Technology Trade-offs, Part 2: Wi-Fi

by Ellen

Wi-Fi  is all around us.  We can now connect to the internet in our homes, libraries, cafes, offices and schools.  Commuter buses, trains and airplanes carry Wi-Fi signals.  Some  cities have large Wi-Fi zones, such as  Amherst, MA — part of a joint experiment with the University of Massachusetts.  We also use Wi-Fi to connect some cell phones, e-book readers, video game players and other devices to each other and to the internet.

While Wi-Fi is incredibly convenient, it may be harming our health.

What exactly is Wi-Fi?

Wi-Fi is a wireless local area network (LAN) that uses high-frequency radio signals (RF) on the 802.11 network to transmit and receive data.  Whew!  Wi-Fi radio waves can carry large amounts of data.  They also emit electromagnetic radiation (EMR) which is where the health concerns come into play.  Wi-Fi radio waves operate on higher frequencies than the radio signals used with cell phones.

Wi-Fi is invisible.  Although establishments that carry Wi-Fi often display signs, we can be in Wi-Fi zones without knowing it.  People travel from homes with Wi-Fi routers to offices or schools that are Wi-Fi hotspots — spending almost all the time in a Wi-Fi cloud.

Wi-Fi and Health

This is a huge topic, with the debate usually circling around whether or not the radiation from Wi-Fi transmitters can cause cancer or illnesses.  On one side, the World Health Organization assures us that the level of radiation we are exposed to from Wi-Fi is low:

Considering the very low exposure levels and research results collected to date, there is no convincing scientific evidence that the weak RF signals from base stations and wireless networks cause adverse health effects.¹

Once again (like in my post on cell phones and health), I will take the other side asking, “What if?”  Should we be taking a cautious approach to Wi-Fi use just in case it is a risk to health?

As Wi-Fi spreads, perhaps we should be applying the Precautionary Principle:

When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof. ²

Five Factoids About Wi-Fi:

1) The BioInitiative Report Urges Action to Set Stricter EMF Limits

The BioInitiative Report (2007) was written by an international group of scientists, researchers, public health and policy experts.  The project aimed to examine more than 2000 existing scientific studies regarding the health effects of non-ionizing radiation from electromagnetic fields:

1) Radiofrequency/microwaves (RF-EMF),  used in Wi-Fi and other wireless communication, and

2) Extra-low frequency radiation (ELF-EMF), emitted by power lines and appliances

The Report is an exhaustive study of EMF effects on biological processes, showing how poor health outcomes from cancer to inflammatory and immune system problems are linked to radiation exposure.  It’s definitely worth reading the summary for the public — scary stuff.  (Unfortunately, after I published this post, The BioInitiative Report started charging for access.)

Not everything is known yet about this subject; but what is clear is that the existing public safety standards limiting these radiation levels in nearly every country of the world look to be thousands of times too lenient. Changes are needed.

Caution is stressed especially where children are concerned:

David O. Carpenter, MD and Director of the University of Albany, Institute of Health and the Environment concludes, “The existing FCC and international limits do not do enough to protect people, especially children, from daily exposures to electromagnetic fields and radiofrequency radiation. The existing safety limits did not anticipate these new kinds of technologies affecting the health of people living with and using wireless devices on a daily basis. These effects are now widely reported to occur at exposure levels significantly below most current national and international limits.”

The conclusion of the report is that current radiation emission limits are inadequate (far too high) to maintain public health. The authors recommend that current acceptable levels of exposure be reduced and that preventative steps be taken to reduce existing emissions of RF.  With regard to children the authors

…also recommend that wired alternatives to WIFI be implemented, particularly in schools and libraries so that children are not subjected to elevated RF levels until more is understood about possible health impacts. This recommendation should be seen as an interim precautionary limit that is intended to guide preventative actions;
and more conservative limits may be needed in the future.

2) Children are exposed to Wi-Fi radiation in schools.

More than half of primary and secondary schools in Britain use Wi-Fi.  The BBC show, Panorama reports “radio frequency radiation levels in some schools are up to three times the level found in the main beam of intensity from mobile phone masts.”  Panorama performed radiation measurements in an English school that showed:

…The technology [Wi-Fi] is similar to mobile phone masts and in use in 70 per cent of secondary schools and 50 per cent of primary schools.

Panorama visited a school in Norwich, with more than 1,000 pupils, to compare the level of radiation from a typical mobile phone mast with that of Wi-Fi in the classroom.

Readings taken for the programme showed the height of signal strength to be three times higher in the school classroom using Wi-Fi than the main beam of radiation intensity from a mobile phone mast.

The findings are particularly significant because children’s skulls are thinner and still forming and tests have shown they absorb more radiation than adults.4


The transcript of the show can be read here.

3) Some People are Extra-Sensitive to Electromagnetic Fields

Sensitivity to EMF is debilitating for some, causing depression, dizziness, nausea, headaches, fatigue, chest pains, shortness of breath and burning or itching skin.  It is estimated that between three and seven percent of people are extra sensitive.

The World Health Organization concluded in 2004 that Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (EHS) symptoms did not appear to correlate with exposure to electromagnetic fields.5,6 In Sweden, however, people with EHS are taken seriously.  EHS is a recognized disability there.

In the Stockholm municipality – were I live and work as a scientist with the responsibility to investigate comprehensive issues for persons with electrohypersensitivity – such persons have the possibility to get their home sanitized for EMFs. It means for example that ordinary electricity cables are changed to special cables. Furthermore, the electric stove can be changed to a gas stove and walls, roof and floors can be covered with special wallpaper or paint with a special shelter to stop EMFs from the outside (from neighbours and mobile telephony base stations). Even the windows can be covered with a thin aluminum foil as an efficient measure to restrain EMFs to get into the room/home. If these alterations turn out not to be optimal they have the possibility to rent small cottages in the countryside that the Stockholm municipality owns. These areas have lower levels of irradiation than others. The Stockholm municipality also intend to build a village with houses that are specially designed for persons who are electrohypersensitive. This village will be located in a low-level irradiation area. 7

4) WiMAX is Far Reaching

WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) is a wireless technology that spans a greater geographic area than Wi-Fi.  It has been described as “Wi-Fi on steroids.”   Where Wi-Fi signals can reach up to 300 feet, WiMAX signals can provide broadband wireless access up to 30 miles away for fixed towers and 3-10 miles away for mobile towers!8

One town in Sweden found that within hours of powering up a new WiMax tower, residents began complaining of numerous health problems, flooding the emergency services with calls.  As the afflicted residents moved farther away from the power station, the problems subsided.9

5) Some Countries are More Cautious than Others

What Can We Do?

Until we know whether EMFs from Wi-Fi networks pose health risks, we can adopt preventive measures:

1) Choose routers for use at home that have a Wi-Fi/wired switch.  Turn the Wi-Fi option off whenever you don’t need it and every night when you go to sleep. You can use wired connections most of the time, keeping the wireless capability for when it’s necessary.

2) Lobby to keep Wi-Fi towers off school buildings.

3) Use hotspot detectors to find where Wi-Fi isn’t.

4) Push for fiber-optic, wired access to the internet in your community

4) Demand public EMF-free zones

6) Pressure representatives for more studies!

Note:  I have to say that even with the limited amount of research I’ve been able to do in the last week on this topic, I’m very discouraged by the dearth of information coming out of the United States.  There are a few dedicated groups trying to get the word out that much more research is needed — now.  However, the health concerns don’t seem to have gone nearly as mainstream as they have in Europe.  Why??

Read Part 1 of Technology Trade-offs: Cell Phones

Part 3 of Technology Trade-offs Coming Soon!

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1) WHO Fact Sheet No. 304, May, 2006. Electromagnetic Fields and Public Health.

2) Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle: Science and Environmental Health Network. January 26, 1998.

3) BioInitiative Report: A Rationale for a Biologocially-based Public Exposure Standard for Electromagnetic Fields (ELF and RF) August 31, 2007.

4) BBC One: Panorama, May 20, 2007.

5) Some Shun Wireless Internet.  ABC News, May 28, 2008.

6) The Environmental Illness Report: Electrical Sensitivity and Hypersensitivity.

7) Olle Johansson, H.E.S.E. Project: Electrohypersensitivity: The Swedish View.

8 ) What is WiMax?

9) Swedish Town Blighted by WiMAX: The Inquirer, June 12, 2006.

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Jim January 14, 2010 at 9:34 am

This is the kind of “underground” reporting that must reach the surface. And this is not a mere Luddite story from BodyEarth; it is a vital story of the unseen dangers of the technologies that while convenient, seductive and wonderful, may bring harm to present and future generations.

BodyEarth January 14, 2010 at 10:04 am

Thank you, Jim! Yes, I love the convenience of Wi-Fi, but I’m worried about adopting this technology in such an all-embracing way, when the evidence is starting to come in that we should be much more careful.
“Unseen dangers,” as you put it, has 2 meanings to me:
1) What might be
2) Wi-Fi is invisible!

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