If you use the internet, a WiFi connection seems like the greatest thing since cell phones. Increasingly, however, questions are being asked about the health impact of these handy devices and their signal towers. Each expansion of the technology spreads more invisible rays through our schools, our cities, and our bodies.
Digging into the information on electromagnetic fields (EMF) is a minefield, occasionally entertaining, frequently fascinating, definitely complicated, certainly a great way to spend a lot of time to win few answers.
Did you know that an Israeli company is in human trials to treat cancer tumours with very low level medium frequency electrical fields? Turns the whole extensive debate about electromagnetic pollution and cancer on its head, because the fields kill cancer cells right off. But each type of cancer cell responds to a different amount of electrical field applied at different angles.
No wonder the research on human health impacts is confused, with a confusion no doubt compounded by the enormous amounts of money at risk. For example, a huge multi-nation study of cell phone users defines a “regular user” as someone who has at least one incoming or outgoing call per week for 6 months or more. In a British study, although tumours were found to be more frequent on the side of a person’s head where the phone was held, this was explained as probable recall bias. In most of the studies, the “control” population had used cordless telephones, which are already implicated in tumour rumour, and which certainly would confound the results. Even more frustrating, when strong results do turn up, in those who have used a cell phone for more than 10 years, the sample size is statistically unconvincing.
So are cell phones and WiFi devices dangerous or aren’t they? Do cell phones cause brain tumours? Do electrical power lines emit dangerous radiation? Does the “electromagnetic smog” we live in make us sick? Is electromagnetic sensitivity real?
Our bodies work on electromagnetic and chemical signals, so it makes sense to suspect some sort of biological impact, but the question is, what? For sure, there is enough smoke among the research papers and first-person accounts to make one wary of WiFi city cores. We should support the location of cell towers and power lines away from schools and homes. One recent British study found that the EMF in some WiFi schools was three times as strong as that from a cell phone tower. The British Chair of the Health Protection Agency has been advocating that children not be given cell phones and that the health effects of WiFi in schools be monitored. Meanwhile, Saltzburg Austria is already removing the systems from schools.
And, oh yes, it only makes sense to follow the advice of the German radiation protection agency to all citizens. The government has told the Germans to follow these precautions:
• Reduce their exposure to “electrosmog” from a wide range of products, from baby monitors to electric blankets,
• Use landlines wherever possible, and at the least,
• Keep cell phones and other wireless devices away from the rapidly-growing heads of children and teens.
Public Health Concerns Over Exposure to Electromagnetic Fields (EMF) from Power Lines and Cell Phones
An international working group of scientists, researchers, and public health policy professionals at the University of Albany in New York, the BioInitiative Working Group, is raising serious concern about electromagnetic fields (EMF) and health. Their report, released August 31 2007, disputes the safety of existing public limits that regulate how much EMF is allowable from power lines, cell phones, and many other sources of EMF exposure in daily life. The authors reviewed more than 2000 scientific studies and reviews, and concluded that the existing public safety limits are inadequate to protect public health.
Electromagnetic radiation from such sources as electric power lines, interior wiring, and grounding of buildings and appliances is linked to increased risks for childhood leukemia and may set the stage for adult cancers later in life.
The report provides detailed scientific information on health impacts when people are exposed to electromagnetic radiation hundreds or even thousands of times below limits currently established by the US Federal Communications Commission (US FCC) and International Commission for Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection in Europe (ICNIRP). From a public health policy standpoint, new public safety limits, and limits on further deployment of risky technologies, are warranted based on the total weight of evidence.
The report documents scientific evidence, raising worries about childhood leukemia (from power lines and other electrical exposures), brain tumors and acoustic neuromas (from cell and cordless phones), and Alzheimer’s disease. There is evidence that EMF is a risk factor for both childhood and adult cancers.
Public health expert and co-editor of the report, Dr. David Carpenter, says “This report stands as a wake-up call that long-term exposure to some kinds of EMF may cause serious health effects. Good public health planning is needed now to prevent cancers and neurological diseases linked to exposure to power lines and other sources of EMF. We need to educate people and our decision-makers that ‘business as usual’ is unacceptable.”
Health questions about power line EMFs were initially raised in 1979 by Nancy Wertheimer, a Colorado public health expert, and Ed Leeper, an electrical engineer. Wertheimer noticed that children in the Denver, Colorado area living in homes close to power lines and transformers were two or three times as likely to have leukemia as those living farther away. Today there are dozens of studies confirming the link, but public health response has been slow in coming. New standards to protect the public are necessary.
Brain tumor specialist Dr. Lennart Hardell, MD, PhD, and professor at University Hospital in Orebro, Sweden, is a member of the BioInitiative Working Group. His work on cell phones, cordless phones, and brain tumors is widely recognized to be pivotal in the debate about the safety of wireless radiofrequency and microwave radiation. “The evidence for risks from prolonged cell phone and cordless phone use is quite strong when you look at people who have used these devices for 10 years or longer, and when they are used mainly on one side of the head.”
Brain tumors normally take a long time to develop, on the order of 15 to 20 years. Use of a cell or cordless phone is linked to brain tumors and acoustic neuromas (tumor of the auditory nerve in the brain) and are showing up after only 10 years (a shorter time period than for most other known carcinogens). “This indicates we need research on more long-term users to understand the full risks,” says Dr. Hardell.
Dr. Hardell’s work has been confirmed in other studies on long-term users. A summary estimate of all studies on brain tumors shows, overall, a 20% increased risk of brain tumor (malignant glioma) with ten years of use. But the risk increases to 200% (a doubling of risk) for tumors on the same side of the brain as the side of the head mainly used during cell phone calls. “Recent studies that do not report increased risk of brain tumors and acoustic neuromas have not looked at heavy users, use over ten years or longer, and do not look at the part of the brain that would reasonably have exposure to produce a tumor.”
Wireless technologies that rely on microwave radiation to send emails and voice communication are thousands of times stronger than levels reported to cause some health impacts. Prolonged exposure to radiofrequency and microwave radiation from cell phones, cordless phones, cell towers, Wi-Fi, and other wireless technologies has been linked to physical symptoms including headache, fatigue, sleeplessness, dizziness, changes in brainwave activity, and impairment of concentration and memory.
Scientists report that these effects can occur with even very small levels of exposure if it occurs on a daily basis. Children are particularly vulnerable to harm from environmental exposures of all kinds.
Effects are reported for DNA damage (genotoxicity that is directly linked to integrity of the human genome), cellular communication, cellular metabolism and repair, cancer surveillance within the body; and for protection against cancer and neurological diseases. Also reported are neurological effects including changes in brainwave activity during cell phone calls, impairment of memory, attention and cognitive function; sleep disorders, cardiac effects; and changes in immune function (allergic and inflammatory responses).
Contributing author Dr. Martin Blank, Columbia University professor and researcher in bioelectromagnetics, says “Cells in the body react to EMFs as potentially harmful, just like to other environmental toxins, including heavy metals and toxic chemicals. The DNA in living cells recognizes electromagnetic fields at very low levels of exposure and produces a biochemical stress response. The scientific evidence tells us that our safety standards are inadequate and that we must protect ourselves from exposure to EMF due to powerlines, cell phones and the like.”
-BioInitiative Working Group, University of Albany, New York, August 31, 2007
The full report, BioInitiative: A Rationale for a Biologically-based Public Exposure Standard for Electromagnetic Fields (ELF and RF) is available at www.bioinitiative.org