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Can we have a proper study of Wi-Fi, please?

Paging James Randi

Column Well done, Sir William Stewart.

Only four weeks ago, we called for serious research into wireless radiation. The good news: Sir William Stewart - chair of the Health Protection Agency - has said that the time has come to do this research.

My only problem with this is that I honestly doubt any useful information is going to emerge from it.

OK, let's go back to 2002. The then head of the World Health Organisation, Dr Gro Harland Brundtland (former Norwegian Prime Minister), went public with the dangers of mobile phone radiation. She's a doctor. She said (I quote from a translation) "There is no doubt."

Here's her testimony, in full:

"It's not the sound, but the waves I react on. My hypersensitivity has gone so far that I even react on mobiles closer to me than about four metres," Gro explains.

When we sit with her in her office at "Helsetilsynet" in Oslo she asks if there is an active mobile phone in the room. She finds that she has developed a slight headache. The cellular phone of the photographer was turned on but without sound in the pocket of his jacket.

The earlier Minister of State [Prime Minister] never had a mobile of her own, but she has close associates who do and she earlier often received calls on their phones. She says there are reasons to be cautious about mobile phone use.

"In the beginning I felt a local warmth around my ear. But the agony got worse, and turned into a strong discomfort and headaches every time I used a mobile phone," Gro says.

She thought she could escape the pain by shorter calls, but it didn't help.

Neither did it help that she herself stopped using a mobile phone. Today it is a tool everybody uses, also at her workplace, the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva.

"I felt after a while that I had developed a sensitivity against the radiation.

"And in order not to be thought to be hysterical - that someone should believe that this was just something I imagined - I have made several tests: People have been in my office with their mobile hidden in their pocket or bag. Without knowing if it was on or off, we have tested my reactions. I have always reacted when the phone has been on - never when it's off. So there is no doubt."

How can anybody doubt such expert evidence?

And yet, I'm afraid I do doubt it. The first law of testing health treatments or hazards - a basic, fundamental, high-school level fact - is that any tests which are not double-blind are pretty much random noise.

You have to have a situation where Dr Gro herself doesn't know whether the phone is on or off. And you also have to have a situation where the person bringing the phone into the room with her doesn't know, either. It's possible, of course, that Dr Gro just didn't think it was worth mentioning "double-blind" and perhaps the translator didn't get it either. So what next?

If you watched the latest BBC Panorama report and are now in a tizzy about the damage being done to children by Wi-Fi radiation, you'll have seen another "electrosensitive" sufferer having to coat her home with tinfoil. You'll have seen her in a laboratory, wired up, doing tests to see if she can or cannot tell whether the phone is on or off. The results were described as "just in" and "apparently" showing a 60 per cent accuracy; that is to say, in 40 per cent of the cases, the phone was off, and she thought it was on; or it was on, and she thought it was off.

The BBC programme didn't mention "double-blind" either, and it was clear from the programme that the research wasn't complete, so quoting it is pretty meaningless. The level of technical detail in the show was set deliberately low, and the level of showmanship and animated graphics was deliberately high, so it's perfectly possible that it was a double-blind test, and the director thought "double-blind? sounds scary..."

So, well, nothing. Until the double-blind test is rigourously carried out a significant number of times, we have no data. And even if Dr Gro manages to prove conclusively that, as she says, she will "always react when the phone is on, never when it's off" we are still short of data. The problem is: knowing that the thing is on, and being damaged by it, are two very separate matters.

For example, I can always, quite reliably, tell if a pocket penlight torch is on or off. I get a strong indication of "light" when it's on... and I can do a LOT better than 60 per cent! - especially if you shine it into my eyes. Is it causing me damage? Apart from the effect on my retinal purple, which is temporary, no.

But she was in pain, you say. Well, again, we're nowhere near establishing that the pain is a symptom of damage. I know people who suffer severe pain just from sitting in a car. No, they aren't "imagining it" at all! - the symptoms are real. But the cause? Fear produces stress; stress produces "flight or fight" responses. Chemical changes occur in the physiology. Actually, these changes are dangerous! Adrenaline and "instant energy" fuels injected into your blood-stream have been shown to damage your arteries if they aren't burned off by vigourous exercise. Have we ruled out the possibility that the pain is the result of fear and stress?

No such scientific evidence exists for the damage caused by wireless transmissions. Oh, sure; there's evidence of odd effects: for example, chromosomal cluster fragmentation; your DNA breaks. But broken DNA doesn't cause the symptoms that Dr Gro or Sylvia complain of. You can have your DNA shredded to such a degree - by actual radioactivity - that you will die, and you will still not get the instant headache or other symptoms which electrosensitives suffer. There's tons of research, some dubious, some less dubious, all showing biological effects - but none of the effects explain the symptoms.

One should, of course, always be suspicious when a technology that makes enormous amounts of money for entrenched business interests, is declared to be harmless. Independent investigation, clearly impartial, without any risk of losing funding from those vested interests, is the only way forward.

But the way forward is NOT to start spouting nonsense about "Wi-Fi is three times more powerful than mobile phone masts!"

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