Junkfood Science: New Mexico is being irradiated by WiFi?

May 27, 2008

New Mexico is being irradiated by WiFi?

Once again, the City Different has made news by becoming a source of amusement for the rest of the country. Sadly, this news illustrates the power of our fears when they aren’t balanced by science. As was first reported by KOB-TV, a group of people in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is trying to get the capital city to ban WiFi from public buildings. They claim they are allergic to electromagnetic fields and suffer an array of physical problems when exposed to wireless technology — symptoms that range from headaches to chest pain, “depending on where their weak spots are.” They say that WiFi in public places discriminates against those with their sensitivity and violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The story has been picked up by national media from Fox News, USA Today and publications around the country, laughing at the group and the video broadcast. While it may have made entertaining news, it unkindly exploits the handful of people suffering from these misapprehensions. Most lacking has been news of the science to help prevent reinforcing such beliefs and escalating fears among others.

Those who believe they have electromagnetic sensitivities (ES) and other environmental illnesses experience very real symptoms which tragically illustrate how fears and the power of our beliefs can hurt people. Their fears are driven by a string of misunderstandings of what is happening to them.

This local group, calling itself WhyFry?, has a website and last summer set up its own Yahoo discussion group, with 16 members. Their website shows a picture of a microwaved rat brain and they believe that WiFi can fry their brains like a microwave. It’s a fact, their website says, “wifi uses the same frequency as a microwave oven.” They are organizing to stop what they call microwave pollution, saying WiFi is microwaving the entire planet! Wifi, of course, is not microwaving your brain. While the wavelengths are similar to a 2.4 GHz wifi, the wattage is very different. Microwaves put out 800-3,200 Watts, while a wifi base station uses only 0.1 Watts. You are exposed to far more radiation than that from sunshine.

Yet, they are outraged that cell phone towers are now “disguised.” In Santa Fe, they write, “we have a tree cell phone tower, a lamp post cell tower, a church steeple cell tower, water tower cell towers, a smokestack cell tower and cell towers attached to the sides of buildings looking like pipes. Do you know where they all are, or how to protect yourself from them?” Some people are able to shield themselves using the beekeeper headgear like the women featured in the London news last year, according to the group. But, they argue, this fabric is expensive and isn’t completely effective. And the special suits worn by microwave workers in Europe cost thousands of dollars, meaning it’s unfair to subject them to having to resort to that in order to go to public buildings.

The website is filled with a string of scary science-sounding claims and says that “many prominent scientists” in Europe are questioning WiFi’s safety. They believe that WiFi affects their “essential life force” and can harm brains and nervous systems, hearts and even damage DNA. Their spokesperson was shown on the news measuring radiation levels in his house and attributes the symptoms he experiences to the WiFi emanating from his neighbor’s house.

What television viewers, and visitors to their website, haven’t been told is that there is no biological plausability to their fears. Even the famous expert panel established by Sir William Stewart in 1999 to examine the science, found that the balance of evidence shows no adverse health effects from WiFi. The national guidelines set by the National Radiological Protection Board on the maximum levels of exposure to radiation emitted from mobile phones, base stations and other sources are based on a comprehensive review of the scientific literature.

As John W. Farley, Ph.D., physics professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, explained in an article describing the science surrounding fears about radiation coming from electrical power lines, there is no plausible mechanism to link such exposure to cancers and “the verdict from large-scale scientific studies has been conclusively negative, and scientific and medical societies have issued official statements that power lines are not a significant health risk,” he wrote. In short, there is nothing to worry about. In fact, ”power lines produce electric fields inside the human body that are much smaller than the electric fields that normally exist in the body.”

The results of a 21-year study of actual cancer incidences associated with cell phone use were published in a 2006 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. The Danish researchers examined a large nationwide group of 420,095 people who subscribed to cell phones from 1982 to 1995 and followed their cancer incidences through 2002. They found “cellular telephone use was not associated with increased risk for brain tumors, acoustic neuromas, salivary gland tumors, eye tumors or leukemias.” In fact, while not statistically significant, nearly all of the incidences were lower among cell phone users. As they concluded:

We found no evidence for an association between tumor risk and cellular telephone use among either short-term or long-term users. Moreover, the narrow confidence intervals provide evidence that any large association of risk of cancer and cellular telephone use can be excluded.

The World Health Organization’s position is that “there is no scientific basis to link electromagnetic sensitivity symptoms to electromagnetic radiation exposure” and that electromagnetic sensitivity “is not a medical diagnosis.” Those said to suffer from environmental illnesses, such as electromagnetic sensitivity, most often follow a belief in chi, a vital energy force. But anyone can be taken in by fears that their food, water or air might be contaminated or cause them harm and experience very real symptoms that can even become debilitating. What’s at work is a very well recognized phenomenon known as the nocebo effect. It’s the flip side of the placebo effect and works much the same way. We can become convinced that exposure to even a minuscule amount of a chemical or contaminant can harm our health, just as a minuscule amount of a healing substance can heal - when neither can. The resulting symptoms can be extraordinary and far beyond anything we might ever imagine the power of suggestion could do to us. And when fears of a chemical, threat or exposure are shared among a group of people, the symptoms can spread.

Yes, studies have shown that the symptoms of electromagnetic sensitivity are real. This has been repeatedly shown using the “open provocation” technique with people who believe they suffer from health effects due to electromagnetic fields (EMF) from objects, such as cell phones or other wireless technology. When they know the signal is present (unblinded) and are openly exposed to such triggering devices, they report symptoms. But, when they are blinded and don’t know when the signal is present, they can’t tell and guess no better than chance. In other words, EMF itself is not the source for their symptoms, but the belief is the source. Our minds can convince us of amazing things.

Last year, researchers at the University of Essex in the UK, conducted a double blind study and measured subjective measures of well-being as well as physiological measures of heart rate, blood volume pulse and skin conductance. They found that EMF had no effect on the ES group or the control group when they didn’t know when they were being exposed.

A similar double-blind randomized study published in the British Medical Journal was conducted by doctors at King’s College London, Institute of Psychiatry in London, and led by G. James Rubin, Ph.D. They tested 60 people who reported being sensitive to cell phone signals and experienced headaches, and 60 control participants who didn’t report any such symptoms. The researchers exposed both groups to 900 MHz mobile phone signals, a non-pulsing carrier wave signal and a sham condition with no signal present. The number of ES participants who believed a signal was present during actual exposure (60%) was similar to those who believed one was present during sham exposure (63%). As the researchers explained:

The mean power of the signal in our active GSM condition was over 700 times stronger than that in the sham condition. Given this evidence of a dose-response relationship, it seems reasonable to assume that our active and sham conditions should have elicited very different levels of symptom severity, if GSM sensitivity does indeed have an organic basis.

In other words, if there actually was a biological basis for ES symptoms, then there would have been some indication of more symptoms when exposed to 700 times the exposure compared to none at all. As they concluded:

No evidence was found to indicate that people with self reported sensitivity to mobile phone signals are able to detect such signals or that they react to them with increased symptom severity... psychological factors may have an important role in causing this condition.

Professor Rubin later commented in the British Medical Journal that the body of evidence includes seven other similar blinded or double-blinded provocation studies and “the overall results of those experiments are the same as our own.” As he argued: “While it is possible that different methodological problems have affected each study, a more parsimonious explanation is that there is simply no effect there to be seen.”

In a 2005 issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, the King’s College researchers conducted a systematic review of blind and double-blind provocation studies of electromagnetic hypersensitivity to test if ES people responded with symptoms to the actual presence of EMF as compared to sham exposures with no actual EMF.

They explained that electromagnetic hypersensitivity is a relatively new phenomenon in which sufferers report a range of symptoms in the presence of weak EMF. However, these symptoms show no cohesive pattern and are typified by nonspecific, subjective symptoms such as sleep problems, headaches, fatigue and cognitive problems. Similarly, while there is a list of devices such as mobile phones, computer screens, cell phone base stations, fluorescent lights, overhead power lines and household appliances attributed to their symptoms, there is no consistency in the items sufferers report being sensitive to. Many report only 1 or 2 specific electrical items as being problematic, they wrote, yet the actual EMFs emitted by these devices vary considerably and encompass different frequency ranges. “In almost all cases, however, the intensity of the EMFs that seem to trigger ES symptoms is far below that known to cause physiological changes in animal models.”

Two earlier reviews of the evidence also examined blinded and provocation studies of ES, they described:

In 1997, a report for the European Commission described the results of 13 such experiments and concluded that, although “‘electromagnetic hypersensitive’ people do react in these provocation studies, ...these reactions have not been shown to be related to the fields.” More recently, a systematic review considered the results of 8 experimental studies published in peer-reviewed journals before coming to a similar conclusion.

Their review included only blind or double-blind studies among ES sufferers confirmed under open provocation. Among 31 such experiments involving 725 ES participants, they “could find no robust evidence to support the existence of a biophysical hypersensitivity to EMF.” They compassionately concluded that “complaints of ES may mask organic or psychiatric pathology, whereas others may benefit from a course of cognitive behavioral therapy.”

According to doctors Ronald E. Gots, M.D., Ph.D., and Stephen Barrett, M.D., the most harmful thing we can do is make accommodations that reinforce their fears and beliefs that they are unhealthy, as that will only worsen their symptoms, further isolate them from others and prevent them from receiving the help they might need.

In other words, we do not help people by spreading sensationalized and unsupportable scares or using the sufferings of troubled souls as entertainment. What will most help is to spread the science.

© 2008 Sandy Szwarc

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