohead song goes, “just ’cause you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there”.

    The Wi-Fi thing was in the Guardian again today, quoting Alastair from Powerwatch (who, incidentally, I believe is utterly sincere about all of this). He said that because behavioural problems were soaring, we need to investigate the uncontrolled use of wi-fi. He clearly hadn’t watched Jamie’s School Dinners, or he’d have known that many of the supposed wi-fi symptoms occurring in schools are identical to the ones caused by kids eating junk.

    By all means investigate mobile phone masts and wi-fi, but not on the basis of “it must be this, let’s look at this and nothing else”. There are too many other factors here. In the case of cancers there’s heredity, age, lifestyle, air quality, diet, obesity, etc etc etc, not to mention sheer bad luck. In the case of the things wi-fi’s accused of, we need to consider diet, building design, what kids are up to out of school (eg, sitting up till 3am stealing cars or playing Xbox, heh) and good old-fashioned hysteria before deciding it’s evil radiation. To paraphrase what David Gillies said a few posts back, if wi-fi is doing everything people say it’s doing, then someone’s going to win a big science prize – because it’s operating outside everything we know about radiation.

    I’m going to be talking to some serious experts about this later on today or tomorrow, so if they suddenly reverse their position and scream “everybody panic!” I will, of course, let you all know.

  22. Gary says:

    Apparently there was a thing about electrosensitivity on newsnight last night. I didn’t see it, but this post on the badscience.net forums is interesting:

    I see they had Sarah Dacre on the report as the ES sufferer. I think this is her full story. As well as electrosensitivity, she describes liver damage from taking too many vitamins, ME, chronic Candida albicans, leaky gut, pesticide poisoning, gluten and dairy allergies, stored trauma, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, hypothyroidism… In short, clearly not a well woman.

  23. mupwangle says:

    Why, on the .net site, is every instance of “Wi-Fi” without spaces after? eg. Wi-fihas, Wi-fiis, etc

  24. Gary says:

    Something weird happens to the copy when it’s moved to the .net site. I don’t know why, or what the problem actually is. The curious case of the disappearing punctuation.

    There’s a big time lag on comments there btw – it’s a moderated thing – so my last two big comments aren’t up yet. Or weren’t a few minutes ago, anyway.

  25. mupwangle says:

    On this subject, someone I know who knows about these things (not the tech – more the logistics of planning and installing them) told me that when O2, orange or whoever put up a mast they only tend to plan to use them for 15 years maximum (this is the time specified in the lease – which is her involvement) So this apparent residents’ victory in wherever where this was reported “Two giant mobile phone companies are to move a mast at a primary school, after parents claimed their children fell sick.” probably really means “Two giant mobile phone companies are to move a mast at a primary school, after it became obsolete and it was found to be cheaper to put the new one up elsewhere”

  26. Tony Kiernan says:

    >>Something weird happens to the copy when it’s moved to the .net site.

    Well, you can’t expect everyone to have a website that works properly.

  27. mupwangle says:

    Gary’s been on – there is some sort of exchange fault and he’s lost email and phone so if anyone is waiting on any replies or anything then tough. He’ll be back on later (once they’ve sorted it)

  28. Gary says:

    Ooh, that was annoying. Back in internetland at last.

    I’ve added a few more posts to the .net thread:

    The people who say there’s no evidence of ill-effects are experts in the field (no pun intended) with demonstrable and verifiable track records in those areas. They also say that we need to keep looking, which is the sensible and scientific thing to do.

    * The newspapers that run scare stories told you last week that the pyramids were built by fish gods, and next week they’ll tell you that sprout enemas cure cancer. They have consistently misreported and misrepresented studies to completely mislead people about the dangers of all kinds of things, most notably during the MMR scare but more recently in their coverage of tech (and wireless things in particular – three recent studies, one into phones vs fertility, one into phones vs brain tumours and one into disappearing bees – have been misreported in quite breathtaking fashion). They tell us that the case is closed, and we should immediately panic.

    news coverage about killer wi-fi is not just nonsense, but it’s actually making people sick. When there’s evidence – not 100% proof, but compelling, reliable evidence of something stronger than “wi-fi is radiation and all radiation is bad” – that wi-fi does the same, I’ll be the first to join everyone in an orgy of router destruction. But right now, it seems to me that the scares are more dangerous than the things we’re supposed to be scared about.

  29. Brian H says:

    Light is radiation. UV light is harmful radiation. Inadequate doses of such harmful radiation cause serious health effects, related to inadequate vitamin D production. It’s much worse for dark-skinned populations, as they need more harmful radiation to generate the same amount of vitamin D. It’s a conspiracy and cover-up. In fact, the “Slip, Slap, Slop” campaign in Australia has caused severe deficiency outbreaks.

    Who knew?

  30. Gary says:

    Hi Brian. I didn’t know about the Aussie skin cancer campaign – that’s interesting.

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