Quackery thrives on fear. Cancer, infection and injury are rightly things to be concerned about. Despite the near doubling of our expected life span in the last hundred years or so, scientific medicine will eventually let us all down and we shall eventually succumb to the final inconvenience of death. In the meantime, the fear of suffering creates opportunities for quacks to exploit. The entrepreneurial quack will fan the flames of those fears as a sales technique. However, this is not always necessary, as the media do a pretty good job of stirring things up too as way of creating ‘shock’ stories.
This week we have seen pretty much all the UK newspapers report on the ‘fear of Wi-Fi’. The Independent on Sunday started the ball rolling with its usual sensationalist front-page grabber. Two stories, Wi-Fi: Children at risk from ‘electronic smog’ and Is the Wi-Fi revolution a health time bomb? lead the way, to be quickly copied in the Daily Heil, the Guardian, the Telegraph, the BBC, and of course the Norwich Evening News.
All these stories have much in common, which is unsurprising since the later ones just copied the Independent. Basic story – Philip Parkin, General Secretary of the Professional Association of Teachers (PAT), has issued a press release after his previous one was ignored, calling for “full scientific investigation into the effects of wi-fi networks”. A teacher, apparently, has complained of headaches in a classroom with WiFi. A little later, and after some time off, the headache disappeared, coincidental with the removal of the WiFi. What more proof do we need?
Philip Barking continues, “I am not saying there is a danger”. But I guess it would be remiss of him if he did not take the concerns of one of his members ‘seriously’.
I am concerned that so many wireless networks are being installed in schools and colleges without any understanding of the possible long-term consequences.
The proliferation of wireless networks could be having serious implications for the health of some staff and pupils without the cause being recognised.
Philip also then gets all conspiratorial on us with the classic quack line, ‘There are huge commercial pressures which may be why there has not yet been any significant action.’
The newspaper stories then weigh in with even more ‘evidence’ . Apparently, from the independent,
Britain’s top health protection watchdog is pressing for a formal investigation into the hazards of using wireless communication networks in schools amid mounting concern that they may be damaging children’s health, ‘The Independent on Sunday’ can reveal.
Sir William Stewart, the chairman of the Health Protection Agency, wants pupils to be monitored for ill effects from the networks – known as Wi-Fi – which emit radiation and are being installed in classrooms across the nation.
Sir William – who is a former chief scientific adviser to the Government, and has chaired two official inquiries into the hazards of mobile phones – is adding his weight to growing pressure for a similar examination of Wi-Fi, which some scientists fear could cause cancer and premature senility.
Jeepers! Alarming, but fortunately not long if you bother to check the facts. Here is what Sir William Stuart actually says about WiFi,
The statements attributed to Sir William Stewart, Chairman of the Health Protection Agency (HPA), in The Independent on Sunday are not his. Sir William is being pressed by lobbyists to condemn Wi-Fi and is unprepared to do so. He has not taken a position on Wi-Fi.
Will we see a front-page retraction from the Independent of Sunday, preferably covering the same area as the original story? I doubt it.
Now, as one would expect, the HPA is monitoring research on the effects of WiFi and calling for research in particular areas – that is its legislative remit. It is not a refection on sudden and alarming concerns, but a sensible and prudent approach from a government body tasked with providing research and advice in the effects of all types of radiation. It looks like the Independent has put words in a civil servant’s mouth and weasel-worded their position.
There are other possible dangers in schools that we might get worried about and for which there is insufficient research to conclude they are safe. For example,
- chalk dust
- boiled cabbage
- leather arm patches on geography teacher’s jackets
We could go on endlessly with this list thinking up things that may be dangerous and for which we have no evidence that they are safe. The fact that we cannot prove something is safe does not mean that we have to fear it. We can put limits around the risk, estimate probabilities and examine plausibilities. I am sure after a few martinis we could all dream up nightmare leather arm patch scenarios, but that does not mean that the risk to children from them is plausible.
Here is a list of things where we might be able to quantify the risks to school children,
- meteor impact
- choking on pen tops
All of these are plausible threats and one of these is the leading cause of death and disability in school children. The risk accounts for about 170 deaths per year and 4000 serious injuries. One of the other risks does cause deaths, although fortunately rarely – the other has no recorded deaths to kids, but is plausible in its nature. No prizes to guess which is which. We are scared of risks we don’t understand and complacent about risks we believe we do. Car usage goes up because we feel that driving our darlings to school is safer. But as a result, traffic goes up and causes a greater risk to ourselves.
The point I am making is that if we are to be alarmed by the Wi-Fi scare and remove this relatively inexpensive technology and replace it with very expensive re-wiring of schools, we are missing an opportunity to divert the money into preventing deaths from large risks. Improving child safety outside schools, providing cycle lanes and encouraging walking would create a more humane environment. Maybe even childhood obesity would diminish with its own associated risks. Conversely, putting meteorite shields over our schools may prevent future deaths, but at what cost?
By demanding complete elimination of a small and probably inconsequential risk, we push larger risks into other areas of our lives. I can work at home much more now because of Wi-Fi. This means I drive less and so reduce the risk to myself and others by my car not being on the road. My mobile phone also allows me to work at home – just – reception is poor. Unfounded fears about masts may mean I have to leave the house more than I would otherwise do. We are trading off real risks against implausible, potential and unrealised risks.
But how can I be so sure that the risks from Wi-Fi are so small? Well, despite Philip Barking’s assertion that we have no ‘understanding of the possible long-term consequences’, there have been organisations looking at these issues for many years. One place we might start is the World Health Organisation. Unless you believe that the United Nations and the WHO are run by shape-shifting lizards, we might think that this was a reliable impartial place to start. It is not clear how ‘huge commercial pressures’ might be influencing the WHO unless you believe CISCO and Belkin are also run by the illumianti.
The WHO have been looking into the question of the health effects from mobile phones and wireless networks for a decade or more. Their conclusion is,
Some people perceive risks from RF exposure as likely and even possibly severe. Several reasons for public fear include media announcements of new and unconfirmed scientific studies, leading to a feeling of uncertainty and a perception that there may be unknown or undiscovered hazards. Other factors are aesthetic concerns and a feeling of a lack of control or input to the process of determining the location of new base stations. Experience shows that education programmes as well as effective communications and involvement of the public and other stakeholders at appropriate stages of the decision process before installing RF sources can enhance public confidence and acceptability.
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.
What is so disappointing here is that, unless the story was just a bit of journalistic stick poking, the origin appears to be from the head of a professional teachers’ trades union. One would have thought that teachers would have a better idea of relative risk, the scientific method and the negative effect of scare-stories. Maybe I might conclude that those that can, teach; those that can’t, run unions.