Wireless internet access is incredibly useful and convenient, giving us access to a world of information wherever we want. Yet misplaced health fears about the technology could hold back it’s implementation, writes Rob Lyons.
As I was putting out some rubbish a few months ago, I noticed a photocopy of a newspaper article stuck to the communal bins. It was about plans to create a wireless internet (wi-fi) network in the area. Written in black marker pen beside the article was a plea: ‘We’ve got to stop this from happening! Call Chris to find out more!’
Some might call this a little ungrateful. Usually, local authorities are remiss in failing to rollout useful new infrastructure, but many, such as Norwich city council in eastern England, are setting up whole areas with wi-fi access - sometimes completely free. Wi-fi is being widely implemented in schools across the UK, too. While most people who use wi-fi find the freedom to be connected to the internet without cables an absolute boon, a small minority have reacted against it fearing that wi-fi could be damaging our health.
These fears will have been magnified by an edition of the BBC current affairs programme Panorama this week. In the show, reporter Paul Kenyon interviewed the head of the UK government’s Health Protection Agency (HPA), Sir William Stewart, who argued that more research needed to be done to confirm that wi-fi is safe. The programme also measured the wi-fi signal at a computer in a Norwich classroom and found the level of radiation in front of the computer (from the wi-fi transmitter inside the machine) to be three times higher than the radiation exposure at a distance of 100 metres from a nearby mobile phone mast. In other words, the programme suggested that if you’re worried about phone masts then you should be even more worried about wi-fi.
According to Panorama, there is a section of the population that already provides evidence of the dangers of wi-fi: the ‘electro-sensitive’. This was demonstrated by talking to a woman who had coated the entire interior of her house with aluminium foil to block wi-fi and mobile phone signals. The Swedish government, we were told, already recognises electro-sensitivity as a medical condition.
We’ve been here before. It was Stewart who argued in a goverment report on mobile phones in 2001 that a ‘precautionary approach’ was required; children, in particular, should be discouraged from using phones because their brains were developing and their skulls were thinner. But, in fact, there is no compelling evidence of health effects caused by mobile phones or wi-fi. Stewart’s approach has provided no practical benefit to anyone, but it has reinforced fears about new technology.
Ironically, the HPA - the body Stewart runs - says on its website: ’ There is no evidence to date that exposure to the RF [radio frequency] signals from WiFi and WLANs [wireless local area networks] adversely affect the health of the general population.’
One good reason to believe that wi-fi and mobile phones are harmless is that the signals involved are fairly weak, and they become even weaker very quickly as they travel further from their source. That might lead to frustration for users trying to connect to a wireless router in their living room from a computer in their bedroom, but it suggests that there is little prospect of such radiation causing ill-health.
As the chairman of the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research (MTHR) programme management committee, Professor Lawrie Challis, told BBC News in response to the programme: ‘Wi-fi seems unlikely to pose any risk to health. Wi-fi exposures are usually very small - the transmitters are low power and some distance from the body.’
Yet even Professor Challis could not resist the urge to be precautionary: ‘They can be near to the body, however, when a laptop is on one’s lap and my own view is that just as we encourage young children not to use mobile phones we should also encourage them to use their laptops on a table rather than their lap, if they are going online for a long time.’ This approach doesn’t alleviate fears; it merely provides a chink through which those who are generally concerned about new-fangled technology can let their anxieties run riot.
In many ways, the wi-fi panic is the epitome of the modern scare story: invisible forces (both physical and corporate) are making us ill and everyone who could do something about it is in the pay of malevolent capitalists in one way or another. Governments are desperate to support the industry or have fallen for their lobbying, while ‘experts’ are simply industry shills.
This particular innuendo was applied by Panorama to Dr Mike Repacholi. It was Repacholi who led research for the World Health Organisation (WHO) that concluded, ‘on the weight of evidence’, there was no health risk attached to wi-fi. But while other scientists who were presenting a more gloomy view were given an easy ride, Repacholi’s comments were accompanied by the fact that he had appeared as an expert witness for the mobile phone industry in court cases.
Given the paucity of evidence about the negative health impacts of wi-fi, a more interesting documentary might have examined the reasons why some groups of people alight upon one aspect or another of modern life (wi-fi, power lines, pesticides, household chemicals - the list seems endless) to explain mysterious illness or as the focus of fears about the future. As Frank Furedi notes elsewhere on spiked, ‘perceptions of risk, ideas about safety and controversies over health, the environment and technology have little to do with science or empirical evidence. Rather, they are shaped by cultural assumptions about human vulnerability.’
The internet is one of the greatest innovations of recent decades, and wi-fi makes the internet much more accessible to us. We should be celebrating this technological breakthrough, not obsessing on ill-founded anxieties about threats to our health.
spiked-issue: Who’s afraid of…?
Wi-Fi: a warning signal, BBC Panorama, 20 May 2007
Wi-fi health fears are ‘unproven’, BBC News, 21 May 2007
Epidemic of fear, by Frank Furedi