Wireless Technology: Something in the Air

WDDTY has already covered the dangers of mobile-phone technology (vol 15 no 5) as well as the issue of sensitivity to electric fields in general (vol 16 no 1). But the latest worry is the greater potential problem of the new wireless gadgetry now being brought into our lives—both at home, at work and everywhere we look.

Suddenly, the whole world seems to be going wireless. It started with mobile phones, then landline phones went wireless, and now broadband, laptops and bluetooth devices are following suit. We’re told it’s inevitable by the electronics industry. But has it considered the potential health hazards—or for that matter, have we?

“Day by day, I hear of more and more microwave applications, all of which are increasing the electro-smog that surrounds us,” says Alasdair Philips of the UK health-lobby group Powerwatch.

One telling piece of evidence for this is what happened to wireless car keys. Since remote car keys first came on the scene about 10 years ago, manufacturers have had to increase their power output by a massive 40 times to enable the signal to cut through the increasingly dense microwave smog around us, says Philips.

The other evidence is that microwave pollution can affect some people badly. Two years ago, Sarah Dacre was a successful high-powered executive, running a 70-strong TV production company, until she was struck down by a host of debilitating symptoms, including dizziness, loss of balance, chronic Candida, numbness in the arms, side and legs, and deteriorating eyesight. After months of false diagnoses–and in a state of near-total collapse–Sarah finally found the answer. “At the office, I was working all day with a laptop on my knees, and constantly using either a cordless phone or a mobile. One of the clues to what was causing the problem was that my symptoms were mainly right-sided–where I held the phones. I now can’t go anywhere near a computer or mobile phone without extreme care”.

Another sufferer is 35-year-old Roy Warne, who had to give up his job as a furniture salesman after his company installed a new wireless computer system. Now unable to work, he can’t get anywhere near his own laptop. “When I want to use the computer, I have it on in one room and sit in the hallway looking at the screen through binoculars,” he says.

Norway’s first female Prime Minister, and later Director-General of the World Health Organization, 65-year-old Gro Harlem Brundtland first suffered headaches from mobile phones, but now she finds that cordless phones and laptops cause her even worse problems. “If I hold a laptop to read what’s on the screen, it feels like I get an electric shock through my arms,” she says, “and I get an instant reaction if I touch a cordless phone.”

Although much of the evidence so far is anecdotal, even the official UK Health Protection Agency (incorporating the cautious National Radiological Protection Board) has acknowledged in a 45-page report (November 2005) that electrosensitivity (ES) is a genuine health condition. One convincing argument is that everyone reports the same cluster of neurological and physiological problems.

Nevertheless, the medical profession has tended to ignore ES sufferers, aided and abetted by an electronics industry anxious to protect its patch. That’s why most of the clinical evidence on wireless technology has come from case histories collected by a burgeoning number of self-help and lobby groups both in the UK and across the globe.

One of the most active UK groups is ElectroSensitvity-UK. Its technical consultant is Dr. John Rogers, a retired microwave-research scientist who himself suffers from ES.

Rogers points out that many of the so-called ‘wireless’ technologies (or Wi-Fi, for ‘wireless fidelity’) use microwaves like those used in radar. Wi-Fi frequencies (2.45–5.3 GHz) are chosen for their high transmission efficiency. But these frequencies are highly ‘bioactive’, says Rogers.

Problem products

What are the wireless dangers lurking in our homes? In pole position, according to ES experts, are cordless phones, especially those called DECT (digital electronic cordless telephone). They enable the phone to be used anywhere in the house, but at a price. ES campaigners say that having a DECT phone is like having an Orange or Vodafone mobile mast plonked slap-bang in the middle of your living room.

Just like a phone mast, DECT phones transmit 24/7, even when they’re not being used. Like masts, they also transmit a pulsed signal—suspected of being more dangerous than continuous radiowaves, for example. “These pulse rates mimic the body’s own endogenous nerve signalling rates, thus potentially interfering with normal functioning,” says Philips.

Added to that, like masts, DECT phones always operate at peak power, something even mobiles don’t do, having been designed to reduce power to the minimum when close to a mast (which is, incidentally, why rural mobile users receive higher doses of radiation that city-dwellers).

DECT phone emissions have a power of about 6 volts per metre (V/m) within a few feet of the base unit. That’s well within the official safety guidelines in the UK—but not in Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, China, Italy or Russia. Indeed, the city of Salzburg decreed a maximum exposure of 0.6 V/m after a scientist discovered cellular effects with emissions as low as 0.1 V/m (Electromagn Biol Med, 2003; 22: S161–9).

Likewise, in an open letter to the Bavarian Prime Minister in July 2005, a group of doctors urged a reduction of safety levels to even lower—to 0.06 V/m—after over 300 patients reported a range of health problems down to that level of exposure.

The concern over DECT phones has revived fears concerning an older piece of wireless technology—baby alarms, which have now also gone digital. Although not as powerful as DECT phones, they are potentially far more dangerous. They’re often mounted close to a baby’s head, and a baby’s brain is even more vulnerable than an adult’s.

Next on the list of domestic hazards are wireless broadband and wireless laptops. These also use the 2.45–5.3 GHz microwave frequencies, pulsed to obtain a range of up to 90 metres. Official figures of their power outputs are hard to come by, but ES groups have measured 1–3 V/m.

As radiation drops off rapidly with distance, the biggest worry is laptops, often used close to the body. What’s more, laptops seem to radiate downwards: outputs similar to those from DECT phones have been recorded from the underside of laptops. One case on Electro-Sensitivity-UK’s files is of a man who developed a penile tumour that may have been caused by a laptop, believes Dr Rogers.

Where’s the evidence?

The electronics industry, however, backed by the UK and US governments, continues to argue that any health risks from wireless are largely imaginary, fostered by hysterical hypochondriacs. Most electrical engineers and doctors agree with London University’s risk-expert Professor John Adams, who mocks ES as “an example of the modern disease of ‘compulsive risk assessment psychosis’–otherwise known as crap.”

Yet, in countries like Sweden, doctors recognize ES as a widespread condition that affects up to 3 per cent of the population (Johanssson O, Liu P-Y. ‘Electrosensitivity, electrosupersensitivity and screen dermatitis: preliminary observations from ongoing studies in the human skin’, in Simunic D, ed. Proceedings of the COST 244: Biomedical Effects of Electromagnetic Fields, 1995: 52–7).

Part of the reason for professional scepticism is the lack of an explanation for why it happens.

The core of the problem may be that orthodox science still doesn’t recognize that body cells communicate electromagnetically—the orthodox view is that it’s all chemistry. Yet, 30 years ago, Dr Robert Becker showed that the body produces tiny electro-magnetic fields to regulate the immune system in general, and self-healing in particular (Becker RO, Selden G. The Body Electric. William Morrow, 1987).

This discovery was later con-firmed and extended by scientists such as Fritz-Albert Popp and Jacques Benveniste, giving us at least a theoretical basis for even relatively small artificial electrical fields having a potentially disruptive effect on the body.

However, precisely how they might do harm isn’t yet known. “The generally received opinion is that microwaves act as stressors of the immune system, particularly in vulnerable people,” says Alasdair Philips. Support for this comes from Professor Kjell Mild, of Örebro University, who has found that ES sufferers also tend to have allergic conditions or chemical sensitivity (Bioelectromagnetics, 2001; 22: 457–62). In fact, it turns out that up to 75 per cent of ES sufferers are chemically sensitive.

But many ES campaigners contend that we are all victims of microwave pollution—it’s just that we either haven’t noticed the symptoms, mistake them for something else or have particularly strong immune systems.

Growing evidence suggests they may be right. Although Wi-Fi technology is relatively new, we’ve had over a decade of experience with mobile phones and mast transmitters. Like Wi-Fi, mobiles and masts use pulsed digital microwaves. In the last five years, a cascade of studies and reports has catalogued some increasingly disturbing effects on health.


An international review of nine studies found a 3.5-fold increased risk of acoustic neuromas (brain tumours near the ear) and 4.2-fold greater risk for uveal melanoma (cancer of the eye) in mobile users (J Toxicol Environ Health B Crit Rev, 2004; 7: 351–84). A German study found that long-term use (more than 10 years) of mobile phones more than doubled the risk of a glioma (tumours of the brain and spinal cord) (Am J Epidemiol, 2006; 163: 512–20).

However, some studies have shown no cancer effect at all–although most of these were funded by the mobile industry, according to a Powerwatch analysis.

An EU project called Reflex—involving 12 labs across Europe—tested the effect of mobile-phone radiation on isolated cells. Although the final report played down the findings, the small print revealed that significant DNA breaks were seen in human and animal cells at exposures far below official radiation limits (European Union. Risk Evaluation of Potential Environmental Hazards From Low Frequency Electromagnetic Field Exposure Using Sensitive in vitro Methods. December 2004).

This confirms nearly 30 years of research by Professor Henry Lai, of the University of Washington, showing damage by electro-magnetic fields to rat DNA, particularly in the brain (Environ Health Perspect, 2004; 112: 687–94).

“I have seen a lot of DNA damage, which is a concern because DNA mutation is a cause of cancer,” says Lai.

Brain damage

Study after study has shown that mobile-phone radiation has measurable effects on brain function. Swedish scientists have found “highly significant” evidence for neuronal damage in the cortex, hippocampus and basal ganglia in rat brains—though these results may not apply to humans.

They believe “weak pulsed microwaves” cause a “significant pathological” breaching of the blood–brain barrier, allowing potential toxins to enter the brain (Environ Health Perspect, 2003; 111: 881–3).

Similar findings were reported by Dr George Carlo, who ran a $25m research programme for six years for the US mobile-phone industry and reported a 50-per-cent greater risk of acoustic neuroma with cellphone use for six years or more (Carlo G, Schram M. Cell Phones: Invisible Hazards in the Wireless Age. Avalon Publishing Group, 2000).

Other rat studies have found significant changes related to brain growth and development, and widespread brain-cell “oxidative damage” due to mobile-phone radiation (Electromagn Biol Med, 2006; 25: 61–70; Clin Chim Acta, 2004; 340: 153–62).

In humans, mobile phone radiation—particularly pulsed radiation can alter brain potentials, blood flow and brain-wave patterns (Eur J Appl Physiol, 2000; 81: 18–27; J Sleep Res, 2002; 11: 289–95). Pulsed radiation can impair cognitive processing on hearing tests and slow down reaction times (Acta Neurol Scand, 2004; 110: 46–52; Bioelectromagnetics, 2006; 27: 119–26). Significant drops in melatonin have shown up, too, after just half-an-hour of mobile use (Int J Radiat Biol, 2002; 78: 1029–36)—which could explain some of the symptoms of ES such as poor sleep. Melatonin is key in the regulation of both the endocrine system and the ‘body clock’.

Few of these adverse findings have received much publicity. “There are fortunes being made from mobile phones—not only by the mobile companies, but also by government,” says Philips. “Apart from the selling of the 3G mobile licences for over £20bn, the UK government also makes billions a year on mobile phone taxes alone.”

Future lawsuits?

What can you do about Wi-Fi? Happily, there are a number of technological and lifestyle solutions that ES sufferers say work. Or you can simply turn your back on wireless technology—although for those who need to earn a living, that’s increasingly becoming impractical.

There’s no escape from microwaves in any case. Only the very remotest parts of the UK remain untouched by ‘microwave pollution’. Many schools, public buildings, towns and cities are now geared up to provide Internet and telephone access wherever we go.

This has prompted an increasing number of experts to call for a halt to the wireless revolution—at least until the health risks are better understood. Says Dr George Carlo, “Based on exposures in 1990s, we’re looking at 30 to 50,000 new cases of brain and eye cancer today; by 2010, we’re anticipating 300,000 to 500,000 cases per year directly attributable to mobile phone use.”

US and UK insurance companies will not insure mobile-phone companies against any future lawsuit–a sign of things to come.

Tony Edwards

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