Is Wi-Fi safe?

Reports of parents concerned over the health risks of Wi-Fi dominate the headlines, but are their concerns valid? We asked two experts on opposing sides of the argument to help you determine if Wi-Fi is safe for you and your family

By Lesley Young

Is Wi-Fi safe?

Is there any merit to recent concerns that Wi-Fi, the second most common form of wireless technology next to cellphones, is bad for our health? Health Canada says that it has determined that exposure to low-level radiofrequency energy, such as that from Wi-Fi equipment (which enables wireless access to the Internet), is not dangerous to the public. But there are reports of parents and members of the public who say they are concerned about health risks posed by exposure to Wi-Fi. Why the controversy? Scientists disagree over the quality of the research findings that suggest electromagnetic fields (EMF) emitted from Wi-Fi pose health risks.

We spoke to two experts in opposing camps to help you decide what’s best for your family. Lorne Trottier is an electronic engineer, co-founder of Matrox (a company specializing in computer graphics with no vested interest in the sale of Wi-Fi technology), and member of the Centre for Inquiry. Magda Havas is an associate professor of Environment and Resource Studies at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont.

Some background on EMF

Every electronic device produces EMF, including Wi-Fi. All forms of EMF (including microwave ovens and ultraviolet and X-Rays rays) are measured on the electromagnetic spectrum, ranging from low to high frequency. Every frequency is associated with a wavelength and an inherent level of quantum energy.

BH: How might EMF produced by Wi-Fi cause health effects?

Trottier: There are only three scientifically established mechanisms by which EMF is known to cause a health effect: electrical currents in the body; thermal [heating] effects; and ionizing radiation effects [Wi-Fi is non-ionizing]. The importance of these mechanisms depends on frequency and strength of power. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that supports Wi-Fi causes either of the first two health effects. It does not have enough inherent energy to break molecular bonds [for example, to cause genetic damage that might lead to cancer]. Claims that EMF causes symptoms like headaches, dizziness and racing heart, sometimes called "electrosensitivity," have not been proven in the highest quality studies, although there is evidence that some people believe they are experiencing these symptoms. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) has concluded that the symptoms are psychosomatic [caused by mental or emotional disturbance].

Havas: The concern is that Wi-Fi is at the same frequency as a microwave, 2.4 gigahertz (GHz), and that is the optimum frequency for vibrating molecules [boiling water]. The exposure to EMF is not as intense, but it has the same effect, it just takes longer. If you take kids and put them in a room where they are exposed to Wi-Fi, they may experience negative health effects such as electrosensitivity, and maybe even genetic damage. I read a heck of a lot of research, and it does show that some people have electrosensitivity to this frequency. We are about to publish a study that is not statistically relevant but nevertheless shows that some people are irrefutably affected by this frequency.

BH: Health Canada’s Safety Code 6 is a set of guidelines for safe human exposure to EMF. Is it an adequate protective measure against Wi-Fi?

Trottier: Wi-Fi technology in use in Canadian homes, schools and workplaces must meet Health Canada’s Safety Code 6. Levels of EMF emitted from Wi-Fi devices are well below these standards. Alarmists are right when they say that this code only addresses the thermal [heating] effects of EMF, but that’s because heating is the only measurably reliable effect from EMF that is known to be dangerous.

Havas: Prior to becoming the Coordinator of the Radiation and Environmental Health Unit at the WHO [he retired in 2006], Dr. Michael Repacholi, was involved with creating Safety Code 6. Back then [1977], he gave a talk in which he stated that he had recommended much lower exposure standards to EMF than those that were set in Safety Code 6. Unfortunately, Health Canada is standing behind the current standards.

BH: What is the strongest evidence showing Wi-Fi health safety or danger?

Trottier: The strongest evidence [showing Wi-Fi safety] is the lack of scientists’ ability to replicate any of the findings that supposedly show a risk. There are a handful of studies that supposedly show that EMF breaks DNA bonds [which could cause cancer], but what the alarmists won’t tell you is that the methodology is flawed. Furthermore, other scientists who have tried to replicate these findings did not detect any DNA breaks. Health Canada is not alone in proclaiming the safety of Wi-Fi: other major public health organizations in the world [that say it is safe] include the U.S. Cancer Society and WHO.

Havas:
The truth is we have no scientific evidence that Wi-Fi equipment is safe or dangerous because studies with children have not been conducted. [All studies are on lab cells or in animals.] Instead, we are in the middle of one of the largest human experiments ever. It will take a few years until we learn what the short-term effects are, and possibly generations to learn what the long-term effects are. Both Health Canada and WHO have close ties with the cell phone and wireless industry.

BH: Do studies need to be consistent to raise cause for alarm? Is it better to be safe than sorry?

Trottier: Science can’t prove a negative [that is, gather evidence to prove something does not exist]. Maybe some people will never be satisfied with that. All I can tell you is that, based on the preponderance of evidence [which, in the case of Wi-Fi, is large and many years old] Wi-Fi is safe.  

Havas: Health Canada says the research results are inconsistent. Some studies show there are health effects, others don’t. But what we really need to be looking at is the weight of the evidence. Say there are 10 studies: four show a harmful effect, one is beneficial and the remaining five show no effect. Health Canada compares the five that show something [positive and negative] and five that show nothing, and says there is no consistent evidence. But it is not a proper comparison. You need to compare the harmful ones against the beneficial ones. And of course, for the sake of public health, we should be erring on the side of caution.

BH: What’s your advice to the average Canadian?

Trottier: Don’t worry about it. Wi-Fi is a fantastic invention. If you are really worried, get your Internet by landline. Obviously kids can’t avoid it in schools. Just remember: the level they are exposed to in school is not all that much different from an FM radio station.

Havas: If you want to take precautions, it is important to remove all wireless technology in your home. Failing that, unplug your wireless unit when you are not using it to minimize EMF. Schools should really be wireless-free zones, [or should have] just a few wireless locations so kids can load up what they need on their computer and go back to the classroom.

Web exclusive, October 2010

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