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From the archives: The Phantom Menace – are wireless networks really killing us?

[Originally published in PC Plus. Shortly after publication I had a perfectly pleasant chat with the Powerwatch people. We agreed to disagree on this one – Gary]

Fast facts:

  • Powerwatch claims that up to 35% of the population suffers ill-effects from electromagnetic fields, and that 5% of people are severely affected.
  • A possible link between low frequency EMFs – such as from electricity pylons – and childhood leukaemia was first suggested in 1979. Despite many major scientific studies, the evidence is still inconclusive. The International Agency for Research on Cancer classes electromagnetic fields as a category 3 risk – the same as a cup of tea.
  • In 2005, Dr James Rubin analysed the results of 31 studies into electrosensitivity and found no evidence of a link between electrosensitivity symptoms and EMF exposure.

Wireless networks are the latest high tech health scare, but are they really dangerous? Gary Marshall investigates.

We’ve panicked about power lines, had concerns over cell phones and now, it seems, we should be worried about Wi-Fi. According to campaigners the convenience of cable-free computing comes with a heavy price – your health.

According to Powerwatch (www.powerwatch.org.uk), Wi-Fi – and other everyday items such as DECT cordless phones, GSM mobiles, plasma TVs, halogen lighting and the wiring in our homes – is pumping out “electrosmog”, a toxic cocktail of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) which has been linked to cancer, immune deficiencies, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and chronic fatigue syndrome. As founder Alasdair Philips writes, the radio waves used by DECT phones – which share the same 2.4GHz frequency band as Wi-Fi – are “alleged to cause brain tumours, breast cancer, dementia, DNA damage, concentration problems, memory loss, mood and behavioural changes and fertility problems.”

Powerwatch believes we should dump our wireless kit in favour of wired networks, and in a recent article in the health magazine Zest Alasdair Philips awarded Wi-Fi a “danger rating” of 5 out of 5. Powerwatch also urges people to avoid wireless-enabled trains. “Travellers exposed frequently to these microwave sources may well develop electrical hypersensitivity, with all the lifestyle changes that this diagnosis carries with it.”

The group claims that this hypersensitivity, also known as electrosensitivity or EHS, makes sufferers’ lives hell and can be triggered by exposure to Wi-Fi, VDUs, fluorescent lighting and mobile phones. “We believe that [EHS] affects up to 35% of the population to varying degrees,” says Powerwatch. “We also believe that about 5% of the population has become seriously affected to the extent that their lifestyle has to be modified, sometimes quite dramatically.”

Powerwatch – and related groups such as Electrosensitivity UK (www.electrosensitivity.org.uk) – suggest replacing our wireless networks, dumping our mobile phones, getting rid of cordless communications and replacing CRTs with TFTs, and they’re clearly convinced that modern technology is causing serious damage. However, while there’s no doubt that EHS sufferers are in genuine distress, EHS is not a recognised clinical condition – and scientists aren’t convinced that it even exists.

Does electrosensitivity exist?

It turns out that EHS is rather hard to pin down. The World Health Organisation notes that symptoms are more prevalent in some countries than in others and that the nature of those symptoms differs by geographical location. “The reported incidence of EHS has been higher in Sweden, Germany and Denmark than in the United Kingdom, Austria and France,” it reports. “VDU-related symptoms were more prevalent in Scandinavian countries, and they were more commonly related to skin disorders than elsewhere in Europe.” The WHO also notes that “symptoms similar to those reported by EHS individuals are common in the general population” – which suggests that EHS may be getting the blame for other disorders.

For some self-diagnosed EHS sufferers, that does indeed seem to be the case. “It has been suggested that symptoms experienced by some EHS individuals might arise from environmental factors unrelated to EMF,” says the WHO. Those factors could include lighting flicker, glare, poor ergonomics, poor air quality or stress. In other cases, the WHO suggests, the symptoms could be psychosomatic: “There are some indications that these symptoms may be due to pre-existing psychiatric conditions as well as stress reactions as a result of worrying about EMF health effects.”

Dr James Rubin of Kings College London’s mobile phones research unit has conducted studies into electrosensitivity among people who believed they were negatively affected by GSM phone signals, which are generally accepted among electrosensitivity campaigners as particularly nasty forms of EMFs. His studies showed that electrosensitive individuals were no more able to detect the presence or absence of such signals than anybody else.

When Dr Rubin’s team carried out a systemic analysis of 31 electrosensitivity-related studies from around the world, the results were similar: despite their professed hypersensitivity to electromagnetic fields, subjects reported symptoms when EMFs were absent and showed no symptoms when EMFs were present.

“We’re not at a stage where we can say that electrosensitivity is definitely not caused by electromagnetic fields,” Dr Rubin told us. “But then, we will never be at that stage – you can’t prove a negative. What we can say is that numerous groups have studied this area fairly intensively over the past 20 years and we can’t find any decent evidence that it is weak EMF that is to blame for the symptoms that some people report.”

In some cases, EHS may be psychosomatic – but psychosomatic does not mean invented. Every EMF expert we spoke to stressed that for sufferers, EHS symptoms are real and unpleasant. However, the question is whether those symptoms are caused by electromagnetic fields, or something else entirely. “I have no reason to doubt that the symptoms [are] real,” Dr Rubin says. However, while he agrees that EHS symptoms may be unpleasant or even disabling, “it is possible for physical symptoms to be caused or made worse by psychological factors.”

You’ve heard of the Placebo effect? There’s a flipside, called the “nocebo” effect, where “if someone convinces you that something will make you feel ill, then it does… our research has suggested that symptoms linked to mobile phone use may be nocebo reactions – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t real symptoms.”

Dr Rubin continues: “In a minority of people who report having electrosensitivity there is actually some other, better-understood illness present that might be causing their symptoms, but which had gone undiagnosed. For others, it is possible that a non-EMF-related environmental stimulus is the root cause of their problems. And for still others, sadly we might never know what is causing their symptoms.”

Electricity and cancer

EMFs are regularly linked with cancer, and the two most common scares are over power cables – particularly in pylons and substations – and mobile phones. The most recent study into power line EMFs, by the UK Health Protection Agency’s Advisory Group on Non-Ionising Radiation, suggests that there is “a hint of a link” between power lines and leukaemia in children but warns that electromagnetic fields may not be the culprit. “The evidence,” the HPA says, “is inconclusive”.

Even if a link between power lines and leukaemia is proven, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a link between other EMFs and serious diseases such as cancer. While power lines emit EMFs with a frequency of around 50Hz, other EMFs are in different frequency bands: mobile phone signals are in the megahertz band, while Wi-Fi is in the gigahertz band.

Wi-Fi is a relatively recent invention, and as a result there has been little research into any potential risks from Wi-Fi transmissions. However, a great deal of effort has gone into mobile phone research and in particular, any link between phone signals and brain cancer. One of the biggest studies is the £7 million, two-year study by Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research (www.mthr.org.uk), which is chaired by Professor Lawrence Challis, Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Nottingham. Although the study is still ongoing, Professor Challis was happy to discuss the study’s progress.

“We’ve studied a whole raft of things from blood pressure to memory, attention, hormone levels, balance, inner ear function…” he says. “And so far, we’ve found absolutely nothing, which is consistent with other studies that have been carried out. Ours is the biggest study of its type, and I think it’s fairly clear that there are no short-term effects on the brain’s function… none of the studies we have supported, nor the other studies that have come out around the world, have found any connection between mobile use and brain cancers or brain tumours.”

There’s a fairly big caveat, though. As Professor Challis points out, studies have looked at people who’ve been using mobile phones for fewer than 10 years – largely because mobiles weren’t widespread before then – but “nearly all cancers take more than ten years to develop”. In a few cases, where people have been using mobiles for more than ten years, “there seems to be a very small correlation between brain tumours and mobile phone use.” However, that correlation could be experimental bias or a statistical anomaly.

“There are still holes in what we know,” Professor Challis says. MTHR now has two priorities – to study whether mobile phone signals cause ill-effects over more than ten years, and to identify whether they have ill effects on children. “There’s no evidence that the signals affect children, but we do know that all kinds of things affect children differently than they do adults… both studying adults for more than 10 years and studying children are not only at the top of our priorities, but they’re also top priority at the WHO.”

The MTHR is also studying electrosensitivity, and is currently recruiting volunteers for a new study designed specifically to explore the alleged links between EMFs and EHS. “The people who take part in these studies are absolutely heroic,” says Professor Challis. “It’s pretty miserable for them to take part in such a study, because they’re pretty sure that they’re going to feel unpleasant symptoms as a result and they’re pretty sure that at the end, someone’s going to tell them it’s all in their mind. [But] there’s no doubt in our minds that the symptoms people report are absolutely real and true. The difficulty is in trying to find out what causes them.”

What the papers say

There’s a fundamental problem with the electrosensitivity debate: scientists cannot say categorically that there is no possible health risk from “electrosmog”, because there are always gaps in their knowledge. The best they can do is carry out study after study and see if there’s any evidence of a health risk. For people who worry about EMFs, that’s not good enough – particularly when the newspapers encourage their fears.

Dr Robert Park is professor of physics at the University of Maryland, author of “Voodoo Science: the road from foolishness to fraud” and a long-time critic of alarmist reporting. “The media has a responsibility to convey warnings from legitimate authorities,” he says. “On the other hand, a story that something is not hazardous is pretty dull. That’s why scientists have a responsibility to speak up.” Professor Challis agrees. “We obviously aren’t communicating the results of our research very well to the public, because we get all these alarming stories.”

In May, the Independent – in a piece that was picked up by most other newspapers and hundreds of websites – wrote that “invisible smog, created by the electricity that powers our civilisation, is giving children cancer, causing miscarriages and suicides and making some people allergic to modern life, new scientific evidence reveals.” The WHO was quoted extensively, but the quotes – which were used to suggest that the WHO agreed electronic smog was lethal – came from documents in which the WHO discussed the need for research to “determine if exposure to electromagnetic fields… has any impact on health.”

The article also explained that the International Agency for Research on Cancer – part of the WHO – called electronic smog a “possible human carcinogen”, but neglected to explain that in the WHO’s own words, “possibly carcinogenic to humans is a classification used to denote an agent for which there is limited evidence of carcinogenity in humans… it remains possible that there are other explanations”. The article also neglected to mention that the IARC classified EMFs as a category 3 risk – the same as a cup of tea, and less risky than coffee (a category 2b risk).

Essentially, the WHO, IARC and the UK’s HPA were saying, “look, we are taking this seriously but right now, there’s simply no evidence that says everyday EMFs are killing us. There’s certainly no need to panic.” The newspapers paraphrased this as “EMFs are killing us! Everybody panic!”

Such reporting is depressingly common. In September 2005, the Sunday Times reported that a new HPA report would recognise electrosensitivity “as a physical impairment… the HPA has now reviewed all scientific literature on electrosensitivity and concluded that it is a real syndrome.” The HPA had done nothing of the sort: the following day, the HPA described the article as “speculative” and “inaccurate”, and pointed out that “the Board of the Agency is not in a position to make a decision on whether electrosensitivity is a ‘medical condition’ or not.” But, as with the Independent article, it was the Sunday Times piece and not the HPA rebuttal that ended up on the electrosensitivity sites.

Alarmist reporting inevitably fuels conspiracy theories. As Alasdair Philips writes, the debate over the very existence of EHS is hardly surprising when phones alone are “netting the government over £2 billion annually in tax revenue and producing about 2% of Britain’s GDP. Nobody wants there to be any problems.”

Other claims are more extreme. In its most recent newsletter, Electrosensitivity UK not only claims that the various scientists are in the pocket of the electronics industry, but that the secret services are involved too. “We are confidently told by a retired government scientist, who should know because he used to work on them, that these injuries are consistent with those caused by microwave weapons. This secrecy is a major reason we are unable to have our issue properly aired.”

Ironically, while anti-EMF campaigners accuse scientists of vested interests, some anti-EMF organisations are themselves open to criticism. Much of Powerwatch’s awareness-raising content is for subscribers only (£28 per year), and it shares an address with – and links to – EMFields, which sells anti-EMF products such as Electrosmog Detectors (£57), EMF meters (£346), anti-microwave sheeting (£43.94 per square metre) and protective head nets (£25.50). It’s an apparent conflict of interest and we were keen to ask Powerwatch about it, but unfortunately they declined our interview requests – although they did send us some of their subscriber-only factsheets, which we’ve quoted in this article.

Profits of doom

So why, when there’s no solid evidence that wireless technology is dangerous, are so many people so worried? “I could write a book on it – in fact, I am,” says Dr Park. “We fear most things to which our senses provide no warning. Fear of unknown hazards is coded into our genes by evolution.”

Alarmist reporting doesn’t help, especially when inaccurate stories are used as “evidence” to sell products. For example, emfbalancehome.com does its best to scare you silly before offering “a unique and advanced technology that has been proven in clinical studies to provide the intervention you need to guard against this ever-present danger.” The technology in question? A £200 pendant that apparently wards off evil EMFs, a £180 pack of food supplements, and various other horrifically expensive products that, as the small print is forced by law to admit, “are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”

As Dr Park says, “It is important to understand that chronic pain over a long enough period of time will cause the most rational among us to try almost anything to get relief,” he says. “That’s what makes fear mongering such an evil.”
The big problem is that scientists simply can’t provide the answers people want to hear. “The question of faith is a big problem for people with scientific training,” says Professor Challis. “People who are convinced they have an effect caused by [EMFs] express their conviction and you are asked, so are they safe? And you can never say that anything is completely safe, so you’re hedging… you can say ‘we’re doing this experiment, and this experiment, and this experiment, and there’s no evidence’ – and most people don’t want that. They just want to know that something’s safe.”

When EMFs attack
What effects do EMFs have on the human body?

One of the reasons people worry about “electrosmog” is that EMFs are a form of radiation. However, while ionising radiation such as X-rays is indeed dangerous – it breaks down the bonds between molecules, causing chemical changes – the EMFs generated from power lines and domestic electrical equipment are non-ionising radiation and incapable of changing chemical structures.

There are dangers associated with EMFs, however. Individuals exposed to very strong electrical fields can experience electric shocks when they touch an object, and strong fields can also induce electric currents in the body. In some cases these currents can cause heart fibrillation and localised heating effects. Very strong low-frequency fields can also cause an effect known as the magnetophosphene effect, which produces a flickering effect in peripheral vision.

To prevent these effects, the National Radiological Protection Board – now part of the Health Protection Agency – has set out exposure guidelines that describe safe levels of EMF exposure. In a typical workplace or home, you won’t come close to those levels – and the presence of Wi-Fi doesn’t significantly increase the amount of exposure. As the HPA notes, “the HPA has made measurements of the power density of radio waves generally in and about the offices where WLANs are deployed and these have always been found to be very much below the guideline levels… the HPA does not consider there to be a problem with the safety of WLAN.”

Shock horrors
The symptoms sufferers blame on EMFs

According to Electrosensitivity UK, people with electrical hypersensitivity experience “recurring feelings of stress or illness when near an EMF source… any noticeable, recurring ill-health that is triggered [by] an electromagnetic field but diminishes or disappears away from the EMF source constitutes a case of electrical sensitivity.”

The list of electrosensitivity symptoms is a long one. Electrosensitivity UK says the most common complaint is a tinnitus-like buzzing in the ears, and that many sufferers also report eye irritation, light sensitivity and skin complaints such as tingling, redness or rashes. Other suffers report aches, pains and numbness in limbs, feelings of abnormal tiredness, loss of taste or appetite and flu-like symptoms, while in extreme cases sufferers report internal bleeding (although the relevant case study quoted by Electrosensitivity UK shows that while the individual concerned was convinced of internal damage, a colonoscopy did not find any evidence of such bleeding).

Both anti-EMF campaigners and scientists agree that the symptoms are real, but their explanations of the symptoms’ origins could not be more different. While campaigners lay the blame squarely at the foot of electromagnetic fields, scientists point out that the symptoms could be the result of environmental factors. Aches, pains and tingling sensations are common symptoms of repetitive strain injuries, headaches and feelings of lethargy are often the result of inadequate lighting or ventilation, and many psychological effects can be caused by stress. While there’s no evidence as yet to prove a link between EMFs and illness, the dangers of other workplace hazards are well established. Work, it’s clear, can seriously damage your health.