Last Monday BBC South Inside Out broadcast an investigation into ‘WiFi Refugees’. These are people who claim to be so badly affected by the radiation emitted from modern devices, such as mobile phones and WiFi, that they have to seek isolated places where they can live free of neighbours’ electronic devices. As you might image, this is a hard task, and such people live restricted lives, alone, and struggle to maintain jobs, friends and the semblance of a normal life.
Such people report a range of symptoms from WiFi including headaches, exhaustion, aches and pains. The problem is: there is no good scientific reasons at all to think that the symptoms described are caused by WiFi, despite the very strongly held beliefs that they are.
Someone I know in the BBC put me in contact with Mike Powell at BBC South who was investigating the story. And I happy agreed to let Mike know what I knew of the subject. I was asked if I wanted to take part in the programme, but I had strong reservations when I heard that Emeritus Professor Denis Henshaw of the Human Radiation Effects Group at Bristol University would also be taking part. Now, Henshaw has certain views about the effects of electromagnetic radiation and health. They are not mainstream, and I would class them as fringe. He is, of course, perfectly entitled to hold such views and you could argue that fringe views on occasions help science advance. But that you might make bold advances by having fringe views does not make you right. I have known of Henshaw’s work from my own days working in a medical physics group, and I was concerned that his position might seriously distort the balance of evidence on this subject unless it was handled with the utmost care.
As such, I wrote to the BBC with my concerns and why I was reluctant to take part,
Thanks for getting in touch. I hope you don’t mind, but I would like to put down in writing some of my reservations about the WiFi and electrosensitivity subject.
Obviously, I do not know at the moment how you intend to present the evidence for harm by WiFi and the subject of electrosensitivity, but I have grave concerns that if the only health physicist you have spoken to is Prof Henshaw then there is a risk that your report will not present the scientific consensus on these issues and hence the report will not maintain the standards expected of the BBC for scientific accuracy and objectivity. Specifically, the report risks presenting a controversy where there is none and failing to present the scientific consensus on such matters. As such, your viewers might be misled about the science and possibly alarmed when there is no good reason for them to be so.
As the BBC Independent report into science reporting, conducted last year by Professor Steve Jones, made clear, the drive to impartiality in relation to science coverage risks giving “undue attention to marginal opinion”. As such, I feel if difficult for me to take part as I feel it would be unfair for me to represent the overwhelming scientific consensus in this area. It is my opinion that Prof Henshaw represents a very marginal scientific position and balance to such an opinion would mean showing hundreds of mainstream scientists who hold less extreme positions.
Perhaps, I ought to make it very clear why the scientific consensus is as it is.
There are groups of people who self-diagnose as ‘electrosensitive’. They claim that their (varied) experienced symptoms are caused by exposure to domestic sources of electromagnetic radiation (WiFi, mobile phones, power lines etc.)
- This explanation for their symptoms lacks plausibility because there is no known mechanism by which such weak signals from low photon energy radiation sources could induce any significant effects in biological systems. And indeed, good reasons to think they cannot.
- We know an awful lot about how radiation interacts with cells and bodies. However, non-ionising radiation does not do the catastrophic cell damage that ionising radiation can, and, sources such as Wifi will at best result in insignificant local heating of the body. We are constantly exposed to both natural and man-made forms of radiation of all frequencies and as such the quality of exposures from WiFi is not new.There are some scientists who do claim they have found plausible mechanisms. Most of these are fairly ludicrous and constitute what many would call ‘cargo cult science’. it looks like science, smells like science, but is definitely not science. (See Feynman http://qako.me/cargocultsci)
- When people who claim to be electrosensitive undergo blinded challenge tests where they are exposed to either real WiFi/mobile signals or a ‘fake’ signal (the device is actually off) their reported experiences cannot be distinguished. Differential symptoms only appear when they ‘know’ if the signal is on. There have been dozens of such tests and they show a high degree of consistency in this result. I believe the latest review of all the evidence is by Rubin et al (2009) where the authors conclude, “Despite the conviction of IEI-EMF sufferers that their symptoms are triggered by exposure to electromagnetic fields, repeated experiments have been unable to replicate this phenomenon under controlled conditions. A narrow focus by clinicians or policy makers on bioelectromagnetic mechanisms is therefore, unlikely to help IEI-EMF patients in the long-term.There are some scientists who claim trials show effects, but this is cherry picking evidence – looking for selective pieces of evidence that support a position whilst ignoring the overwhelming bulk of negative evidence – much like homeopaths do.
As such, whilst the reported symptoms of suffers are almost certainly real, their explanations for their illness are almost certainly wrong. This presents doctors and other health care professionals with real dilemmas and difficulties in treating patients as these convictions can be incredibly strong and counter positions can risk harming the doctor-patient relationship.
As a side note, an ex producer of the BBC, who now has a life devastated by what she claims is electrosensitivity, came to see me talk on an unrelated issues. She was incredibly hostile to me for having previously written about the subject. After calming down and joining me for a cup of tea, she explained how she was utterly convinced and how she had had to move house, lose friends and family and become a near recluse. Her trip into the city was her first in months. She had made special tin foil hats and lined coats to protect herself. She had spent a fortune on devices, curtains, wallpapers that claimed to protect her (these quack cures do not shield radiation.) It appeared to me that the belief in the causes of her illness were having a far greater effect than the original headaches, tiredness etc.
That is why I feel strongly that an uncritical media do these people a great harm. They are being exploited by people who see a massive source of money. Their lives are devastated because their beliefs are always reinforced. Ben Goldacre, as always has written extensively on this subject and the quackery and bad science that surrounds the issue.
On Henshaw, he writes for Powerwatch who claim to campaign on behalf of electrosensitives. I have previously written about Powerwatch and their links to the selling of dubious devices and treatments. See note. He is an interesting chap. He was behind the ‘powerlines cause cancer’ controversy over the past few decades – a hypothesis that has has failed to come to a definitive positive conclusion, and if there is an effect, it is definitely small (less than 1 cancer per year) and any positive results may well still be caused by confounding factors in studies such as poverty near locations of power-lines.
I am more than happy to respond to any questions you may have, but as I say, I am reluctant to take part, especially as you report is so far advanced in production. As I said, there are real and interesting stories here: such as the difficulties in treating such people where part of the condition appears to be a hostility to mainstream knowledge; and importantly, how quacks and chancers exploit these people mercilessly.
The report was worse than I feared.
So, after meeting a couple of electrosensitives we had the mainstream view from Professor David Coggon of Southampton University who described the evidence that WiFi was not directly responsible for the health effects. Then Professor Henshaw appeared who told the camera that ’we know about acute symptoms’ from geomagnetic storms which gave the same sort of signals as WiFi. This is a disputable view.
We then had serious sounding Somerset doctor, Dr Andrew Tresidder, telling the viewers that ‘for a long time we thought asbestos was safe’ and that ‘in five years time we will look back and say, oh my god, there is a major problem that we have not been observing”. Dr Tresidder advertises on his web site that he is able to offer people that suffer from “Electromagnetic Stress” therapies including ”Implosion research devices” and “vibrational tuning forks such as Flower Essences – Australian Bush Flower Essences”. These flower essences are a derivative of the pseudoscience of homeopathy using brandy and extreme dilutions of flowering plants.
We then saw ‘physicist’ Guy Hudson consulting to one the sufferers to tell him that his chosen location for his caravan in the woods was a good place to reduce his EMF exposure. The web site for Guy Hudson describes himself as a “a leading professional water diviner – a master dowser.” This was not explained to the BBC viewers.
As such, this BBC report failed to present anything like balance on the subject. One sceptical and mainstream voice was pretty much overwhelmed by marginal views, dowsers, acupressurists and the people who believed they were suffering from WiFi. Mike Powell did say to me in a letter that mobile phone companies had declined to appear and so had the HPA. Was I right to refuse to take part?
My feeling is that, as I stated in the letter, that my last minute appearance would not have shifted the editorial balance in the article. To do that, an entirely new stance would have been required.
A timely paper has just been published on the possible adverse effects of such broadcasts. Witthöft and Rubin’s paper is entitled, Are media warnings about the adverse health effects of modern life self-fulfilling? An experimental study on idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields.
The purpose of the paper was to look at the following question,
Medically unsubstantiated ‘intolerances’ to foods, chemicals and environmental toxins are common and are frequently discussed in the media. Idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF) is one such condition and is characterized by symptoms that are attributed to exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF). In this experiment, we tested whether media reports promote the development of this condition.
The experiment divided 147 people at random into two groups: the first asked people to look at a television programme on the alleged adverse effects of WiFi and the second looked at an unrelated programme. The researchers then told the participants that they were then going to expose them to a WiFi signal, but in fact, they were not. The results showed that the group that had seen the WiFi film had increased levels of anxiety, reported more symptoms, attributed those symptoms to the WiFi and an increased chance that they though they were electrosensitive.
Their conclusion was,
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.
Greater engagement is indeed needed between journalists and scientists. I fear though that this is insufficient in that the journalists at the BBC did indeed understand what the mainstream view was. What appeared to fail was an acceptance of this position, a failure to understand how balance must work in scientific matters, and a failure to grasp how their own reporting could indeed make the situation worse for people.
There is a general awareness in the media and BBC now about how the reporting of suicides needs to be carried out with care to reduce risk to vulnerable viewers. People at risk of suicide, self-harm and eating disorders are not the only people who can be adversely affected by media reports. But the more general point is that this would not been an issue if the BBC had followed its own recommendations on balance in science reporting. I fear the BBC still has a long way to go in absorbing the conclusions of the Jones Report.