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Carl Bialik, the Wall Street Journal's Numbers Guy columnist, talks to the sources behind the incendiary Wi-Fi radiation kills trees reports: Thank you, Carl, for finding the sources, and revealing how nuts some of the information is. I was troubled that a single report could ricochet around the world with no real statistically valid or peer-reviewed published information behind it. But it's even worse than that.
Niek van 't Wout, the green space chief in the Dutch city of Alphen aan den Rijn, checked out a small number of the town's trees, found "abnormalities" in 70 percent, and van 't Wout extrapolated this with no additional research to all of Europe. There appear to have been no lab tests or pathology, or an attempt to determine the cause, nor to survey more broadly even in the city. Bialik dug up a published email by van 't Wout in which he speculated in 2007 that electromagnetic fields were responsible before having a single shred of evidence.
The study of trees in a controlled environment was also commissioned by the city and independent of the tree survey. The testing regime hasn't been released (under what conditions were plants and trees kept), nor does there appear to have been any controls—trees and plants in the same environment with shielding to block EMF. The exposed vegetative material had six Wi-Fi access points running nearby, which is not the proximity of exposure nearly any trees would receive. As with all EMF, signal strength decrease with the inverse square of the distance from the transmitter with a standard omnidirectional antenna; the formula is a bit different for a directional antenna, but then there's less exposure in the vicinity, too. (I wrote a critique of what was revealed of the study for BoingBoing.)
Bialik has one paragraph I'll quibble with:
His town did fund an experiment seeking to investigate whether Wi-Fi signals might harm trees. The experiment used Wi-Fi routers not because these were suspected as the major culprits — cellphone network signals generally are stronger — but because experimenters aren’t allowed to use cellular network transmitters, and besides it is difficult to find an environment without any cellular wireless signal as a control. It also isn’t clear why trees would be suffering only recently, while cellphone networks have existed for decades.
This must have been stated by van 't Wout or another interview subjectd, as it's all wrong. First, Wi-Fi access points would be further away and at vastly lower power than cellular base stations, and thus vastly less likely to be the "culprit." Second, researchers may test cellular signals in Europe. I have read dozens of studies in which cell transmitters are used in clinical settings in Sweden, Britain, Germany, and elsewhere. I'm sure there's red tape, and it may simply have been cost prohibitive.
Finally, you can find an environment without EMF: a shielded room. Since the plants were being tested indoors, two rooms could have shielded: one for controls, and one for exposure only from signals within the room. Again, the expense may have been too high.
This seems quite clearly that there was an agenda at work and little science involved.
Canadian school board will keep Wi-Fi on: Terrific reporting (no byline, or I'd praise the reporter) on a sticky issue. A school board in the central Ontario area of Simcoe County is refusing to turn off Wi-Fi because of scaremongering from parents who allege a direct connection between symptoms of ill health and the presence of signals.
Great summary in the second paragraph: "There is no scientific or medical evidence to show children complaining about headaches, dizziness and nausea are being made ill by the Wi-Fi in their classrooms, the Simcoe County District School Board said Monday."
The school board said only "about a dozen parents" complained about symptoms out of 50,000 students' families. And, of course, unless you live inside a Faraday Cage, you're exposed to varying amounts of non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation constantly from radio stations, cordless phones, police radio, cell towers, and so on.
Wi-Fi uses an extremely low signal, and the exposure for a kid over a school day is likely vastly lower than the same exposure to cell base station signal output or from cell phones many of their compatriots carry.
I suppose these parents have already made sure none of the homes near them have Wi-Fi base stations, and that they don't use electricity in the home, since electrical cords and devices produce EMF, too.
I've said it many times before: focusing on wireless signals as a cause of a constellation of nebulous symptoms doesn't help those suffering. It's a desire to have a single-source solution, like mercury in vaccines leads to autism. As studies now show, removing thimerosal from vaccines hasn't had any impact in any country on autism diagnosis rates, and the original fraud who suggested such has been thoroughly discredited.
It is my pleasure to link to the finest mainstream article I've read on the quandary of whether there's a health risk from EMF radiation: I salute James Geary for not dismissing the concerns of people who are obviously suffering from something, for not pandering to those people, for not citing junk science, for not posing the issue as a "debate" between two sets of equally valid information, and for not ignoring all the uncomfortable issues around the edges that have not been fully explained.
This is "fair and balanced" in the true sense of the word. Geary looked at an obviously large amount of research, and presents everything in context. This stands in sharp contrast to the GQ article I eviscerated a few weeks ago, which misstated research and was sensationalist. I would also critique any article that stated there was no risk and no need for further research, as that's not established, either.
It's a good read, partly for the people involved, and partly for the route Geary picks through the minefield to present good information to a mass audience.
I have two quite minor quibbles with the article. First, there have been dozens of studies on electrosensitivity, and all but a handful (which haven't be reproduced) show that self-identified sensitives cannot determine whether a signal is present or not. The article mentions this in passing, but the scope of work in this field is quite large. Second, the Interphone study as a whole is yet to be released, but multi-country components are out, and they generally confirm a lack of correlation between cancer and usage, with some exceptions that may get further study.
(Disclosure: I write for Popular Science on occasion, but I had nothing to do with this article.)
The LA Times has a pair of articles about the health risks associated with electromagnetic fields (EMF): They're rather thoughtful. The longer article starts by trying to claim that there's a "debate" and that experts "disagree," but then proceeds to present the factually accurate view that there are some researchers and outsiders who challenge the increasing preponderance of research that backs up the lack of a link between EMFs and health effects.
I particularly like this researcher and his statement:
In the opinion of Ken Foster, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia who has studied EMFs since the early 1970s, if such fields were any sort of health threat, scientists wouldn't have to sort through the outer limits of statistics to find trouble. "There would be terrible effects all over the place," Foster says. As no obvious catastrophe has shown itself, "I would tend to think there's nothing there."
That's where I keep coming back to Occam's Razor related to EMF exposure. People who claim effects say that there are tens of millions of more people obviously suffering from effects, but the research (described quite well in the second LA Times article) doesn't back this up.
I would argue that electrosensitivity has been well and truly put to bed, and that means that the effects should show up in cancer studies, given the use of cell phones for longer than 10 years by a significant population. That's not showing up in general work, nor in studies like Interphone, which I wrote about a few days ago.
One set of analysis of a segment of the Interphone work showed a possible correlation between use of a cell phone for more than 10 years and, in those people who had certain kinds of brain tumors, the tumor appearing on the same side of the head as those who used a cell phone mostly on that side of the head.
But the researchers in that study noted quite clearly that there's a recollection bias. If you have a tumor next to your right ear, and researchers say 10 years or longer ago did you mostly use a cell phone on your right side, the expectation is that people tend to say they used the damaged side of the head.
I remember the concerns in the early 1990s about ELF/VLF (extremely and very low frequency) EMF produced by CRT-based computer monitors. Studies abounded that showed risks, especially from Sweden, but when you read the studies you found that exposing chicks to radiation at huge multiples of what normal exposure was, or that retrospective studies asked people detailed questions to correlate usage at old video display terminals (VDTs) and miscarriage, without eliminating other risk factors. The research was basically garbage, no link was ever found, and there were no bulges in epidemiology related to CRT use. It was forgotten.
I expect in time the same thing will happen here. With no smoking guns for cancers, no long-term health effects found, and electrosensitivity isolated again and again from the presence or absence of EMF, in 10 years we won't be talking about this at all.
I finally read the GQ piece that's been widely cited as "proving" the dangers of electromagnetic radiation produced by cell phones: It's a piece of crap. The article spends the vast majority of its time looking into corporate conspiracy to keep news about cell-radiation issues silent, and giving a forum to anecdote and studies that have since been shredded to pieces for lack of rigor.
I don't doubt that corporations have worked hard to prevent studies from coming out that would show any correlation of risk, because that's a common pattern for large corporations. That said, there's such a huge amount of data, and studies with such large cohorts, it's hard to believe that companies were successful in "suppressing" such data.
The reason I even address GQ, provider of fine investigative journalism that it is not, is that a Santa Fe resident was nearly hauled out of a city council meeting after arguing against installing more wireless base stations--perhaps for cellular. The Los Alamos National Laboratory physicist Frank Bruno is pictured in this article holding up this awful GQ story as part of his proof that microwave radiation is deadly. So it can't be ignored.
I'm going to focus on two elements in the story, because it's mostly full of farragoes and nonsense.
The first is the Interphone study, the best science cited in the article. Thousands of people with certain cancers that seem likely to result from close proximity to cell phones were selected, interviewed, and results compared against interviews with controls selected from the population at large in those countries. Despite the huge amount of effort to recruit subjects, just under 8,000 participants with cancers were interviewed (several hundred per country) and under 7,000 controls.
But studies resulting from Interphone don't say what the GQ article alleges. The author writes, "Interphone researchers reported in 2008 that after a decade of cell-phone use, the chance of getting a brain tumor—specifically on the side of the head where you use the phone—goes up as much as 40 percent for adults." That's not inaccurate, but it leaves out 100 percent of the context.
The study itself (International Journal of Cancer, Vol 120, Issue 8, 2007), which perhaps the GQ author didn't read, notes, "The results of our analyses do not provide consistent evidence for increased risk of glioma related to use of mobile phones. We did not find indications of increased risk related to regular mobile phone use overall, or in the majority of the subanalyses based on various exposure characteristics. The most exposed group (the highest 10% based on the exposure distribution among controls) did not show an elevated risk of glioma."
The study authors do note that in one subset of analysis that looked at use of a cell phone preferentially on one side of the head or other--as reported by subjects, and covering 10 years and longer--"was associated with significantly increased risk of glioma and there was also an increasing trend with years since first use on the ipsilateral side."
The study authors note that there's likely strong reporting bias on both use and which side a person regularly talks on. The conclusion about the higher rates: "This may be due to either chance or causal effect or information bias, i.e. overreporting of mobile phone use on the affected side by the cases with brain tumors."
The "latest update" on Interphone research--8 October 2008--citing this and other studies concludes fairly strongly that there are a few areas that should be looked at further, but that the data generally supports no pattern or revelation about a connection between cancers studied and cell phone usage patterns.
I won't go into every other item mentioned in the GQ article, because we have had discussions at this site over the years on these subjects.
What I will mention is that none of the vast array of credible information contrary to the conclusions of this author and, obviously, GQ, were mentioned except in passing. This includes the now dozens of well-conducted, published studies that find no connection between a signal and "electrosensitivity," and some of which show the presence of measurable, severe symptoms whether a signal is present or absent.
The second element simply reveals the poor knowledge of the reporter and factchecking employed by GQ. The article notes,
In the summer of 2006, a super-Wi-Fi system known as WiMAX was tested in rural Sweden. Bombarded with signals, the residents of the village of Götene—who had no knowledge that the transmitter had come online—were overcome by headaches, difficulty breathing, and blurred vision, according to a Swedish news report. Two residents reported to the hospital with heart arrhythmias, similar to those that, more than thirty years ago, Allen Frey induced in frog hearts. This happened only hours after the system was turned on, and as soon as it was powered down, the symptoms disappeared.
So where did this come from? I'd never heard of this. And WiMax wasn't commercially available except in test form in 2006. What un-cited "Swedish news report" covered this?
I used The Google to find out. First off, it wasn't summer, it was February 2006. Second, the report seems to have originated at the Inquirer on 12 June 2006, which links to an Australian bulletin-board on ISPs, which has a post by a reader named Brains, which links to a 23 May 2006 report from Sweden's STV network.
That report, which is neither available at the original URL, and which I could not find by searching on stories on Götene (of which there are many), is paraphrased here by someone who backs the electrosensitive theory. The story apparently came from a "current affairs program 'Debatt,'" rather than from public-health officials or other sources. Nor does the Australian link mention that the system was shut down; nor can I find any evidence it was.
Following this further, I found on an anti-EMF-use site that the Debatt program is, well, a debate: two Swedish experts pro and two con as to whether EMF poses a threat to health. The usual Swedish sources (Mona Nilsson and Olle Johansson) took the view that there was a threat to health. The Götene story was apparently a lead-in, and it's unclear whether the guest representing the Swedish government provided any refutation to the details.
The GQ author follows this up by noting, "Today, Sprint Nextel and Clearwire are set to establish similar technology across the U.S., with a $7.2 billion government broadband stimulus speeding the rollout."
Dozens of WiMax systems are up and running in the United States, and hundreds worldwide (some quite modest). The power output of WiMax is comparable to cellular, although using mostly different frequencies. The notion that WiMax is something new and different than 3G from a signal perspective or "electrosmog" view is nonsense.
The GQ article doesn't advance any knowledge in this area, lacks rigor, and again gives credence to what is palpably a false cause for those suffering from real symptoms--ones that have been repeatedly shown to be unrelated to "cell radiation."
No one wins in this scenario: A man in Santa Fe claims his neighbor's use of wireless technology causes him to get ill. He has sued his neighbor, a woman who he used to hire to cook for him, and who purchased a house she used to rent. Electrosensitivity, or a claim that exposure to electromagnetic radiation causes illness, has been shown in dozens of controlled studies to lack any basis in whether signals or present or absent when self-identified and control subject were tested.
This case was filed in state district court, but will almost certainly be dismissed, not without some expense on the part of the neighbor. Courts have consistently ruled that the FCC is the sole agency in the US at any level (city, state, or federal) that has the power to set and enforce rules regarding spectrum. If you operate an FCC device in a form approved by the agency, then I can guarantee there is no basis for a suit.
While I am not a researcher, I have read tens of thousands of pages of studies on both sides of the issue. Some people believe (but cannot document) that cell phones may pose a risk for elevated incidents of cancer. Let's just pretend that it's always good to gather more information there, even though there are piles of studies from the last few years that can't find any correlation between cell phone use and illness.
But there should no longer be a dispute over electrosensitivity. It's become increasingly clear that people who claim that condition have a measurable health problem--Essex University and University of Regensburg both did work on this front.
Here's what I wrote about the Regensburg work back in August 2008: "The Regensburg study would say to me that electrosensitives need to be renamed: they're sensitive to something; it may even be psychosomatic; but the effects are profound, real, measurable, and (again shown in this study) not tied to whether a signal believed to cause harm is present."
I used to think that people with this self-described condition were tin-foil hat wearers. But in 2007, the evidence started to mount that these folks were not experiencing psychosomatic effects--they feel ill, and an industry has sprung up to impose quackery upon them.
A couple of readers sent in a link to this new paper on the effects of cellular phone use on mice that indicates "long-term exposure to electromagnetic waves associated with cell phone use may actually protect against, and even reverse, Alzheimer’s disease." Quite bizarre and fascinating; I've asked to get a copy of the paper. The researchers and journal appear to be quite legitimate.
This is a study I've been waiting for since the University of Essex research was released last year: New research using MRIs from the University of Regensburg, Germany, indicates that electrosensitives are suffering both cognitive and neurobiological reactions--but not to the presence or absence of electromagnetic signals that these sufferers believe are causing their symptoms. (The link is to an Economist summary; the abstract is all I can find online so far of the actual study.)
Back on 25-July-2007, I wrote about the cross-disciplinary, tightly controlled study of electrosensitivity carried out by an Essex (UK) team with government and industry funding. The study was yet another in dozens that showed that self-identified electrosensitive sufferers performed no better at chance in determining whether a signal was present or absent. The control group did no better than chance, either.
But the revelation that, with appropriate biological monitoring, the electrosensitive group experienced severe and measurable symptoms whether or not a signal was present indicated to me that there was a correlation problem in how electrosensitives view themselves.
Currently, these sufferers are either coddled by those who pander to them (typically to sell them stuff) or by those that are interested in faux science who need an audience for their crackpottery; a worldview in which controlled repeatable peer-evaluated tests aren't part of the picture. Conversely, they're also ridiculed by people who dismiss their symptoms as fake or overblown.
The Regensburg study would say to me that electrosensitives need to be renamed: they're sensitive to something; it may even be psychosomatic; but the effects are profound, real, measurable, and (again shown in this study) not tied to whether a signal believed to cause harm is present. The abstract concludes: "These results demonstrate significant cognitive and neurobiological alterations pointing to a higher genuine individual vulnerability of electromagnetic hypersensitive patients." But not vulnerable to EMF, the study found. (60% of suffers but only 40% of the control group had a reaction when "sham" EMF was used.)
I have long argued that the massive amount of "electrosmog" (to use the panderers' term) means that those who claims electrosensitivity would be incapable of living in an urban area. Not just Wi-Fi, cellular, and cordless phones, but vastly many more kinds of focused EMF transmissions are constantly bombarding them. They'd be in constant agony if not in the remote wilderness. These studies seem to reinforce the fact that there is a disease, perhaps self-caused and perhaps not, that needs to be studied and treated separately from EMF--much like tinnitus.
Dubiousness on future of Long Island project: Long Island network builder E-Path has lost out in Trenton, where it asked for a mere $250,000 in contracted services to build a 7.5 sq mi network; Delay Beach, Flor., hasn't progressed, either. Trenton's business administrator states the problem clearly: "You can't expect a company to come in and expend millions of dollars on build out costs without having some level of guarantee that they're going to recover their costs." But there's more problems with E-Path in Long Island, where the utility that needs to grant pole access for two pilot projects says they gave access months ago. We'll see what shakes out. I was dubious from the start about the scale of the project with no anchor tenant, and with a firm that had no comparable projects of scale even underway. It's not a lack of confidence in E-Path (I have no opinion on their abilities); rather, the state of financing for projects of this sort.
Extremely fair article on Sebastopol Wi-Fi networking health debate: The local paper manages to push the camel through the eye of the needle in presenting various aspects of the vote by the local council to rescind the gift of a local ISP to provide city-wide Wi-Fi. It neither ridicules the symptoms of people who describe themselves as electrosensitive, nor ignores the clinical research that shows such sensitivity to be unprovable, even as the symptoms are clearly manifest (just not correlated with EMF). The article notes that one radio host who speaks on health has his words carried by a station that is bumping more signal out across Sebastopol than any Wi-Fi network would. In a true Sonoma moment, however, the leading opponent to the city-wide network and the owner of the ISP cross paths in front of Whole Foods where high school students in favor of the network were gather signatures for a petition--and hugged. That kind of behavior is more of what we need: civility, understanding, and mutual working forward to improve everyone's health. More research? Sure. And more kindness, too.
Wired's Wi-Fi map: now, useful! My friend and colleague Cyrus Farivar spent weeks researching what municipal projects were proceeding, on hold, or dead across the U.S., and I wasn't very impressed by the way in which Wired presented this material in their print issue. But never fear! Online, paired with Google Maps, his research is tremendously accessible. It's now a few weeks out of date, but still useful for the scope and locations of projects. It makes me want to build an ongoing effort of the same kind!
Complimentary essay on Boston's pace: By not building fast, OpenAirBoston avoids the mistakes of other municipal networks. True. But in the end, they need to build something; they are only "behind" in the sense of not having put their neck out too far.
The northern peninsula town of Sebastopol gave up free Wi-Fi in favor of fear mongering: Local citizens petitioned their city council to turn down an offer by Sonic.net to put free Wi-Fi in the city. I respect the council's decision in the sense that the vociferousness enough of the opposition was met by a reaction that the council had doubts placed in their mind. The council shouldn't be expected to be fully briefed on every possible ill (real or not) that their decisions could cause. One might think that they would thought to gather more info; rather, they rescinded an agreement already underway.
The article notes, "But critics said good studies exist that show ill effects to both adults and children from such signals." Unfortunately, those same critics consistently point to a handful of old studies, studies that aren't peer-reviewed, and information (not studies) provided by groups that either have a set agenda and ignore all new information, or have a vested financial interest in selling equipment to people who believe they are subject to woes based on electromagnetic radiation.
As the Sonic.net blog notes, Wi-Fi is already extensively deployed around Sebastopol, and their new network would be high up off the ground, reducing the strength of the signals far more than many access points that people would be walking by on a daily basis.
CEO Dane Jasper offers this incredibly cogent paragraph about the current state of clinical research around electrosensitivity; it appears to be based partly on the exhaustive work done in a University of Essex led study that presented results last year:
"The studies show that self-identified electrosensitive individuals DO exhibit real symptoms, including headache, skin rashes and anxiety. But, double blind studies show that the symptoms are unrelated to exposure to the radio signals. In other words, electrosensitive individuals placed in a shielded room and not exposed to radio signals do exhibit symptoms. They exhibit more symptoms if they believe the transmitter is turned on, and their manifestation of symptoms is not apparently related to the on/off status of the radio equipment."
This backs up my contention, now supported by many studies, that the folks who believe themselves to be victims of EMF are victims of something. It may be partially psychosomatosis, or quite likely, an array of other health issues that can't be easily categorized and treated, akin to multiple chemical sensitivity disorder and, the double-blind studies show, having no relationship to EMF whatsoever. But, an important but, requiring treatment and consideration.
Dale Dougherty, the editor and publisher of MAKE (one of the coolest magazines to come into being at any point in the last decade), writes about this issue, since he's based in Sebastopol, the headquarters of O'Reilly Media, his employer. The comments on his blog entry are tremendously interesting, too.
Update: There's a strong local angle, with a master (physics professor) and apprentice (engineering grad). The master thought there might be harm from EMFs given off by electric blankets, hired the apprentice, and decided there wasn't an effect. The apprentice took the other path, and now sells EMF mitigation services that range from hundreds of dollars to $25,000.
England's Health Protection Agency will study Wi-Fi's effects: The group backs previous statements made that further study would be prudent by planning a comprehensive health study. However, the agency's head notes that, "There is no scientific evidence to date that WiFi and WLANs adversely affect the health of the general population." The study will look into what the actual exposure rates are and provide a firm scientific footing on health effects focused on Wi-Fi. Most studies look at mobile telephone and cell tower/mobile mast outputs.
I contacted the HPA press officer to find out the timeframe of the study, and was told that the estimate was roughly two years.
Two ridiculous articles today on Wi-Fi and health: Look, if there are nonridiculous articles, I'll write about them, too, but puh-leeze. Todays' crop is too much. If you write an article today and just wave your hands about government statements without including any of several recent studies and comprehensive reviews of studies that show no connection between ill health and wireless (typically cell at higher power levels than Wi-Fi), then you're just plain making stuff up. A reporter or expert can disagree with the array of studies out there, but ignoring them doesn't equate to refuting them.
First, the UK Independent weighs in on its never-ending campaign to overcome the preponderance of scientific information by distorting freely available details that anyone can check on. They say that the German government "ruled" that citizens should avoid electrosmog, and switch to landlines (which, by the way, produce electromagnetic radiation, thank you very much). The Register links to the actual information released, which was an agency response to questions from members of the Bundestag, the German parliament. My German is rusty, but the July 23 document is really a set of questions about the state of the government's knowledge of the deployment of Wi-Fi hotspots and the risks. The Bavarian government apparently suggested Wi-Fi networks be used as a last resort in schools, but the document doesn't describe any form of ban or advice that I can make out. (Per the headline, drahtlos is the German work for wireless.)
Next, in Canada, our friend Dr. Magda Havas, last seen as an advisor to the Lakehead University head's decision to suspend Wi-Fi use by the school, surfaces again here with specious statements that lack any research support. The article has weak citations on the matter--no formal studies, slight government response--while failing to mention any of the readily available research, which includes dozens of studies that demonstrate no EMF/health link. The most recent of which received a fairly positive response, as it showed that people could exhibit an electrosensitive response even when no fields were present under carefully monitored circumstances.
A well-received study that tested the effects of exposure from cell base station transmissions on self-identified sensitive individuals and control subjects has released more details to counter criticism: The University of Essex researchers reported that self-selected electromagnetically sensitive subjects were unable to determine when a base station signal was present or absent in double-blind tests, even though during "open" tests in which they were told correctly when a signal was absent or present these individuals exhibited physical and mental symptoms.
The researchers were criticized on a few grounds that they've now clarified; surprisingly, not all organizations that believe electromagnetic radiation can cause ill health thought the study was flawed. The primary critique was that 12 sensitive individual dropped out of the study before the double-blind portion. Critics suggested that those people were actually the true sensitives, and that the study was skewed against that point of view.
Researchers posted an extensive update on the matter in which they demonstrate that the characteristics of symptoms exhibited by the withdrawn subjects were very close to the 44 people who continued to the end. They note that five of the 12 withdrew because of their reaction to the exposure in the study, and two were excluded because they were taking medication that could have affected results. The first phase testing of these subjects was included in the final results, meaning that true sensitives, if they existed, didn't have markedly different symptoms from the subjects who completed the study.
Critics also pointed to the study's funding source, a joint effort by the mobile industry and UK government to research health effects. The researchers note in their FAQ that they their work was not subject to advance review after the grant was issued, nor did the funders have control over the release of results or their conclusions. The researchers note that their method of double-blind study removes results, too. That's true. With double-blind studies, you can critique the method by which bias was removed and information kept from participants and researchers during testing phases, and what's being tested--if the frequencies used or power levels involved don't match real-world conditions, for instance, that's a issue of the framing of the study and is a valid point of argument.
I contacted the research group, and on that last front, was told by Denise Wallace, a senior research officer, that the "power density used in our study 10 mW/m^2) was based on a recommendation from the National Radiological Protection Board" that's now part of the Health Protection Agency in Britain. These levels, therefore, are commensurate with what are considered safe levels found in the public sphere.
I asked Wallace whether the study results could be generalized to mobile phones themselves, as this study focused on the typically higher levels of power but more dispersed signal of base stations on "masts" or towers. She noted that their study was in line with other published double-blind studies that looked into matters such as human attention with GSM and continuous wave mobile phone signals present, and health effects from mobile phone usage on sensitive individuals.
The Independent continues its rather ridiculous, non-science-based campaign for eletrosmog: The UK paper decided to take a stand, and decided to ignore the preponderance of evidence. In their latest article, they try to link research about something akin to static electricity causes micro-particulants to be charged in a way that makes them more likely to remain in the lungs. The article attempts to smear research released this last week that demonstrated an inability for self-identified electrosensitives to tell whether a cell phone base station was on or off.
(The article says, "It comes in the wake of the publication last week of research which concluded that people who believe that the masts are making them ill are deluding themselves." But the Essex study did not say that people were deluded; rather, that real symptoms presented themselves, that they presented without connection to the signal being present or absent, and that research into the real cause of these symptoms was needed.)
Researchers have found that a variety of electrical appliances appear to create this kind of charge; this has nothing to do with wireless communications, however. In fact, I recall reading studies in the mid-1990s that said the same thing just less broadly: Electrical charge could be passed onto particles that passed through the fans in computers. Researchers recommend grounding (earthing, in Queen's English) equipment and avoiding synthetic fibers.
A UK academic study looked at cell towers, often cited as a cause of pain to those who identify themselves as electrosensitive: The study, funded by organization itself funded by both government and industry, was carried out by a University of Essex professor. The group tested 44 people self-identified as having problems with masts, and a control group of 114 who never reported any symptoms. The study started with 56 electrosensitives; 12 dropped out for what an anti-tower group said was illness, but which isn't noted by the researchers in a university press release or in the BBC story linked to here. Update: The study is now available for download in PDF form at no cost from Environmental Health Perspectives.
The study, conducted over three years, used a variety of measures to determine reaction, including "heart rate, blood pressure, and skin conductance," the University's release says. Subjective well-being was also measured in a couple ways, including using 57 symptoms extracted from a questionnaire designed to determine electromagnetic sensitivity. Researchers tested both in what is described as "open provocation," in which both the researcher and the subject knew when a signal was present or absent from a cell tower base station under the study's control, and in double-blind circumstances, where neither party knew when the signal was present or absent.
The open provocation part was critical, because other studies had been criticized for failing to observe people's symptoms at all, making it difficult to know what a typical reaction was. Sensitive subjects did report symptoms when they knew the signal was present. However, with double-blind testing of both sensitive and control subjects, the results were no better than chance in either group as to knowing whether the signal was present or absent. Two of the sensitive subjects and five control subjects were 100-percent accurate as to when the signal was present or absent, but this can be attributable to chance. If subjects were truly sensitive, then the results would have been better than chance, especially in the sensitive group.
Here's the critical part of this study, and something I have attempted to emphasize in my coverage in the last several months: the study showed that people's presented symptoms were real and measurable but that they could not be correlated to the source that sufferers believe the symptoms are associated with. The principal investigator put it quite humanely: "It is clear that sensitive individuals are suffering real symptoms and often have a poor quality of life. It is now important to determine what other factors could be causing these symptoms, so appropriate research studies and treatment strategies can be developed."
Researchers across many disciplines were involved--"cognitive psychologists, electronic and biomedical engineers and a medical doctor"--and the test conditions were in a lab equipped for the purposes, with an independent evaluation conducted of the test environment. Dr James Rubin, the Kings College London researcher who previously reviewed 31 similar studies, endorsed the results of this study.
Significantly, the UK group Powerwatch, which has a general acceptance of the notion of electrosensitivity and other health affects due to Wi-Fi, cell phones, and cell towers, had a generally positive reaction to the study, noting mostly that chronic health effects can't be assessed in this sort of study, which is true. Powerwatch concluded that people who incorrectly identify themselves as electrosensitive may be skewing these sort of studies--what they call nocebo responses.
The study was funded by the Link Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme, funded by the affected industry and government. This is the first research released that was funded by this group.
Chicago Reader calls out "missing" mobile phone health study: European papers apparently gave this study that indicated no increased risk of glioma based on a retrospective (i.e., "what do you remember about your use") study on cell phone use across five countries. The study found that for people with gliomas and more than 10 years' cell phone use, the side that they remembered having used more frequently to speak on a mobile phone had an increased correlation with the side that the glioma was located on. From the abstract, I can't see if they removed side bias: there's a potential for someone with a brain tumor to remember incorrectly which side they normally talked on.
The conclusion is, "our results overall do not indicate an increased risk of glioma in relation to mobile phone use, the possible risk in the most heavily exposed part of the brain with long-term use needs to be explored further before firm conclusions can be drawn." Which is fine: It means more animal and other forms of study are needed, since this study didn't provide a firm conclusion.
There's a small cohort in this study: 1,522 glioma patients (a form of brain cancer that has sidedness, and thus some notion that it might reveal increased cancer risk derived directly from mobile phone radiation) and 3,301 control patients. A previous study from 2005 by the same authors about another form of cancer that could be predictably caused also found no increased risk of acoustic neuroma's, but concluded that more study of users with 10 years or more of use was needed.
The Danish study of 425,000 mobile phone users based on their phone records--rather than their recollection--showed no elevated health risks, and received wide play. The Danish study was retrospective, but relied on actual data of hours of use and phone types.
Clarins! Take me away: Cut to scene of woman with skin like Scarlett Johansson lounging in tub, surrounded by cell phones, Wi-Fi gateways, and uranium. "I'm 75, but you would never know it. Until now, I've spent 23 hours each day in a lead-lined bathysphere, miles below the earth to keep my skin silky smooth. But now I have Clarins Expertise 3P, specially formulated to protect me from artificial electromagnetic waves. While I always try to use natural electromagnetic waves, spending days at a time in the Van Allen Belts and consuming a healthy diet of charged particles created by nature, you know that in this modern age, artificial electromagnetism is all around me. Fortunately, Expertise 3P invisibly shields my skin through a formula that's as natural as can be,i including phenooxyethanol, biosaccharide gum-4, and sodium chloride--ordinary salt! So the next time you need to leave your lead-lined chamber and visit the site of a recent nuclear test or just walk under an artificial light, try Clarins Expertise 3P. Only $40 for a 3.4-ounce bottle."
(The science: "When exposed to 900 megahertz waves--the type most commonly used in communications--skin's free radical production increased, its protective barriers deteriorated and cellular renewal slowed by 26%.") [link via Leslie Schroeder, pictured on her all-natural yak]
I can't make this stuff up: "The San Francisco Neighborhood Antenna-Free Union (SNAFU) is a grass-roots, city-wide coalition of individual residents and neighborhood organizations that works to prevent the placement of wireless antennas on or near residences, schools, health care centers, day care centers, senior centers, playgrounds, places of worship, and other inappropriate locations in the City and County of San Francisco." That is, everywhere in the city.
If the group is successful in their effects to force a unique environmental review of the Wi-Fi network, a review that hasn't been required by any other wireless provider--oh, and remember that electrical lines produce RF as do wired networks! and equipment people buy for their homes!--it could delay the network construction by a year.
See their list of usual suspects. See their list of only studies and "evidence" that supports their position (omitting hundreds of studies that don't). I know, I know: that's advocacy. But it's intellectually bankrupt.
Their press release notes: "San Francisco is already immersed in a sea of electromagnetic radiation from sources such as 138 transmitters on Sutro Tower, over 2,500 licensed cell phone antennas at 530 locations throughout the City, thousands of WiFi
hotspots in cafes, shops and homes, and hundreds of thousands of cellular phones. No systematic attempt has been made to determine what current cumulative exposures to this radiation are and what the 2,200 proposed Google/Earthlink antennas would add."
Right. So. Uh. If you don't turn all those off, how do we decide if there's an effect, especially if you ignore the scientific and theoretical evidence that doesn't support your position? When a handful of scientists worldwide take the stance that more research is needed, but don't see a smoking gun? When no cancer clusters or other disease clusters have emerged inexplicably in areas that have had the greatest coverage for the greatest period with the greatest number of users (San Francisco and the Bay Area, notably, with Metricom, cell data, Wi-Fi, and other technologies deployed in the greatest concentration for the longest period)?
I'm calling this right now: EarthLink and San Francisco are going to walk away from their Wi-Fi network deal. This latest group's work will probably put enough of a wrench into the deal coupled with the other delays, and the lack of certainty of a board of supervisors go-ahead, that this network is dead.
Lots of good stuff here today from Ben Goldacre of Bad Science: In the Guardian newspaper (UK), he writes primarily about how Alasdair Philips of Powerwatch has a profit motive not disclosed in BBC's Panorama propaganda on Wi-Fi safety--he sells gear that "protects" people from electromagnetic radiation. Philips doesn't hide the fact on his lobbying site, but the program should have disclosed that fact, since it labeled other people with economic associations. (You can read the transcript of the show here.)
The BBC presenter Paul Kenyon says that Philips wasn't given a chance to interpret the results, but clearly in the show you can see Philips's reaction, and Philips's group's opinion essentially drove the tone and nature of the show, which lacked any skepticism about claims that are medically and fundamentally unproven. Further, we don't know what device or scale Philips used and how it was calibrated. We don't even know that he's an expert in conducting these measurements; he says he is. If so, another expert unassociated with his views or devices should have been able to reproduce the results. (Kenyon admits that in a follow-up interview at BBC; see below.)
Kenyon responded to directly to Goldacre in an interview posted on his site. Kenyon essentially says, we talked to a few people, and they all sort of vetted each other, so we're done. An actual documentary would have involved talking to dozens of people and then perhaps showing the opinions from a few.
Let me tell you how journalism works. When I wrote a 2,700-word item on municipal Wi-Fi for The Economist a year ago March (samizdat copy, paid version), I spoke to over two dozen people specifically for the article in addition to hundreds I'd interviewed or had talks with over the two years prior to that. I started out with a set of assumptions, but listened to what people said, and wound up writing an article somewhat different than I thought I was writing. (It's proved out to be accurate, too, so far.) That's journalism. Daily journalism often lacks that kind of time, so you read quicker, more facile stuff that gets facts or context wrong because it has to get out the door. An Economist feature or BBC documentary isn't typically produced on that scheduled if it's not a matter of breaking news, in which case journalists usually air on the side of what's best known at that time.
A number of people claim all journalists have preconceived notions and find subjects and quotes to fit those notions. Most of the journalists I know rather follow the story, and while the participants in the story may not like the piece we cut out that strikes our interest because we think that's the part that our readers will like--we're not tailoring the facts to fit our notions.
Had I been researching this documentary, I would have wanted to find out from several epidemiologists with no horse in this race how credible various claims were about risk based on studies. You can often find academics willing to read studies and read statements about them to give you a reality check. I would also have noted that there aren't two sides to this fence: there are people who promote the idea that EMF makes you sick; and mostly scientists and health officials on the other end evaluating research and finding no smoking gun but not stating definitively no shots have been fired. I would also have made sure that if I was finding something spectacularly different than what was widely accepted that I could explain the reason why effects weren't being seen--I wouldn't have speculated that the methodology for all measurement was wrong (as Panorama did, relying on a few scientists), but would have looked into how the methodology has worked in the past, and how it might be falling down now. That's a more involved set of research, but was what was needed to make the claims in the show.
The BBC itself grills Kenyon on its Newswatch program (see heading "Update BBC24 Newswatch transcript"). In it, Kenyon agrees it was a bad idea to use Philips alone to take measurements, and had no idea that the Swedish scientist he used a resource is considered controversial (read: a misinterpreter of results, which I know from reading his actual study, which includes a lot less correlation than he or anyone else reading it claims).
Kenyon twists himself into a pretzel, too. The program dismisses the fact that classroom levels measured by Philips were at 1/600th of the level deemed to be unsafe by the government, but then accepts Sir William Stewart's statements as fact, even though he's part of government. Go figure.
Kenyon makes this extraordinary claim: "But out position was that there is a mainstream accepted view on this and I think it’s a role that Panorama can play to challenge that mainstream sort-of culturally accepted norm." Perhaps the idea that Paris Hilton is a spoiled rich kid who avoids the consequences of her actions until now could be received wisdom and the idea that she's actually a modern rebel teaching a non-conformist view of the world would be the challenge. But for god's sake, this is about science with empirical, measurable results.
One of my favorite cartoons shows a scientist thinking, "What happens this time when I mix ammonia and bleach?" (or perhaps two similar agents that react together). The caption, as I roughly recall it: "Why all scientists are empiricists." I'm not representing it beautifully, but the cartoon shows what happens when you reject the idea that science is founded on reproducible experiments which, built up over time, produce an association of cause and effect founded on reason. That's science. Everything else is anecdote and conjecture, and, while useful, must be put in that context.
This newer cartoon rather well summarizes the situation (and is hilarious, to boot).
Goldacre also finds that a letter responding to criticisms was written by the BBC before the program had actually aired. Huh. Seems like someone had the idea that the problem might have weaknesses in sourcing. And Goldacre finds that Panorama tried to take measurements with students in a room, but the school balked at what they saw as bad science.
This would all just be a matter of one show not getting right except it's the Beeb, the venerable institution, and I've been reading about alarm spread worldwide by the program, and already seeing that some schools are turning off Wi-Fi.
The Panorama documentary on the alleged risks associated with Wi-Fi can be viewed online: You can watch it via the BBC Web site or using Bad Science's Google Video link. While you're at it, read Bad Science's comment space on this documentary, as well as the article written by its editor last year about electrosensitivity and the comments that follow it. Editor Ben Goldacre states it beautifully in that May 13, 2006, article: "I don’t think people who report being hypersensitive to electrical fields are hypochondriacs: I think they have real and distressing symptoms, but I also think, in the light of the evidence above, that electromagnetic fields probably aren’t causing those symptoms, and they may remain unexplained for the moment."
Lord, is it bad. They show a single person involved in a study (apparently showing a re-enactment of that, as they couldn't possibly be in the room when the study was conducted), stating that she identified the presence of a cell base station (mast, as the British call it) signal 2/3rds of the time, but then note in passing that the results from the rest of the "independent" study's subjects haven't yet been analyzed. The signal was artificially generated, and other aspects of the study are unclear.
If I were not a calm man, I'd start ranting right here. You can't cherry pick a self-identified sufferer from a clinical study and say that because she achieved a certain result that you're confirming her claims. What if 50-percent of the control and suffering group identify 2/3rds of the time a signal was present, and 50-percent were wrong 2/3rds of the time? Bad Science points to 31 studies done on electrosensitivity, and the overwhelming consensus review of those studies that there was no correlation between identification as electrosensitive and the ability to sense a presence or absence of signal.
Please note also that Alasdair Philips of Powerwatch, a lobbying group that promotes the notion of ill health from wireless transmissions, helps measure the signal intensity in a classroom--the measurement that the program notes is 1/600th of the UK's level of concern of signal strength. Nowhere is it mentioned here (or in his other appearances, from what I can tell), that Philips's advocacy site refers sales to EMFields, the "trading arm of A & J Philips."
One might suggest that if you're pushing the notion that industry, with a vested financial interest, might be suppressing the outcome of studies, that it's also worth noting one of the primary people involved apparently has a financial interest himself in serving a community that he is helping to identify. This shouldn't discredit him (nor industry) from commenting on the matter. But it should have been mentioned that he sells the tinfoil that lines people's walls. Powerwatch itself discloses this information in part on one of their sites.
BBC Panorama airing on Monday night in the UK fans fears of health risks from Wi-Fi through bad interpretation: As the Guardian points out, not only are the classroom measurements discussed in the program 600 times below the level that the government expresses concern at, the measurement of Wi-Fi signal strength and a cell base station signal are made at different points. The measurement for Wi-Fi is at 1 meter, and the cell base station at 100m. At those disparate differences, Wi-Fi comes out three times stronger. I haven't seen the program, as it hasn't aired yet, and in parts of the program description online, it makes it clear that they are measuring exposure within the classroom to Wi-Fi and exposure at the same location to signals from the mast; in others, they appear to be making an apples-to-apples comparison.
The entire basis of the program appears to be using the many studies of mobile phone emissions and resulting health effects and applying them against Wi-Fi on the basis of this erroneous measurement. The Guardian doesn't note the other specious element. The point isn't a cell base station radiating to a user, but the cell phone someone carries produces a signal that reaches the base station. No measurement appears to have been taken of a cell phone in use.
Lest we forget, the Guardian writes, "The Health Protection Agency says a person sitting within a Wi-Fi hotspot for a year receives the same dose of radio waves as a person using a mobile phone for 20 minutes."
Scientists quoted in the program apparently say that using thermal effects--heat produced by exposure to electromagnetic radiation--to determine risk isn't enough to, well, determine risk.
You will likely be able to hear me speak on this issue on the UK's Channel 4 Morning Report podcast being posted Monday morning GMT.