Why Wi-Fi won’t give your kids cancer

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I recently caught up with a friend of mine who has a young child and he asked me my opinion on the claim that Wi-Fi is dangerous for kids. I’ve heard this concern from a number of different people, so decided to do some more detailed investigation.

A recent blog post in Forbes, by Robert Szczerba citing a study that suggests Wi-Fi exposure is more dangerous to kids than previously thought went viral. However, a week later another article in Forbes outlined why the first article was completely wrong. The author of the second article, Steven Salzberg, had a closer look at the study which was published in the Journal of Microscopy and Ultrastructure. He pointed out that the survey appeared in a very obscure journal that does not focus on radiation or environmental health and that two of the authors, Lloyd Morgan and Devra Davis, work for a private organization whose sole purpose seems to be to promote claims that cell phones and other Wi-Fi devices cause cancer.

Mr. Salzberg’s view is that the study is one of the worst scientific papers he has read, and that it was written more like an article than a scientific paper. He says ‘the article is a series of claims, most of them unrelated to one another, about the effects of MWR (micro-wave radiation) and other topics. The authors have cherry-picked several dozen studies that they believe support their hypothesis, which they cite without any explanatory details, while ignoring hundreds of studies that contradict their claims’. Mr. Salzburg goes on to say, ‘I don’t have time to debunk all the nonsense in this truly awful paper – nor should you want to read about it. My guess is that the Journal of Microscopy and Ultrastructure will publish anything as long as the authors pay the publication fees. In its entire history, the journal has only published 6 issues’.

Mr. Salzberg then cited a recent review of the literature, published just a year ago in the journal Health Physics, a journal that’s actually about human health, unlike the microscopy journal that Mr. Szczerba relied upon. That study concluded:

‘The overwhelming consensus of health agencies around the world is that RF [radio frequency, including Wi-Fi] exposures below international exposure limits have not been shown to produce any health hazard (Verschaeve 2012). That conclusion would not be changed by the Wi-Fi–related studies reviewed here, some of which indeed were already considered in these expert reviews.’

Or, as Mr. Salzberg puts it ‘in simpler terms: Wi-Fi is not more dangerous than previously thought, and it’s not going to give your kids cancer. That’s what Robert Szczerba should have written, if he’d looked at the real science instead of one really bad paper. But that wouldn’t have gone viral, would it?’

While there often seems to be contradicting information on the internet, I tend to put more credence on information from reliable, respectable, third party sources, which can show evidence of their claims.

France has legislated to ban the use of Wi-Fi in nurseries and day care centres. However, the legislators themselves say that no link has been demonstrated (The paper, ‘Le Monde’ reports them as having been unable to identify ‘a causal link between the biological effects described on cellular models, animals or humans and possible health effects that result’), and that there is only limited evidence (one study, unconfirmed by any others) to suggest risk even for intensive users of mobile phones.

Wi-Fi routers are weaker transmitters even than mobile phone masts, and users sit away from them. The level of energy produced by a Wi-Fi router is very low, far too low to be able to disrupt DNA, so there is no mechanism for it to be carcinogenic. It’s true that it’s the same frequency as microwave radiation, but it’s so low power that there isn’t even a noticeable heating effect, never mind breakdown of genetic material. The ‘hot ear’ effect that you notice after a long call comes from the battery warming up, not radiation. It’s just too weak to do anything, even if you’re sitting close to it.

It’s true that a study in 2011 found a link between mobile phone use, especially when that use started young, and a type of brain cancer. But then a meta-analysis, combining several other studies to form a larger investigation, the gold standard of medical research, found no significant link between phone radiation and the disease.

Closer to home, a press release, titled ‘Policies on children’s tech exposure confusing’ details a study conducted by Monash University’s Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine. The study looked at 34 different countries and the advice they all gave parents surrounding a child’s exposure to radio frequency electromagnetic fields, also known as RF-EMF. The study found that there are loads of different guidelines for parents on how RF-EMF exposure should be handled in young children. Author of the review, Dr Mary Redmayne, wrote that these different guidelines can actually confuse parents rather than inform them.

Dr. Redmayne adds that the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency suggests minimising a child’s exposure to RF-EMF, but a fact sheet on the safety agency’s website says in big letters: ‘There is no established scientific evidence that the use of mobile phones causes any health effects. However, some studies have shown a weak association between heavy mobile phone use and brain cancer’.

That’s also the advice from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (a division of the World Health Organisation) too. The IARC and WHO published a release back in 2011 saying that there’s no substantial link between mobile phones and an increased risk of cancer. At the time, the WHO classified the radiation emitted from devices such as mobile phones high enough to be placed in ‘Group 2B’. Basically, that means it’s potentially carcinogenic to humans. But don’t panic: also included in that group is an acid commonly found in coffee, and chemical compounds found in bitumen. The WHO recommends caution, but raises no immediate alarm bells over exposure.

Caution is a good thing. You’re always better being safe than sorry, which means that Dr. Redmayne’s recommendation that parents turn off their Wi-Fi routers at night and put devices into flight mode when charging them in the wee hours is fairly sound advice. However, it’s certainly not going to be universally followed. Apartments and homes are flooded with signals coming from their neighbours’ homes 24 hours a day. There’s nothing wrong with a cautionary approach to things like RF-EMF, but we certainly need to be careful of implications that may potentially panic parents with kids who use tablets and phones over Wi-Fi at school and at home.

On a personal level, there are a number of things we do to minimise our kids’ exposure, by focussing on the distance between the device and the user:

  • When our kids are on the phone, we ask them not to put the phone near their heads. They can use headphones or the phone’s speaker. Keep in mind that cordless landline phones also emit RF
  • When using laptops and tablets, we encourage our kids to place the devices on a table rather than on their laps. If they’re sitting on the couch, get them to rest the device on a cushion
  • We have our Wi-Fi router located away from the desk where the kids use their computer
  • If the kids are doing something on the device which does not require Wi-Fi, e.g. playing a game, get them to put the device in airplane mode. This stops the antenna from receiving RF pulses (and also saves the battery)

Do you have any tips you’d like to share? We’d love to hear them. Leave your comments in the ‘Leave a reply’ section below.

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