5X5 Episode 104

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5X5 Episode 104
22nd February 2012

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5X5 103 5X5 105
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.

S: This is the SGU five by five and on this episode we’re talking about Wi-Fi fear mongering. Is there a risk to your health from being bathed in the electromagnetic waves being produced by all of the electronic devices, specifically Wi-Fi devices, cell phones, et cetera, that are now ubiquitous in our technological civilisation.

R: This is becoming a more and more common issue as a lot of people are claiming to have allergies, for instance, to WiFi, they say that they experience a huge spectrum of symptoms. They range from rashes to dizziness, to headaches, to nausea. They attribute these symptoms to WiFi, though they don’t seem to necessarily have any science to back them up.

S: In fact when studied under controlled situations where they do not know whether or not they are being exposed to electromagnetic fields or WiFi, they cannot tell. They will have symptoms when the device is off, for example, or not have symptoms when it’s on, there does not seem to be any correlation in blinded studies, that’s always the key. When you blind studies, is the effect still there? And the overwhelming answer in the literature is no.

J: Yeah, I mean, when you quantify what’s actually taking place, the interesting thing that I found was that, for example, microwaves put out 800-1000 watts of energy, radar puts out about 10-100 kW, and WiFi puts out about 0.01 watts, so there’s no mechanism to show how there’s any real biological damage being done by the radiation.

E: That doesn’t stop organizations such as the World Health Organization from making claims that WiFi is possibly a carcinogen, and they’re classifying it in the same category as substances like lead or DDT.

S: Yeah, you know, it’s ironic for the WHO, it’s an interesting organization, the World Health Organization, they obviously do a lot of good work, but then they come out with some difficult to understand policy statements or recommendations. Sometimes you think it’s political, or you wonder who they got to review the evidence. The WHO also, interestingly, reviewed 25,000 articles that were published in the last 30 years, and they concluded that the research does not show evidence to confirm the existence of any health consequences from the exposure to low level electromagnetic fields. So they seem now, despite the fact that there is a lack of evidence for any biological harm from electromagnetic fields, they’re taking the precautionary principle to say, “Well, we can’t completely rule out an effect”, you know, there’s a difference between saying “there’s no evidence for an effect”, and “there’s evidence for the lack of an effect”. It’s a continuum or a spectrum, you can never get to the point of view where there’s a zero per cent chance of an effect, so it all depends on how you are going to employ the precautionary principle, and that’s not so much a scientific question as a political, sociological question, a judgment call, and I think that’s where the WHO gets into trouble, not in reviewing the science, which shows no evidence that there’s any risk in WiFi.

B: And now spurred on by this latest statement from the WHO, an Ontario teachers’ union is being very vocal about calling for an end to any new WiFi setups in schools, and they’ve actually had some success in this. Some Canadian private schools, and I believe one public school, have actually removed or at the very least severely limited WiFi due to these almost non-existent safety concerns. One problem I had with this was the Ontario government actually addressed this issue, and from what I can tell, all they’ve really said is, “Well, we’re going to look at this warning that the WHO has released”, and that they’re not going to actually require any sort of labels or warning on wireless devices, but they leave it up to the school boards to make up their own mind. But I think if they actually took some time and actually looked at the signs and the evidence it could have offered a much more authoritative statement on the non-existence of this issue.

S: Yeah, they essentially punted, which is better than buying into it, buying into pressure to ban WiFi in schools. Think about that, schools need access to the internet and computers now more than ever to teach a generation how to survive in the information age, and they’re going to ban wireless computers in schools? That’s crazy, again based upon a fear that is not based upon evidence. Canada may have more of a problem with this issue than other countries because there’s one researcher that is really pushing this idea of so-called “dirty electricity” or the health effects of WiFi; Dr. Magda Havas. She’s Canadian, and she is the go-to expert, if you will, for that point of view, that low-level electromagnetic fields have a lot of health concerns. And unfortunately she works the media very well, and they do go to her to represent that point of view. So I think that Canada is perhaps suffering from her being a Canadian living in that country, although this issue does crop up in other countries as well, like Sweden for example there was an issue of environmentalists backing an individual who claims that electromagnetic fields cause health problems and they were recommending that electromagnetic devices be banned in a wide area. No cell phones, you know, and of course the consequences there could be dire for the population. So, like in any similar situation, we have to calmly follow the scientific evidence, this is a widely studied area, it’s not like there aren’t any studies. Again, the World Health Organization reviewed 25,000 articles relevant to this question, published in the last 30 years, so we do have a fairly high degree of confidence that there isn’t any risk to low-level electromagnetic fields. If there is, it’s got to be very, very tiny, otherwise we would have picked up on it by now with the research that has been done. So while we can’t say zero, we could certainly set very significant limits on how much of a risk it could be, and I think the word negligible is probably appropriate.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.

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