Self-described "technological lepers", i.e. Wi-Fi-fearing populations around the world, scored a win this week when a school district Manawatu, New Zealand bowed to the criticism of two fathers and agreed to cut off wireless internet access to assuage their unproven fears.
I. A Win Against Wireless
Manawatu is a relatively rural district on the Northern Island of New Zealand and is home to about 27,900 residents. A city page brags:
The Manawatu is heartland New Zealand. A landscape that sweeps from the sea to the Tararua Ranges, it offers an exciting range of adventure activities.
Choose from rafting, kayaking, blokarting, horse trekking, mountain biking, rock climbing and a host of other activities.
If you want to experience country life, it’s all around you. Go to a real stock auction. This is where the farmers buy and sell their farm animals, gathering around pens as the auctioneer rattles off bids. Stock auctions are one of New Zealand’s oldest traditions, dating back to the 1880s.
Or you could find a farmstay and meet farmers whose families have been on the land for generations.
There's a great diversity of attractions in Manawatu, New Zealand. In the vibrant student city of Palmerston North you can explore the world’s first museum devoted to rugby. If you’re a garden lover there are some fabulous public and private gardens to see, including one of the top rose gardens in the world. And a little way down the road around Horowhenua you’ll find such quirky attractions as an owl park, a farm devoted to Clydesdales and a fully operational Dutch windmill.
Like many districts in the U.S., Manawatu is home to some residents that fear wireless signals can cause cancer. These people say that electromagnetic field (EMF) exposure (i.e. non-ionizing radiation) is dangerous to the human body, just like ionizing radiation from radioactive isotopes.
But unlike many futile fights waged elsewhere, in this sleepy New Zealand town it was the Wi-Fi fearing residents who scored the big win.
II. Did an iPod Kill a 10-Year-Old?
Damon Wyman and David Bird battled the Te Horo Schools in the Kapiti Coast district over their use of Wi-Fi networks to promote education. Mr. Wyman's son Ethan Wyman was tragically diagnosed with a brain tumor, which led to his death in Aug. 2012. He was only ten years old. The death came roughly a year after his diagnosis, and roughly a year and four months after the cancer developed, according to his doctors.
The father blames Apple, Inc. (AAPL) for his son's illness. He claims the cancer was caused by an iPod his son received as a gift.
He notes his siblings did not have cancer, which he reasons is because they did not have Wi-Fi equipped iPods. He comments, "The only difference was, Ethan had an iPod."
Mr. Wyman claims his views are backed by the medical community (more on that later). He tells a local paper, "We've been inundated from health professionals from all around the world, and so have the board, all expressing their concern with Wi-Fi, and advocated for it to be removed from our school."
Despite heavy criticism, he's mounted a campaign, with Mr. Bird, an effort that eventually gave him a partial victory.
The school district surveyed parents and found modest support for removal among parents of Junior grade students, a group of students which Ethan Wyman is part of. But among seniors it found parents nearly unanimously opposed.
The Junior Te Horo school has gone "Wi-Fi Free". [Image Source: NBR]
So the local school board resolved to replace the network at the junior school with Ethernet and keep the Wi-Fi for the senior class. The school board insists the junior school removal is just respecting parental wishes, not a gesture supporting the notion that Wi-Fi is unsafe. It comments:
We have sourced information from the [New Zealand] Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Health and other submissions. Based on this information the board believes that Wi-Fi does not pose a health risk to staff or students.
The issue remains contentious, with neither side fully happy with the outcome.
II. Wi-Fi/Cell Phone Illness -- Real or Imagined?
EHS is not be a recognized illness in the United States, but there's plenty of debate surrounding the matter.
The U.S. Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), the industry trade group that represents phonemakers and their wireless carrier partners, has said that scientific evidence shows that wireless devices do not pose a public health risk or cause adverse effects because of the limits established by the government.
Are EMF fears tin-foil hat material or a real medical issue? The medical community is unsure.
[Image Source: Barrett]
The World Health Organization (WHO) agreed, saying that "EHS has no clear diagnostic criteria and there is no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to EMF (electromagnetic field) exposure. Further, EHS is not a medical diagnosis, nor is it clear that it represents a single medical problem." However, WHO does recognize that the symptoms are genuine and even labeled cell phone radiation as a possible carcinogenic hazard back in May.
On the other hand, research from scientists at Louisiana State University showed that EHS could be caused by low-frequency electromagnetic fields. They made this claim after testing it on a 35-year-old physician who had diagnosed herself with EHS. They seated her in a wooden chair while applying voltage to metal plates for 90-second pulses to produce a series of magnetic fields. After each exposure, she was asked to describe her symptoms. Some of the exposures were fake, where no voltage was applied. But the physician was unaware when there were real exposures and fake ones.
The physician described headaches and muscle twitching during real exposures and no symptoms during fake exposures. These results were covered in a peer-reviewed paper [PDF] published in 2011 in the International Journal of Neuroscience.
"The study provides direct evidence that linking human symptoms with environmental factors, in this case EMF," said Dr. Andrew Marino, who led the study. "It's a watershed in that regard. There have been no previous studies that scientifically assess whether electromagnetic fields in the environment could produce human symptoms. And the symptoms matter because they are the first steps that show how EMFs produce human disease."
Dr. Marino reviewed the results of his studies, which have been covered in recent books and peer-reviewed journal articles in an August 2013 letter to the editor, published in the International Journal of Neuroscience. There's a firestorm of controversy around Dr. Marino's conclusions from the study, but most at least praise him for approaching the topic more scientifically than other academics who believed in the disease.
Still, other professors such as physics professor Bob Park from the University of Maryland, say Wi-Fi is too weak to cause any changes in the body that people who claim to have EHS describe.
"The bigger problem that we face is that our society, driven by technological change, people have very little education," said Park. "There are lots of things people need to learn and they're not learning it. The thing that's going to kill them is ignorance."
Currently, Sweden is the only country that recognizes EHS as a real syndrome.
III. Wi-Fi -- Even Less Worrisome
A final note -- evens if cell phone EMF "disorders" are one day recognized and confirmed by the mainstream medical community, Wi-Fi "illnesses" will likely remain much more controversial.
Cell phone towers operate over relatively long distances, so they broadcast at a much higher power. By contrast Wi-Fi access points typically broadcast over only hundreds of feet, requiring much less power.
A typical LTE tower has a peak power of 48 dBm (63 watts), which is about 30 times as powerful as outdoor Wi-Fi signal boosters (outside of specialty units) which operate at around 26 dBm (2 watts). Indoor Wi-Fi access points tend to operate a hundredth of the power of a cell phone base station or less.
So if LTE towers are moderately harmful, it still remains unlikely Wi-Fi can lead to any serious health effects.
Indeed a peer-reviewed study published in a 2010 edition of the Physics in Medicine and Biologyjournal confirms this back-of-the-napkin math. The authors write:
…the highest localized SAR (specific energy absorption rate) value in the head was calculated as 5.7 mW kg−1. This represents less than 1% of the SAR previously calculated in the head for a typical mobile phone exposure condition.
So basically researchers believe that whatever the effects of cell phones on the human body, Wi-Fi chips and access points have about a hundredth of the effect.
But then again another peer-reviewed study published in the Oct. 2012 edition of the Journal of Psychosomatic Research suggest Wi-Fi illness fears, even if unfounded may indeed cause real disease.
Media reports about the adverse effects of supposedly hazardous substances can increase the likelihood of experiencing symptoms following sham exposure and developing an apparent sensitivity to it. Greater engagement between journalists and scientists is required to counter these negative effects.
It's unclear if that happen in Ethan Wyman's case, but it clear that fearing faking illness can make you actually sick.