There are many different theories on how electromagnetic radiation interacts with our bodies, but pulsed microwave radiation, such as that used by Wi-Fi and mobile phones, is thought to affect the body’s cells in a unique way.
Although microwaves oscillate (change direction) many thousands of times each second, the carrier pulses which convey your voice or emails along the signal actually oscillate at a much slower rate, only hundreds of times a second. This slower rate allows the pulses to interact with protein vibrational receptors, like microscopic hairs, on the membranes of our cells.
The cells interpret this unusual stimulation as a foreign invader and react as any organism would â€“ by closing down the cell membrane. This impairs the flow of nutrients into the cell or waste products on their way out. It also disrupts inter-cellular communication, meaning that clusters of cells that form tissues can no longer work as effectively together.
The increase of trapped waste products can lead to an increase in the number of cancer-causing “free radicals”. Worse still, a chemical known as “messenger RN” inside the cell passes on this “learned response” to daughter cells, meaning that the cell’s offspring also learn to interpret microwaves as an external threat and react in the same way.
This disruption in the cellular processes is thought to lead to the many and various symptoms of electrosensitivity, and the build-up of free radicals released when the cell dies could be connected with the increase in tumors seen in those exposed to frequent doses of microwave radiation.
Special circumstances can enhance the process even further. The effects are likely to be worse in people with damaged or developing immune systems, particularly children, and certain drugs can dramatically increase the risk of negative microwave effects.
The programme was fiercely criticized by the telecommunications industry, partly because it feared the logical conclusion – that the battery of research built up over the past decade demonstrating very clear health risks from exposure to mobile phone masts could now be translated almost exactly into the risks faced by exposure to Wi-Fi equipment (see “Weight of evidence” at bottom).
Concern was further raised by comments made on the programme by the chairman of the Health Protection Agency (HPA), Sir William Stewart. Stewart, former Government Chief Scientist under Margaret Thatcher, had compiled a seminal report on mobile phones in 2000, in which he recommended that the main beam from a mobile phone mast should never be allowed to fall on school premises. He told Panorama unequivocally that both phones and masts could be responsible for triggering cancer, changes in mental function and damaging effects to the body’s cells. He also said that the approach adopted by the World Health Organisation, which directly influences UK health policy, was not “an accurate reflection” of the current science.
The HPA scrambled to calm the storm caused by its maverick chairman. Having first tried to deny Stewart had in fact made any claims against Wi-Fi, the Agency went on to change one of its online press releases; now, instead of asserting there was “no evidence” that Wi-Fi could have an effect on health, it stated there was “no consistent evidence”. The current HPA guidelines on Wi-Fi, to which all other UK Government departments refer, state:”There is no consistent evidence to date that Wi-Fi and WLANs [wireless networks] adversely affect the health of the general population. The signals are very low power, typically 0.1 watt (100 milliwatts) in both the computer and the router (access point) and the results so far show exposures are well within internationally accepted (ICNIRP) guidelines.”
So what exactly is ICNIRP, the institution that determines the maximum safe radio wave dosage for all UK citizens? The International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection was formed in 1992, but has its roots in an earlier body founded in 1970s.
Alasdair Philips, founder of PowerWatch, describes it as “an incredibly conservative organisation” – “ICNIRP grew out of the International Radiation Protection Association (IRPA), which was founded in 1950s and primarily staffed by the nuclear industry. Even when it became separate, ICNIRP retained a strong industry bias. It is highly secretive and access to the Commission is by invitation only.”
In 1998, ICNIRP published the document by which all countries with a seat on the Commission – which includes most of Europe and the US – still set their non-ionising radiation guidelines today. In the section that examines the relationship between cancer and exposure to microwaves, the ICNIRP authors cite seven studies to support their conclusion that radio waves do not increase tumour rates. None of these was conducted after 1997- the date when Wi-Fi was first introduced – and in fact two were conducted before the 1980s.
Three of the studies in the ICNIRP report involve the exposure of military or civilian personnel to high-power radar systems; another investigates an incident during the Cold War in which Soviet agents irradiated the US embassy with microwaves, while another investigates the effects of old-fashioned cathode ray-tube computer monitors. One study looks at the effects of radio transmissions, but was later shown to have drawn seriously flawed conclusions. The authors of the only study of the seven to have investigated the health effects of mobile phones admit their research was not designed to show the long-term impact of handset use, which is where any cancerous effects would be found.
Later analyses of many of these papers show ICNIRP deliberately misquoted or misconstrued the original authors’ conclusions, disguising evidence of tumors when the research offered a clear link to microwave exposure.
When, later in the same guidelines, ICNIRP dismisses the evidence for DNA damage by microwaves, it points to papers written by the UK’s National Radiological Protection Board and the World Health Organization (both of which act on the advice of ICNIRP), as well as a paper by parent organization, the IRPA.
ICNIRP appears at the centre of a hub of like-minded bodies determined to corroborate each other’s research.
The flaws in ICNIRP’s guidelines did not go unnoticed. The year they were published, 16 internationally recognized scientists signed the Vienna Resolution, which accused the ICNIRP researchers of ignoring the fact that “numerous studies published in recent years did show biological effects below their recommended limit values.” In 1999, when Australian scientists came to examine ICNIRP recommendations they concluded that the guidelines “cannot be said” to constitute a precautionary measure. Australia consequently refused to join the Commission and developed its own standards.
These substantial concerns, as well as the fact that most of the research on which ICNIRP’s guidelines are based was published before Wi-Fi had even left the laboratory, have not been heeded by any of ICNIRP’s signatories. The UK’s regulators still use and defer to the 1998 guidelines, which set levels designed only to prevent “thermal effects” (or heating up) due to microwave radiation. In fact, most of the negative effects now attributed to microwaves occur at levels far below those in the ICNIRP guidelines, and are known as “non-thermal effects”. These include effects on the blood-brain barrier, an increase in the production of cancer-causing free radicals, a decrease in bodily melatonin, and disruptions in intra-cellular communication (see “How microwaves affect us”).
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