COLUMN: No escape from radio frequencies

Electromagnetic fields are all around us, always have been

One thing I particularly enjoy about this job is the opportunity to chat with scientists and engineers about new technologies and discoveries.

A microscope that can peer into the atom. Galaxies that orbit other galaxies. Tsunami detectors, robot musicians and deep-sea experimental networks. It’s a blast seeing what the big brains are working on these days.

But one phenomenon that has been less fun and somewhat confusing to cover is the rise of groups who deeply mistrust and fear technology – in particular wireless internet (WiFi), cellphones and wireless communication used by smart meters.

A few years ago I was sitting in on a school board meeting, and a parent presented that their child suffered from electromagnetic hypersensitivity – the child became sick based on the level of exposure to a variety of electromagnetic fields. The assertion was made that radio frequencies can not only make people sick, they can cause cancers.

I don’t think the parent was trying to dupe anyone and was sincere in their concerns about a technology that has rapidly entered almost every facet of our lives.

But I was skeptical – non-ionizing radiation that can cause cancer? It went against what I had learned in school and seemingly against the laws of physics.

Non-ionizing means just that: radiation that won’t knock electrons out of their atoms and alter the chemical bond, in our case within biological material.

We are enveloped in various electromagnetic fields every moment of our lives, from birth to death – visible sunlight, UV rays, cosmic rays, background radiation of the earth, microwaves, and broadcast signals. But should I be worried about my cellphone and wireless router at home (and the dozen routers that surround my home)? I’m yet to be convinced.

One World Health Organization ruling that the anti-WiFi crowd really hang their hats on is that radio frequencies have been labelled “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

RF is now lumped in with 275 “possibly carcinogenic” agents that are mostly chemicals, but also include coffee, bracken ferns, gasoline and welding fumes.

WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) looked at reams of credible studies involving cellphone use and brain cancers and didn’t find any smoking guns.

At worst, a Lancet Oncology journal examination of the IARC paper said that one study indicated there might be a increase in risk for glioma, a type of brain tumour. Or there might not.

Ultimately the IARC working group concluded there is “weak” and “limited evidence” that RF could cause cancer in humans. Some in the working group thought there was no convincing evidence at all. Since the risk wasn’t deemed zero, RF is lumped in as a possible cancer causing agent.

That kind information doesn’t really matter. My email inbox receives a steady stream of press releases from vocal anti-WiFi groups and anti-smart meter groups. I don’t get a lot of pro-WiFi emails.

One of our reporters wrote a story a few years ago that examined a family who tried to avoid radio frequencies by living deep in the woods and who refused to own a microwave oven or cordless phone. That unleashed a surprising tirade of derision and incredulity toward the family from readers.

That led me to believe that there’s a normally quiet population out there that: a) realizes you can’t possibly avoid radio frequencies, even out in the woods; and b) is happy to live with cellphones and wireless technology, and possibly smart meters, without worrying about ill effects.

When it comes to wireless smart meters and WiFi, people shouldn’t be forced to have the devices at home if it scares them, although WiFi signals are almost unavoidable in an urban area. And no matter what kind of gross exaggerations are asserted by anti-WiFi groups, people with cellphones or who have smart meters aren’t going to start dropping like flies.

Personally I’d be more concerned about getting cancer from the sun. This being Victoria, I don’t have to worry much about that either.

– Edward Hill is the editor of the Saanich News.