Where is the Good Science?

I should say for the record that I love Science and do know a little about it.  I have a Biology degree, I am trained as a Science Teacher and I have spent a good portion of my life devouring Science books.  Two of my personal heroes are Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman, both well respected Scientists that weren’t afraid to challenge conventional wisdom.

I should also say that I know very little about electromagnetic radiation.  I do know that the wireless routers that are installed in my home and school operate at the lower end of the Electromagnetic Spectrum in the Ultra High and Super High Frequency range (from .3 GHz to 300 GHz) and a wavelength ranging from 1 to 100 cm).  Most routers that I have come across seem to be 2.4 GHz routers and from what I can gather the main reason for this is that this is an available, unlicensed frequency.

It seems that the distinction between Radio Waves (which seem relatively harmless) and Microwaves (which always seems to raise a few more alarm bells) starts at 3 GHz.  So in effect the routers that we use in our schools can be considered Radio Waves (although they are towards the top of this spectrum).  I should also mention that I am not afraid of my Microwave Oven and do understand that the food in it is heated because of water molecules being excited, not because of some kind of lethal radiation being emitted.

Up until recently when asked about the health effects of our school’s wireless network I have always responded with one of the following statements:

  • It’s just radio waves, we are surrounded by them already, a few more won’t hurt.
  • There is no scientific evidence that these low frequency radio waves are a problem, they are well below the safe levels established by Health Canada.

But to be quite honest, I can’t say that either of these responses quite convinces me.  Yes we are surrounded by radio waves both natural and anthropogenic, but does that mean that exposing ourselves to more is necessarily a good thing?  If I were to hazard a guess I would suggest that our bodies have probably evolved to handle exposure to a certain level of natural background radiation, but we are living in bodies that change on an evolutionary timescale and the level of radiation all around us is changing at a much faster pace.

I just don’t know, and I am willing to concede my ignorance in this matter.  That’s why (out of curiosity) I sent out this Tweet yesterday:

tweetNow granted the link I picked was to blatantly alarmist Fox News report, but I was a little surprised to receive this tweet this morning:

@pmacoun R U a victim of bad science, OR, do U need 2 shower like Karen Silkwood after tching under UR schools wireless router?

I was hoping that someone could direct me towards good research that showed no measurable effects on cells or tissues of long term exposure to Electromagnetic Radiation in the spectrum we are constantly exposed to; or that maybe one of the very smart science teachers in my PLN could explain to me what piece of knowledge I was missing that would put my mind to rest.  Instead I was sent a link to this rant by a technology journalist that included such non-arguments as this one:

We’ve been surrounded by stuff that emits in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands (WiFi bands) for a very long time. I wonder how many of the parents calling for an end to WiFi in school have cordless phones? Microwaves? Cell phones? Baby monitors? Lot’s of those devices emit in the same band (phones and baby monitors especially).

Huh?  I think the argument here is that because lots of other devices already emit EM radiation then we shouldn’t worry about adding more sources to our environment.

I think what really bugs me here is that whenever someone raises the possibility that our precious wireless and cell phone services might, possibly, maybe have long term health implications they are shut down using the scientific ignorance argument, which doesn’t do anything to further the conversation.

Aren’t we supposed to be teaching our students to look at things both multiple perspectives, to be able to engage in constructive dialogue on issues that they may disagree on?  How does labelling the other person as ignorant help get us move in any sort of positive direction.

So where is the good science?  I certainly don’t want to shut down either my home or school wireless, I’m using it right now to write this blog post and it is fundamental to the way I work now.  But I would like to know that there is good science backing me up, and that if there is any kind of long term implications of all this exposure to RF radiation that it is identified so that we can take steps to remediate it.

3 Comments

  1. You raise good questions, and I was probably put off by how I perceived the Fox news piece, I could have answered this in a more thoughtful way. My point that I gleaned from that piece is that with years of higher wattage surrounding us daily the usage of these devices would have already produced an effect that we might study. if after all the years using the devices that operate on the same frequency at significantly higher power I would expect to already know about any adverse consequences.
    The max a (one) directional wifi antenna would produce is 4 watts, EIRP, the radio and the gain produced by the antenna. Most retail wirelss access point produce less than one watt EIRP. If we are talking about omni directional (which most schools/retail would use) you spread that in all directions, versus watching your food cook through the microwave window.
    By comparison, a microwave oven uses the same frequency at 1000 times the power. Microwave ovens can disrupt wifi networks because they are on the same frequency and drown out the (wifi) radio looking for the wifi signal.
    There is nothing conclusive either way, yet people have live under power lines, hold their cell and cordless phones to their head, and watch their microwave popcorn popping. If you are concerned about the unknown I suggest making the significant changes at home of not standing in the way of directional radio waves.

  2. Hi Penny,

    Thanks for leaving a response. I think I need to do some more research on the relationship between power and emission of radiation. I’m particularly fuzzy on why or how or what exposure increases when a laptop is drawing heavily on a wireless network, like when streaming You Tube videos (it makes sense to me that it would, I’m just not clear on the underlying science that explains it).

    A lot of my reason for asking these questions is that I am the person in our school recommending more wireless repeaters and more laptops, maybe even iPads and I want to make sure that I understand the science of our wireless network so that we can move forward in an informed way. I am a little uncomfortable with the assertion that we have already been exposed to so much EM radiation that we would have seen some adverse affects by now. If it is true that exposure increases the closer you are to a device that is on a wireless network then up to now our students have only been exposed in limited bursts. But if we move towards wireless devices being more ubiquitous and students using them on a more regular basis throughout the day I can easily imagine a scenario where students spend the entire day in close proximity to a wireless device; I would guess this would significantly increase their exposure to low frequency radiation. Is that a problem? I just don’t know.

  3. The questions you ask are valid and timely. We are a group of concerned citizens in British Columbia who are connected to other groups across Canada that are asking the same questions about the safety of Wi-Fi – except we have some of the answers. http://www.citizensforsafetechnology.org. Send us a message through the contact page and we will contact you.

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