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« Riding the Wi-Fi Bus in Arizona | Main | Can Minneapolis Wi-Fi Survive WiMax? »

February 14, 2010

Electromagnetic Sickness Examined by LA Times

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.

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Here's a question:

Why would we expect than an organism whose proper functioning depends on minute changes in electromagnetic fields within it's cells, having evolved over the course of millions of years within a relatively stable electromagnetic environment, would be able to be exposed to a radically altered electromagnetic environment without significant consequences?

We would expect that only because of the profitability and convenience of such an assumption, not because of it's logical merit.

That's a completely reasonable set of questions.

My response is that I would NOT expect that, nor would any researcher familiar with microwaves and living beings. The appropriate way to find out whether we're harming ourselves, the bees, and so on, is to conduct studies involving large numbers of people over long periods of time.

My contention is that with now dozens upon dozens of studies of all kinds, some funded by industry, some by government, some independent, the best, newest, and most well-designed of which--including those like Interphone, which are cited as being the least susceptible to outside financial interference--showing that there no strong connection between EMFs and health, and disproving any link between the presence and absence of signals and symptomatic response by people who believe EMFs cause them ill health, that it's extremely likely that EMFs do not, in fact, have a deleterious effect on our health.

There are some edge cases in which very specific slices of results from some studies indicate something better than chance may link a certain kind of exposure with certain kinds of cancer. I hope those are further looked into, even though the researchers in those studies indicate that it's likely the effect isn't real, but an artifact of how the studies were conducted.

If there really were nothing there, then I'd say you were probably right; while it was, in my humble opinion, not a wise decision to turn billions of people into guinea pigs, we could perhaps overlook the wireless industry's recklessness if all indications were, in fact, that no harm had come of the experiment. However, I would contend that a different reading of the available data is also possible. One must recognize that a study is like any other business investment–Motorolla and it's peers don't pay 20 million dollars for a study, only to have it conclude that their products are harmful–to do so would be the height of economic illogicality. When one looks at the work of the few people in the field who aren't just industry shills, it becomes clear that not only do these people reach different conclusions, but that the industry researchers often engage in extremely transparent forms of deception–such as including large numbers of cordless phone users in the control group when assessing tumor risk from cell phones (which, because in reality cordless phones are even more tumor-promoting than cell phones, led to the bizarre finding that cell phones exhibit a statistically-significant protective effect).

It's true that, when one looks at the balance of the evidence, it appears that there is a great deal of uncertainty around these issues. However, when funding bias is considered and the industry-funded studies are understood properly as the PR tools that they are, the picture becomes a lot clearer.

Take a look at the bioinitiative report, if you're interested–it is largely the basis for many of the public health initiatives currently being undertaken by governments across Europe to protect the public from EMR:

If I had $10,000 to spare I would setup a challenge for people like you and others who can't comprehend what I'm dealing with in terms of wi-fi and other EMF exposure.

The challenge would be thus: attach a wi-fi transceiver (say 150 or 200mw, just like a laptop has) a few inches from your head. Set it up to continuously upload/download data. If you keep it there, uninterrupted, for 30 days, you get the $10,000.

According to what the industry tells us, that would be perfectly safe. However, I have no doubt that you would rip the thing off your head before the 30 days was up.

"Scientific" studies are bogus when paid for by the same corporations that are set to profit from the technology in question.

Furthermore, looking for cancer could be folly here. People should be tested for impaired cognitive function in the presence of a strong wi-fi signal, as that is the most common symptom.

By the way, I'm an industry professional who has been working with computers and networks for 30 years. I've mostly lost my career because of this. At this point I can walk into a room and tell you if the wifi is on or off; and yes, I have checked against at a meter for accuracy.

I cannot refute personal experience, nor would I try to tell someone that very real symptoms they experience aren't true.

That said, there are now dozens of clinical studies that have attempted to replicate what you believe you are observing in your own reaction. Several recent studies have done quite a lot to isolate causes and measure physical responses. There's been absolutely no positive correlation while working with people identified as electrosensitive.

On your hypothetical $10,000 challenge. I wouldn't take it. Laptops often use far less power than 150 to 200 mW, and the signal isn't directed "a few inches from your head." Because the intensity of output varies with the inverse square of the distance from the source (for omnidirectional antennas), even a foot or two away makes a vast difference in received power.

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