Is Wi-Fi safe? Why Panorama's health risks report will worry parents

Columns & Opinion, Top stories, Wi-Fi, Wireless home

stu-mugshot2.jpgStuart Dredge writes…

As I write this, I’m upstairs at home, connected to the internet via my home Wi-Fi network. The router sits downstairs next to the TV, and right now my three-week-old son is sleeping just a few feet away from it. Rather than providing for his future welfare, is my work actually frying his brains with Wi-Fi radiation?

Over-the-top? Sure, but I bet there are plenty more people around the UK thinking along those lines today. Tonight, the BBC is screening an episode of its Panorama current affairs programme on the health risks posed by Wi-Fi networks, particularly in schools. The programme claims that in some schools, radiation levels are up to three times the level pumped out by mobile phone masts.

The show will go on to claim that there haven’t been any detailed studies on the health effects of Wi-Fi radiation, and makes the point that people campaign about mobile phone masts being installed near schools, but don’t worry about the possible effects of Wi-Fi networks within the schools themselves.

Having just run downstairs to slap a tin-foil hat on the baby, I’m mulling over my next move. Should I switch the Wi-Fi off for good and find somewhere else to work? The local pub has a free hotspot after all, with all-important journalistic refreshment on tap, and there’s about 17 coffee-shops offering Wi-Fi within a few minutes walk. Okay, so I’ll be helping to sizzle a few baristas’ brain-cells, but speaking selfishly, that’s fine with me.

panorama-kids.jpgOr is this another sensationalistic TV documentary provoking consumer panic in order to get a few headlines? After all, a half-hour Panorama titled ‘Wi-Fi is perfectly safe, don’t worry yourselves’ wouldn’t be a ratings-buster. Yet the programme does have a bunch of experts lined up expressing their concern.

“If you look in the literature, you have a large number of various effects like chromosome damage, you have impact on the concentration capacity and decrease in short term memory, increases in the number of cancer incidences,” Professor Olle Johansson of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden is quoted as saying on the Panorama site.

Media stories about Wi-Fi’s potential health risks aren’t new, either. Last November there were a flurry of reports (for example this one) on schools getting rid of their Wi-Fi networks due to parental pressure, while just last month, families in Norwich were protesting at a perceived lack of consultation over the city’s groundbreaking free municipal Wi-Fi scheme.

And there’s worse news for those of us worrying about home rather than school or city Wi-Fi networks. “The risk is probably greater in the home than in schools because people don’t sleep at school,” says Roger Coghill, who’s a member of the government’s advisory committee on electromagnetic fields. “Sleep is the principal time when we repair our cells.”

Yet today’s Guardian has a story with other experts condemning Panorama as “grossly unscientific” and “a scare story”. One, the University of Surrey’s Paddy Regan, says that Panorama’s experiment falls down because the programme took measurements one metre away from a laptop in a school classroom, and compared them to measurements taken 100 metres away from a mobile phone mast.

The World Health Organisation isn’t worried about Wi-Fi radiation, and even Panorama admits that its readings are as much as 600 times below the government’s safety limits, albeit while suggesting that “the whole basis” of those safety limits could be wrong.

When it comes down to it, the problem with this whole debate is that nobody can give a clear, definitive answer to the question ‘Is Wi-Fi safe around children?’. There hasn’t been enough research, and there’s battalions of experts disagreeing with each other in its absence.

While they and the technology companies, health organisations and government ministers get their act together, Wi-Fi is set to become just another one of those issues that keep parents awake at night, filed alongside cot death, childhood obesity, console game violence, mobile phone masts, and what effect lengthy exposure to The Wiggles has on a child’s long-term music tastes.

I was joking about the tin-foil hat earlier, but on second thoughts, perhaps it’s the only sensible option.

Stuart Dredge
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  • On the other hand, the government will also do anything to protect the interests of big business. Why believe them?

  • Professor Johanson is the fellow who announced in 2001 that BSE was caused by radiation from computer monitors, based on no research at all. He’s a dermatologist – not a physicist or any kind of expert in radiation – and was presented with the “Misleader of the year” award in 2004 by the Swedish Sketics group for his “presenting unsubstantiated hypotheses as established facts.”

    So much for Panorama checking the credentials of the people who they get for the show.

  • It does sound like the Beeb trying to push up ratings. I hate the way in which they push their TV programmes on all their media too. The story is all over their radio stations and websites.

  • Panama would say the sky is red if the government was saying its blue, they’re anti-government sensationalist liberals with a gripe at anything the government does or endorses.

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