RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: No, WiFi isn't killing you ... or even making you sick

June 9, 2008

The other morning I woke up feeling like the bottom of a garbage collector's shoe. It must have been due to my wireless signal.

Maybe I'm "allergic" to my WiFi, like some people in Santa Fe, N.M., say they are. Television station KOB had the story May 20. And yep, there are just three letters in the call sign. The station goes back to 1948.

Apparently, so do the sensibilities of some of the residents of Santa Fe. A group has said it wants all wireless banned from public buildings, because having it is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The group claims wireless makes its members ill.

It's not a new complaint. Every so often, somebody comes along and claims to be getting sick from the electromagnetic fields associated with power lines, wireless connections and cell phones. Symptoms include fatigue, anxiety, rashes, skin burn, muscle ache, pain in the eyes, sore throat, diarrhea and headache, among others. One of the people in Santa Fe claims to get persistent chest pains whenever he walks into a building with wireless. There's even a name for the condition: electromagnetic hypersensitivity syndrome, or EHS.

Of course, the blogosphere had to weigh in on the issue. Judging from the posts, many bloggers' acquaintance with science and technology is limited to typing on a keyboard. One ventured the opinion that people with EHS have high levels of metals in their bodies, which act as antennae for the signals.

The worry about electromagnetic fields has been fueled in part by creaky old studies done by Soviet scientists from 1930 on, about the deleterious effects of living under high-tension lines.

Santa Fe isn't alone. In March, officials in Sebastopol, Calif., reversed themselves about accepting a free public WiFi from a local Internet service provider. Citizens there had risen in protest, despite the fact that there were some two-dozen wireless signals detectable in downtown Sebastopol already. In England, schools have taken down wireless in response to citizen and teacher complaints. Some teachers said they became too ill to teach. (www.timesonline.com).

Sweden became one of the first countries after the now-defunct USSR to take EHS seriously. A survey there showed 1 percent to 2 percent of the population felt sensitive to electromagnetic fields. A 2002 survey of 2,000 people in California showed that more than 3 percent of respondents believed they had some kind of physical sensitivity to electromagnetic fields from appliances, computers or power lines. "Green" organizations have eagerly snatched up the scanty anecdotal evidence and produced solemn briefing papers about the problem (www.anped.org/media.php?id=134).

These sources and others say EHS is controversial. In a sense, I suppose it is, if "controversial" means "people are still nattering about it." But if you mean "controversial" as in "there may be real evidence for and against," then, no, it isn't controversial. Want to guess how many controlled studies have found a link between the electromagnetic fields we encounter every day and any of the symptoms? Zero. And there have been dozens of those studies. There have been so many that scientists can now do "metastudies" in which they compare the results from dozens of other studies.

There have even been studies in Sweden that debunked the idea. In most cases, the original studies are "provocations," where the subject is put into a room with no indications of whether there's a signal in it or not. The subject is asked to report on his or her condition while the investigators secretly turn the signals on and off.

Studies have been done that compared every variable you can imagine: time, intensity of signal, frequency of signal, type of subject. Nada. Results are pure guesswork. The World Health Organization agrees. It says EHS isn't a medical diagnosis. That's not to say people aren't suffering; they are. But electromagnetic fields aren't causing them to suffer. Not in Sweden. Not in the United States. And not in your office.

There are legitimate conditions in a business office that can cause physical harm, of course. Most new furniture, dividers, carpet, ceiling tile and similar materials exhale chemical fumes for a time after they're brought in. It's not exactly Love Canal, but there's some noxious stuff in there.

Work surfaces have been shown many times to be heavily contaminated with every sort of microscopic beastie. Fluorescent lighting has been linked with headaches and vision problems. Working too many hours without sunlight can contribute to depression. Sitting too long can cause leg problems. Studies have borne out the results. They're real, although not everybody suffers from them. But wireless is harmless, as are phones, coffeemakers and copiers. Enjoy being untethered.

Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net. Find his blog at usabilitynome.blogspot.com.
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