Are Wireless Signals Dangerous to your Health?

As we found out in a previous article (What are Wireless Signals), we have this electromagnetic radiation pumping around the home. This electromagnetic radiation is in the form of Radio Waves, and is coming from the wireless router and wireless adaptor. The wireless signals are Radio Waves, and the Radio Waves are electromagnetic radiation. What we want to find out is this: Are Wireless Signals dangerous to your health?

The Hypersensitive

There is a group in Britain called ElectroSensitivityUK, who are campaigning for a greater awareness of electro-sensitivity. According to this group, some people are hypersensitive to electromagnetic radiation. The group has been campaigning for some time on the issue. Recently, people have been contacting them claiming that wireless signals in the home are causing them to fall ill. Symptoms include nausea, exhaustion, headaches, sleepless, stomach upsets, tinnitus, short-term memory loss, and I forget what else.

Respected author Kate Figes is one such sufferer. After installing a spanking new wireless system in her home, Kate began to feel ill. She felt sick, run-down, and experienced a sensation she describes as like "being prodded all over your body by 1,000 fingers". Getting rid of her wireless equipment cured her illness. Being the mother of two children, she's naturally concerned about the dangers that these wireless signals may pose.

Kate Figes is certainly not alone in her suffering. Many others have reported feeling ill when around wireless equipment. Rod Read, of ElectroSensitivityUK, thinks that between 1 and 3 percent of the population could be hypersensitive to the electromagnetic radiation pumped out by things like wireless signals and mobile phones.

The Scientific View

However, the scientific view on this, and the one adopted by governments around the world, is that the Radio Waves emanating from the likes of wireless routers and mobile phones are harmless. Wired magazine and website quotes one such scientist (Ed Mantiply, of the FCC's radio frequency safety program):

"There is no conclusive evidence that electromagnetic fields hurt health. We have a standard for exposure, which is essentially like a speed limit --there's no guarantee that you're safe below it or unsafe above it."
Mantiply goes on to say, "I believe a good number of people who complain about these things have trauma or obsessive disorders."

Note that he doesn't say "everyone", but a "good number". After all, if there's no guarantee that you're safe below the "exposure standard" then you can't dismiss entirely those who claim to be failing ill from the electromagnetic radiation received from wireless equipment.

One thing that does stand out, however, from Ed's quote is mention of an "exposure standard". What is this? And who set's this standard?

Exposure Standards

An Exposure Standard is how much of a phenomenon (like Radio Waves) you can be exposed to before it is deemed unsafe. Safety guidelines, in other words. The body who oversee these safety standards in the US are the FCC (Federal Communications Commission).

The FCC listened to two august bodies: the NCRPM (National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements) and the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers). These two organisations in turn gathered evidence from scientists and engineers from a wide-range of fields. They came up with something called the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR).

SAR is a measure of how much Radio Frequency energy is absorbed by living tissue. It is measured in Watts per Kilogram, or Milliwatts per gram. So a value of 1.6 W/Kg for mobile phones means that your head can receive up to this amount of Radio Frequency energy with the phone in use. High levels of Radio Wave exposure causes tissue to heat up. So the higher the level of SAR the more dangerous it is considered to be. A value of 1.6 is considered safe for American heads, but European heads are considered tougher (or denser), so a value of 2 Watts per Kilogram was set. Any higher than about 4 Watts per Kilogram and brain cells tend to bail out. Some people think that even 1.6 and 2 are too high.

For those in the UK, you may be delighted to know that there is no legislation that deals with compliance to any Electromagnetic Frequency guidelines. Though the Health and Safety Executive do acknowledge the SAR values above, and some sort of slap-wrist policy is in the pipeline for 2008. Or possibly not.

In the US, meanwhile, you can be reassured that there is a government body responsible for protecting you from the harmful electromagnetic effect of microwave ovens, television sets and computer monitors - it's the Food and Drug Administration!

To see why this energy is being closely observed, you have to understand the two types of radiation.

Ionising and Non-Ionising Radiation

Radiation is broken down into two categories: Ionising and non-ionising. Ionising radiation is the kind that strips electrons from your body, and is dangerous. Very. Non-ionising radiation doesn't strip away electrons, and is considered sort of safe. Think of these terms as the difference between an X-Ray machine and a toaster. The toaster can be harmful if you stick you fingers in the grill while it's warming up your muffins; the X-Ray machine, meanwhile, can be so harmful that the person operating it has to hide behind protective shielding. So, X-Rays are ionising, toaster non-ionising.

The wireless signals in your home, you'll be glad to hear, are a form of non-ionising radiation - Radio Waves.

The Radio Waves emanating from your Wireless router and Wireless adaptor are about 15 to 20 times lower than that from a mobile phone. However, the SAR values for phones were derived from short bursts to the head. Wireless signals are constant, so it is difficult to compare the two. But the energy intensity is considered to be fairly low. Nevertheless, I couldn't find any SAR values for wireless routers and adaptors, in the same way that mobile phones usually include the SAR value somewhere. The best I could come up with is reassurances from wireless manufacturers that their devices "meet the safety guidelines".


After all this research, we're not that much the wiser, I'm afraid! The jury still seems to be out on whether or not wireless signals are a cause for concern.

A World Health Organisation report into the issue concluded:

" ... there is no convincing evidence that exposure to Radio Frequencies shortens the life span of humans, induces or promotes cancer.

... further studies are needed to draw a more complete picture of health risks, especially about possible cancer risk from exposure to low-levels of RF exposure."

Unless you're one of the unlucky Hypersensitives, try not to worry about it!

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