Opinions
Sean Willett/the Gauntlet

Editorial: Unfounded fears- Wi-Fi and cancer

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Wayside Academy in Peterborough, Ontario recently made the decision to remove Wi-Fi from its classrooms following pressure from concerned parents. Are their children any healthier or safer because of this decision? No.

In May of this year, there was wide-spread fear-mongering when the World Health Organization announced the International Agency for Research on Cancer listed radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as a Group 2B agent. That simply means all wireless devices are considered to be possible carcinogens.

Sounds scary, right? Not really.

Group 2B agents are defined by the who as "possible carcinogens, which are things that have not been found to cause cancer but for which there is cause to study further."

According to the same press release, the evidence that wireless devices could cause cancer was limited and inadequate. The only reason the iarc decided that further study was necessary is that the potential consequences for public health could be embarrassingly detrimental if they were wrong.

Since the press release in May, the who has restated their position in a way that makes it clear that there is not substantial evidence that wireless devices cause cancer:

"In the area of biological effects and medical applications of non-ionizing radiation approximately 25,000 articles have been published over the past 30 years. Despite the feeling of some people that more research needs to be done, scientific knowledge in this area is now more extensive than for most chemicals. Based on a recent in-depth review of the scientific literature, the who concluded that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields. However, some gaps in knowledge about biological effects exist and need further research."

It's also worth noting that there is no plausible way in which radiation from Wi-Fi can cause cancer or negative health effects. The radiation emitted by Wi-Fi is not the same as the sort of radiation from nuclear fallout. It's a form of electromagnetic radiation which is all around us, every day, due to naturally occurring cosmic phenomena. emr is a spectrum with high energy gamma rays on one end, visible light near the middle and radio waves on the low end. If the energy level is high enough to strip away electrons it can alter the chemistry of your cells. Any emr in the range of or more energetic than uv light can do this. Wi-Fi falls in the category of radiowaves-- it carries about as much energy as your favourite country station or the background radiation of the universe. The worst thing that radiowaves can do is heat your tissue up, but don't work up a sweat. The amount of radiation given off by wireless devices can't throw off your game-- exercising warms you up significantly more but hasn't been known to hurt anyone's health. On both of these concerns lightbulbs are a greater cause for concern than your wireless internet connection.

This has not stopped an onslaught of sensationalization from media, advocacy groups and politicians, the newest fad of which seems to be disbanding Wi-Fi in schools.

For example, a story picked up by the Postmedia chain covering the recent development in Peterborough said "The World Health Organization listed cellphones in the same 'carcinogenic hazard' category as lead, engine exhaust and chloroform."

While this statement is true, it is clear that the author chose to list these agents because they are scary sounding and the public recognizes them as dangerous. Most people would not realize that these agents are dangerous due to their toxicity, not because they are cancer-causing. More benign sounding agents in the same category could have been listed ,such as caffeine, carpentry and joinery, nickel, pickled vegetables and piercings, which are also listed under Group 2B.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to protect children from harm by erring on the side of caution. However, by going after these types of hyped-up imaginary threats, we are taking attention and resources away from dealing with the real issues facing youth. Besides, parents are trying to raise their children in a world that is scary enough without electromagnetic bogeymen.

It is the responsibility of media outlets and public figures to do their due diligence when talking about these sorts of issues.

In the case of the Wi-Fi scare, it's not even a matter of not having a science background or not having adequate resources, which are barely excuses. All they had to do was read more than just the headline of the damn press release.

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Comments

The information in this article about Wi-Fi is scientifically incorrect. Microwaves are non-ionizing radiation and are considered not to have enough energy to directly break molecular bonds. However, biological processes do not require bonds to be broken in order for biological effects to occur. Biological systems can react to small changes in the orientation or conformation of molecules, distribution of charge, vibrations, and are sensitive to their own or external electric or magnetic fields. One change can trigger cascades of other responses. Damage need not be direct, but could be caused by changes in other chemicals. For example, microwaves may directly increase the number of free radicals and free radicals can damage DNA. Increases in free radicals (or oxidative stress) have been found in studies of microwave-induced DNA damage or decreased male fertility. Antioxidants, which neutralise free radicals, can block microwave-induced DNA damage. Students should at least be given scientifically accurate information on which to base their opinions.