Primal Numbers – 2B Wireless or Not

We love our wireless world. From cell phones to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth to cordless phones, the number of wireless devices seems to grow by the day. So, too, does the amount of radiofrequency radiation and other electromagnetic fields that we’re exposed to. But as France moves to ban Wi-Fi in nursery schools, should we start being a lot more wary of wireless?

The link between wireless radiation and illness isn’t a new one. For at least a decade there have been warnings that cell phones, Wi-Fi, and even cordless phones might raise the risk of cancer. Indeed, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) lists cell phones in its 2B category: possibly carcinogenic to humans. As well, some people have complained of headaches and fatigue when they were exposed to radiofrequency (RF) radiation or other electromagnetic fields (EMFs).

Whenever an item like the French decision hits the news, a flurry of public concern follows. But the worry tends to die down quickly, partly because studies have been inconclusive. And besides, cell phones, Wi-Fi, and other wireless devices are not only useful but fun. Why give up all that convenience to ward off unproven risks to our health?

Still, France isn’t alone in its worry about Wi-Fi (the government has not only banned it in nursery schools but also restricted its use in primary schools). As this Telegraph article reports, Los Angeles has “reduced student exposure to Wi-Fi radiation to 10,000 times below US government standard.” And in Germany, the government recommends avoiding Wi-Fi at home and work as much as possible.

If you think those are nanny-state reactions, consider this. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recognized that a malignant brain cancer called glioma is linked to the use of cell phones. In 2008, a Swedish study found a fivefold increase in the risk of that cancer for people who started using cell phones as kids or in their teen years.

So should you toss your cell phone and iPad and go back to using typewriters and telegraphs? Not yet, for a few very good reasons.

Obviously, we’d be foolish to stop investigating the possible health risks of RF radiation and EMFs. But it’s key to remember that the research is in its early stages and only suggests a link, not conclusive evidence. As the same Telegraph article notes, “there is still no scientific proof that relates these diseases to radiation.”

One big reason for the lack of scientific certainty is that cause and effect can be hard to establish. Especially since there could be a hundred other factors at play that create symptoms like fatigue, insomnia, rashes, or headaches. All we need to do is check the research on air pollution, food additives, or the chemicals used in everything from clothes to car interiors to find a list of similar symptoms.

As well, the American Cancer Society notes another problem in getting definitive answers. The major studies done so far have mainly been “case-control studies, which have relied on people’s memories about their past cell phone use.” The trouble is that people’s impressions of their cell phone use are just that: impressions, which means they’re not objective evidence. It can also be tempting to find a connection that you’re already looking for.

But what about the rise of brain cancers that correlates with all those modern-day radiation sources? Well, it would definitely be a concern if there really was a corresponding rise in brain cancers. But as this Fortune article points out, there hasn’t been. At least not in the US. In fact, beginning in 1991, as the use of cell phones and other wireless devices started to climb, the rates of brain cancer in the US began to decline.

The decline wasn’t spectacular?by 2008 it had dropped from 70 cases per million people to 65 cases per million. Yet it occurred during a period when “the radiation beamed by phones into American brains increased about 500-fold.” That trend doesn’t prove that cell phones are harmless. But it certainly doesn’t bolster the idea that they increase your risk of cancer, either.

As for that 2B classification, the one that lists cell phones as possible carcinogens? It might help to know that other items in that category include coffee and whole leaf extract of the Aloe vera plant.

One day, perhaps in the next 10 or 20 years, science will give us definitive answers. Until then it’s probably prudent for France, and other countries, to limit the amount of RF radiation that young children are exposed to.

As for us adults?well, we can always take the precaution of turning our phones off while we sip on a nice herbal tea.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.