First, children living near power lines were believed to be at risk for leukemia. Then, cell phones were going to fry our brains. Now, should we worry about Wi-Fi hot zones?
Prompted by citizen concerns, the Toronto Board of Health is conducting a study of the potential health risks posed by Toronto Hydro Telecom’s plans to blanket the downtown core with Wi-Fi access points.
A meta-study of the research done in this area is under way, but no field research is planned, says Ronald MacFarlane, supervisor of environmental health assessment and policy at Toronto Public Health (TPH), which delivers programs and services determined by the Toronto Board of Health.
In 1999, TPH conducted a health assessment of human exposure to radio frequency, and the objective of this second study is to provide an update.
“When cell phones were becoming popular in 1999, councilors responded to concerns in their wards and asked us to look into cell phone towers and antennae,” he says. “Similarly, people are now concerned about Wi-Fi initiatives, and we’ve been asked to look into this so we can come back to council with our assessment.”
Based on the recommendations of the first study, the Toronto Board of Health adopted a policy of “prudent avoidance” in 1999 and determined that the level of exposure to radio frequency (RF) electromagnetic fields should be set at 100 times below Safety Code 6, a guideline developed by Health Canada.
“At this point, we’re trying to determine if there’s a conflict between prudent avoidance policy and actual usage of Wi-Fi,” says MacFarlane. “The initial indications are that Toronto Hydro’s Wi-Fi RF would be below our recommended level, and there would be no need to alter plans to meet the standard.”
He expects the study and its recommendations to be completed and presented to council in early 2007.
To put the issue in perspective, MacFarlane explains that all manner of infrastructure and consumer devices—power lines, radio towers, Wi-Fi routers, cell phones, radio and television, and so on—emit electromagnetic radiation at different frequencies, with varying effects on biological systems.
The electromagnetic spectrum is divided into two major categories, ionizing and non-ionizing radiation.
High-frequency radiation with shorter waves at the ionizing end of the spectrum, such as X-rays and gamma rays, has undisputed detrimental effects on human health. At the borderline between ionizing and non-ionizing is ultraviolet radiation, emitted by the sun, which also has a clear link to skin cancer.
Controversy rages at the non-ionizing, lower-frequency end of the spectrum. At the lowest end are electromagnetic fields such as those created by power lines. “The longer the wave, the fewer health effects we tend to find,” says MacFarlane. “I know studies have looked at cancer caused by exposure to power lines, but the evidence is weak.”
Radio waves, which are used in cell phones, Wi-Fi, radio, television and other consumer devices, operate at a higher frequency than power lines. Microwaves, which are used in radar and ovens, are a subset of radio waves, and have an even higher frequency. For radio frequency emissions, there are few studies showing a clear impact, says MacFarlane.
However, he says he is reviewing research conducted in Switzerland that provides some fair evidence of a link between radio frequency emissions from radio towers and sleep disturbances.
“This is something we see quite often in the literature—the RF impact on sleep,” he says. “The Swiss changed their laws regulating RF emissions based on that study.” But this is just one of a multitude of studies, some with conflicting findings, that the TPH is reviewing and considering to determine the patterns of risk.
Considering the vast array of infrastructure and devices that produce radio frequency emissions, how much more would a Wi-Fi hot zone add to the totality of emissions people are exposed to in downtown Toronto? “It’s like noise,” says David Dobbin, president of Toronto Hydro Telecom. “We’re already bombarded by radio waves. Our equipment operates in the same frequency and under the same licensing conditions as cordless phones, baby monitors and garage door openers.
Cell phone towers operate at 10,000 times the power of our Wi-Fi units, and FM radio towers are 100,000 times.”
Tony Muc, a physicist and professor at the University of Toronto’s department of public health sciences, agrees with Dobbin’s description. “This particular application is yet another specific signal within this sea of electromagnetic fields we live in,” he says.
“People have exploited radio waves since Marconi’s time. And historically, natural electromagnetic phenomena have occurred as well. Biological entities have been exposed to them forever.”
Dobbin points out that Toronto Hydro Telecom’s equipment is more than fully compliant with all regulations set by the Canadian government. “Our emissions are a fraction of levels recommended by Safety Code 6 and the Toronto Board of Health. We’ve even gone so far as to get technical compliance declarations from our vendors such as Siemens to guarantee their equipment puts out less.”
But many environmentalists distrust the regulations setting levels of exposure to radio frequency, pointing out that it took decades to establish clear links between the harmful effects of DDT and regulatory decisions to ban it outright, and that no longitudinal studies have been done for radio frequency.
“My response to that is that long-term studies have been happening in society since the advent of electricity,” says Muc. “The background level of electromagnetic radiation, or ‘electronic smog,’ has been increasing exponentially since about 1900. If we could look at a spectrum analysis then, we would see little beyond background ‘noise,’ or the hiss of the universe.”
Muc also points out that if radio frequency emissions had been banned in Marconi’s time, it would have prevented the progress of critical technologies society relies on today, such as the invention of television, radar and wireless.
But the spikes associated with human-generated radio frequency are not easy to quantify or understand. “Take the CBC, for example. The transmission associated with that radio station, at that specific frequency, if we compare the ratio of the level today to 1900, it would be about a million,” says Muc. “But that’s a narrow window of the spectrum. If you go 10 kilohertz on either side of that band, you would only see an increase of maybe 10 or 100 times.”
As a consequence, Muc has strong views on regulatory decisions setting radio frequency levels below Safety Code 6. He says it is an international standard developed by scientists who have done extensive studies to find substantive connections between emissions and risks to human health.
“I think it’s terribly misguided, under the rubric of ‘prudent avoidance,’ to undercut standards. I think it’s scientific nonsense, it’s political, and it’s socially short-sighted,” says Muc. “So what is the point of the standards in the first place? It’s trying to say, ‘Because I’m ignorant, I want the number to be this.’ ”
He says this tactic creates even more public distrust of radio frequency standards. “They’re contributing to that distrust, and that’s why I’m against it. It’s not all motivated by the military-industrial complex. I believe these standards are the result of good science.”
But some disagree with that view. “My retort to that is that you have to question all authority,” says Dr. Fred Gilbert, president of Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, which created an international stir and a precedent cited by critics of Toronto Hydro’s Wi-Fi plans by banning Wi-Fi on campus.
“Every person viewed as an authority operates from a perspective that is limited. A physicist is not a biologist, nor is a biologist in a position to determine the effects caused by physical forces,” says Gilbert, who believes in a precautionary policy in the face of evidence that is suggestive if not irrefutable.
He points out that the cause-and-effect relationship of smoking and cancer was not teased out for decades. “What we have is a set of standards that might be ill-based at this point in time.”
No particular study swayed Gilbert, whose own background is in zoology. Rather, it is the preponderance of evidence suggesting behavioral, cellular and other impacts that were seen decades ago to be precursors to cancer in other scenarios. And some emerging evidence on new issues also played a role.
“Some of the evidence provided to me has been shocking from individuals who have electrosensitivity, who’ve been able to demonstrate their case and who’ve suffered abuse in trying to indicate to health professionals what they’re dealing with is real,” he says.
Muc has reviewed studies in this area and says he is perplexed by the findings. “What I’m skeptical of is the demonstrable link between what they claim to observe or feel and actual electromagnetic fields. I remain baffled by that, but I can’t deny that people experience these things. It’s like the issue of clairvoyance or predicting cards; it’s hard to determine if they’re random occurrences.”
Gilbert acknowledges some of his personal experiences have also played a role in his reasoning. “I have some very good friends who are dealing with brain cancer and they are people who, because of their business, made extensive use of cell phones. You look at all this information and say, yes, it’s anecdotal, but at what point do you as an individual who has access to this information say, ‘I don’t want this risk?’ ”
Toronto Hydro Telecom’s Dobbin is aware that emotions run high on the issue of radio frequency exposure. “I understand that people have concerns and that some people believe they’ve been negatively affected by RF. I sympathize with their position,” he says. “But wireless services are a benchmark for modern living, and they are proliferating everywhere.”
-Rosie Lombardi, ITWorldCanada.com
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