Saturday, January 25, 2014

Why we need to keep asking the questions: Innovation and possible impact on health

For every sizeable innovation there are detractors and advocates. Think, for example, the television in the late 1950s, 60s and 70s. When it initially became available and affordable for many people, was going to open up education for the world (think Open University programmes from the UK, and the City Colleges of Chicago in the US). On the other hand, detractors felt it was undermining literacy skills, amongst other things. Newton Minow, in 1961, called television “a vast wasteland” (you can hear an extract from his speech here).

Hindsight now indicates that TV has not revolutionised the face of education, and people still read books.

The thing is - to have balance, we need both sides, and all the opinions in between - to ensure they are robust discussions about innovations that may, potentially, be game-changers, or harmful. We also need folks to keep re-assessing and re-visiting these discussions - to challenge what can otherwise become assumptions. The danger is that we can blindly assume that what science is apparently indicating is reliable; take for instance, Hormone Replacement Therapy. What initially appears to be a no-brainer positive, can sometimes turn out to be way less cut and dried, and on the other hand, what can appear to be negative, turn out to have some previously un-thought of benefits).

Bearing all of this in mind, this is what I suspect has been happening in the case of wifi. Which brings me to Wifi and tinfoil hats: An evidential approach (a post that was brought to my attention by Glen Davis). Recently, at Te Horo school, on the Kapiti Coast in New Zealand, wifi was recently turned off. It is all somewhat complex, with a number of sides to the story. The end result, though, is that the wifi has been switched off and I am left wondering, to what end?

Paul Matthews, the author of the post, indicates that intensity of EMFs was the key to the debate, and refers to Jonathan Brewer'sInside Telecommunications blog that includes the following table:
Type of Radiation
Power Level
Potential to be Harmful (heat can be felt)
Maximum Permitted in New Zealand
Highest Radiation Cell Phones (Avg of 20)
50 Watt Cell Phone Transmitter at 10m distance
Lowest Radiation Cell Phones (Avg of 20)
Wi-Fi Device Average between 0.5 and 2m distance

Matthews goes on to say that if you go by this table, “wifi would have to be 35,000x as strong as its current average to be potentially harmful to humans” (source). He also refers to the World Health Organisation's EMF Project, which has concluded after a review of over 25,000 scientific articles and research projects" that "Despite extensive research, to date there is no evidence to conclude that exposure to low level electromagnetic fields is harmful to human health" (source).

In addition, “the US National Cancer Institute[state that] there is no evidence from studies of cells, animals, or humans that radiofrequency energy can cause cancer” (source). In other words, “Following very comprehensive and ongoing research, there is absolutely no evidence of a link between exposure to wifi transmission and adverse health effects” [emphasis in the original] (source).

So - should everyone be turning off their wifi? It appears not. Extensive research to date is not indicating any cause for alarm. As, the author of the post says, “Hopefully other communities around New Zealand will consider the science first and foremost” (source). However, that’s not to say ‘case closed’. Rather, let’s keep the conversations and the research current and open.

Would be great to read your comments and reactions.  

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