IS WI-FI PUTTING OUR
CHILDREN IN DANGER?
Adults may be safe, but what are the effects on youngsters exposed to radiation?
Tuesday September 16,2008
WITH wireless internet and mobile phones now in constant use in our schools and homes, TESSA THOMAS asks if youngsters are being exposed to hazardously high levels of radiation.
When Leah Homan is anywhere near a phone mast, her body alerts her – even before the mast comes into view.
“I get a sort of tingling and dizziness and sometimes a headache and then I know there’s one not far away.”
Leah, 12, is sensitive to the radiation from masts and other mobile telecommunications equipment. When she was two, a tumour was found around one of her kidneys. Fortunately it was discovered in time and removed.
Her mother Jackie feared that a phone mast close to their home in Sefton, Liverpool, may have been to blame, although this cannot be proven.
Even though Leah made a full recovery, as a toddler she was restless and later had difficulty sleeping and concentrating at primary school, where she needed extra help to compensate for her attention problems.
She still suffers intermittent insomnia, brain fog, headaches and the familiar tingling, which is worse when she’s near a computer and the wireless router is on.
In a world where most people are now close to a mobile mast or wi-fi network and live normal lives, such a reaction seems surprising. But more children are becoming sensitive to electromagnetic emissions from telecoms equipment.
And the number is set to increase inexorably, says pathologist Dr George Carlo of the Science and Public Policy Institute in Washington, who spoke at a recent Radiation Research Trust conference
Information carrying radio waves are everywhere – from wireless computers, cordless phones, mobile phones and masts. At least half of all primary schools and three-quarters of secondary schools in the UK now have wi-fi.
According to Dr Carlo, mobile telecommunications were launched without enough research to assess the risks to health and with little awareness of the extent to which children would be using the technology.
There are guidelines for safe exposure to emissions, implemented in the UK through the Health Protection Agency (HPA), but there are several problems. First, they take into account only the risk of damage caused by the body being heated up by the emissions. By contrast, the effects may be deep inside the tissue and cannot be felt.
Second, their upper “safe” limit is considerably higher than that in several other countries – 10 times as high as in Russia.
Also, the limits were based on the effect on a healthy adult of a half-hour exposure. Children not only spend much longer than anyone anticipated in front of laptops or with a mobile glued to their ear but have a different biological make-up that makes them more vulnerable.
“They have thinner skulls so the radio waves can penetrate more readily,” explains Dr Carlo. “A greater percentage of their bodies are water and they have a higher proportion of ions in their interstitial fluids, both of which increase absorption of radio waves. Also, their cells are dividing, making them more vulnerable to genetic damage.”
Symptoms include fatigue, sleep problems, tingling, neck pain, dizziness, headaches and nausea. Sceptics say there is no proof and these complaints could have many causes.
One study, reported in the British Medical Journal in 2006, concluded that electromagnetic sensitivity could be psychological. James Rubin and his team at the Institute of Psychiatry found that when people who said they were sensitive to radio waves were tested with real or sham waves, they were as likely to say that the dummy waves caused a headache.
“It doesn’t mean that their headaches were any less real but it did mean that they weren’t directly connected with the assumed cause,” says Rubin.
However, it is worth noting that the study was partly funded by mobile phone companies. A lot of the other symptoms of electromagnetic sensitivity – digestive problems, depression, memory loss – have a compound effect. This means that the longer the exposure goes on, the worse the problems are likely to get. “No one has any idea what chronic long-term exposure will do to children,” says Dr Carlo.
Some schools have decided against taking any risk and removed their wireless networks. The head of Ballinderry Primary School in Lisburn, Northern Ireland, Ian Thomson, announced recently that “the advantages of wi-fi seemed to be outweighed by the risks”, so he discontinued it.
What is worrying, says Dr Michael Kundi, head of environmental health at Vienna University, is that while children are more vulnerable than adults, there is no official threshold for emissions indoors – which is where youngsters are most often in the line of fire.
“Wi-fi may be limited in its power but that doesn’t mean it is safe for children. We have no evidence of that yet,” he says, adding that there are ways to configure networks in the classroom to limit emissions but few teachers know about them.
Although other countries – including Israel and Italy – are adopting lower exposure limits, the HPA says there is still insufficient evidence to issue separate guidelines for children.