We live in an increasingly wireless world. Many teenagers and most adults now own a mobile phone. Cordless phones and wireless broadband are used at home and work. Parents use baby monitors to listen out for their baby waking. Cafes, schools, libraries, public transport and other public places frequently offer wi-fi wireless internet and have mobile phone base stations/transmitters on their roofs, walls or located close by. The technology is incredibly useful, it gives mobility and the comfort of knowing that we are always connected. Wireless games, Wii, Nintendo DSs, iphones are rapidly becoming one of the most popular forms of entertainment for children, and are even being introduced in schools.
But are they safe? They are legal, readily available and there is a social pressure to keep up with the 21st century innovations. So why does Russia recommend that pregnant women do not use mobile phones? Why do the UK Chief Medical Officers recommend that children under the age of 16 use mobile phones only in emergencies? Why does the German Government recommend that wherever possible computer networks and the internet should be wired, rather than wireless? When we think of mobile phone safety, we often think of being careful about identity theft or cyberbullying. Occasionally the newspapers have headlines questioning whether mobile phones might cause brain tumours. But for some people the concerns go much deeper than that. To make informed choices about which technologies we want to use in our homes or for our children to use, we need to know what the concerns are, and weigh up the benefits and risks for ourselves.
The problem lies in the pulsed or modulated microwaves (a type of radio wave) that these technologies use to carry information to and from each other and to their base stations/transmitters. As the number of wireless gadgets increase then so does our exposure to the microwaves all around us. Over the past few years our average exposure has increased exponentially, and it is likely to keep increasing.
So is living in a microwave environment good for us? Countries vary in the exposure limits that they set, with the UK having one of the highest limits (lowest safety). We follow the guidelines of the ICNIRP (International Commission for Electromagnetic Safety). The guidelines were set in 1998, based on the idea that microwaves have no damaging effects other than that of heating our bodies. If the power is below that which causes heating then it is assumed to be safe. But the science has moved on since then and many papers have been published demonstrating damage from microwaves below these limits. Scientists have become frustrated that the ICNIRP have not reduced their guideline values. Many scientists who are working on the biological (non-heating) safety of electromagnetic fields have come together to form the International Commission for
Electromagnetic Safety (ICEMS) and have produced resolutions which warn the public of potential risks from the technology.
A report was written in 2007 by a group of scientists describing why the current guidelines were inadequate, listing much of the science available at the time (the Bioinitiative Report). Since then, the European Environment Agency has stated that they consider the current guidelines to be inadequate. The European Parliament have urged member states to introduce greater protection of the general public to electromagnetic fields. Liechtenstein has voted to reduce its exposure limits by 100. France is beginning trials of these lower limits in sixteen of its towns.
The French Health and Security Agency recommended in 2009 that people reduce their exposures to mobile phones and wireless devices. Russia already has exposure limits 100 times lower than in the UK. Salzburg in Austria recommend exposure limits 1000 times lower than in the UK. A scientific panel, The Scientific Panel on Electromagnetic Field Health Risks, is currently writing new guidelines based on what they consider to be biologically safe and these will be published later this year. It remains to be seen whether these will be adopted by governments. There are economic and political pressures too.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo
Bakersfield, California, USA
Click on any of the pictures below
to learn more