Wi-Fi: Still Not Bad for You (As Far As We Know)

By Brian T. Horowitz

October 29, 2008

25 years after the first cell phone call, researchers maintain that there is no evidence to show that low levels of RF energy, such as those emitted by Wi-Fi radios, are dangerous. (But caution with children and cell phones is still advised.)

As we mark the 25th anniversary of the first cell phone call in 1983, the handsets, along with technologies, such as Wi-Fi, are as ubiquitous as ever for IT workers and consumers. But are we getting cooked by the radio waves entering our brains?

Although current research shows no clear evidence of health risks from cell phones, Bluetooth, or Wi-Fi devices, as a precaution, you may want to avoid extended use and passing the phones to young children while the jury is still out.

Based on information from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), FDA, FCC and other government agencies, little risk exists as far as ailments, such as brain tumors--at least within ten years of use--the NCI reports.

However, studies are ongoing for terms of more than ten years and the effects of wireless radio waves on children, who, due to their smaller amounts of brain tissue, may be more susceptible to the amount of radiation in wireless devices, according to the NCI.

"There's particular concern with smaller heads and more of the brain receiving radiation from cell phones," explained Joe Bowman, research occupational hygienist for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a federal government agency that performs research on workplace health hazards.

"We don't know enough about whether there might be some effects while the child is still developing," he told InternetNews.com. The NCI also has a helpful fact sheet on its site.

So far, so good…

"Studies suggest that the amount of RF energy produced by cellular phones is too low to produce significant tissue heating or an increase in body temperature," the NCI reports on its site.

"However, more research is needed to determine what effects, if any, low-level non-ionizing RF energy has on the body and whether it poses a health danger."

The FCC is the government body responsible for monitoring the safety of radio waves coming from wireless devices.

"If there is a risk from these products--and at this point we do not know that there is--it is probably very small," reported the FCC, the agency responsible for setting the acceptable levels of wireless radio waves. In the FAQ section on its site, it says there's no evidence that cell phones cause cancer.

"All wireless phones sold in the United States meet government requirements that limit their RF energy to safe levels," the FCC stated on its site. The amount of RF energy a wireless handset user absorbs into the head is measured by the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR), the FCC reported. The FCC agency directs wireless phones to have SAR levels of no more than 1.6 watts per kilogram.

Short-term usage of cell phones is not a proven problem, according to Bowman. "It's the nature of brain cancer that it takes a long time to develop," he said. Bowman explained that for survivors of the atomic bomb attacks in Japan during World War II, brain cancers took the longest to develop compared with other cancers.

According to Bowman, wireless LAN base stations and 3G cell phones emit less radiation than older mobile phones. He said that in order of wireless radiation absorbed by the body, first comes cell phones, then portable phones in the home, then Wi-Fi wireless devices.

"Of all the wireless devices, Wi-Fi is somewhat in the middle of the pack as far as radiation," he explained. "At the low end, you have the cell phone base stations, the towers, the broadcast antennas."

As for Bluetooth, the popular technology that has people hanging headsets from their ears, the hazards are lower than those of cell phones, according to Mike Foley, Bluetooth SIG executive director.

"Bluetooth wireless technology emits very low electromagnetic waves," Foley said in an e-mail statement to InternetNews.com. "Mobile phones radiate about 200 times more energy than a Bluetooth headset because their signals must travel miles to the nearest cell tower versus the 30 feet range of most Bluetooth devices."

As for cell phones, snagging the iPhone 3G is not a bad idea. Bowman said 3G technology brings down exposure by a factor of ten.

In addition to radiation concerns, research has examined the possibility of rashes developing from mobile phone use. Last week, the British Association of Dermatologists announced research that shows the nickel surface of the phone can cause a rash called "mobile phone dermatitis."

What's unclear

With all the concerns about radiation and cell phone use, more research is needed to determine how much heating of body tissue can lead to health repercussions and for how long, according to the NCI.

Bowman took part in the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) Interphone study on wireless dangers by 13 countries. The European Union funds the study, which collected data between 2002 and 2005. According to Bowman, research shows higher instances of brain tumors on the same side of the head as the cell phone is held, but the reasons are still unclear.

He also cited epidemiologic studies in Sweden that have found an increase in the rate of brain cancer for people who have used cell phones for ten or more years. "Without the full results of the Interphone study for us to look at, there are still many unanswered questions as to what these statistical reports mean," he said.

The Interphone team is looking into whether RF energy causes brain, acoustic nerve, and salivary gland tumors. Results haven't been announced. According to the NCI, countries involved in the Interphone survey are Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

The Health Protection Agency Center for Radiation, Chemical, and Environmental Hazards also performs ongoing research on the effects of Wi-Fi and RF signals. "The HPA's position is that there is no evidence at present that the health of the public, in general, is being adversely affected by the use of mobile phone technologies, but uncertainties remain and a continued precautionary approach to their use is recommended until the situation is further clarified," a spokesperson told InternetNews.com.

What's reason for concern

In addition to the worries about wireless waves on children, thermal heat exposure is a concern, according to Bowman. "When standards are exceeded with the maintenance of TV broadcast antennas or radio frequency plastic heat sealers, you get some tissue heating that can be very detrimental," Bowman said.

"Although the new wireless technologies in the workplace and homes do not heat tissue, we need to make sure they do not create some kind of non-thermal effect that may create a health risk," he added.

Another wireless technology that should be studied for health threats is RFID; the scanners used for RFID tags on products in warehouses deserve further study, he said.

Article courtesy of InternetNews.com.



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