Earlier this week, as I was taking Shadow for his evening walk, I came upon this flyer tacked to a hydro pole in front of the local elementrary school (click here for a larger, easier to read version).
I'm not quite sure exactly how to describe my emotional reaction to this poster. Exasperation is probably as close as I can come. I wish I could call what these people are doing, 'beating a dead horse,' but, unfortunately, this horse ain't quite dead yet. Allow me to attempt to provide another bullet for the gun of reason.
First, perhaps, a little bit of background would be helpful. About a year ago, there was a minor kerfuffle in the local news over parents concerned about WiFi internet in classrooms. The school boards involved provided the correct response to the alleged concerns, that being there is no health danger from WiFi signals. This position is backed up by all the available scientific evidence, and fully supported by Health Canada.
The claims of the local parents groups were carefully examined, and disassembled by the blogging community at the time, as were the identities and possible ulterior motives of the groups' leaders, spokespeople, and alleged experts. The story slowly faded from the public view over the next several months. But, as we are so seldom reminded, just because the media isn't reporting a story anymore, doesn't mean it's gone away. As can be clearly shown by the above flyer, the proponents of this tempest in a teapot are still on the offensive, trying to spread their delusions to more and more people.
So, is there anything to it? In a word, no. The cartoon included on the flyer pretty much explains the entire case these folks are trying to make: The radiation produced by a microwave oven and a WiFi router are exactly the same. Putting your head in an operating microwave oven would be bad for you. Therefore, putting your head in a room containing an operating WiFi router would also be bad.
My response to that claim can best be summed up by this excellent cartoon, provided by Russ from Inner and Outer Demons.
You wouldn't allow what's going on in the top panel for even ONE SECOND.
But it's okay to allow the radiation in the bottom panel for 6 or 7 HOURS, and DAY AFTER DAY?!
After all, those are two examples of exactly the same type of radiation. No, really, hear me out. An electric oven contains an element made of metal. When an electric current is passed through the metal, the electrical resistance causes the element to heat up, emiting radiation in the form of heat and light. An incandescent light bulb contains a filament (a very small metal element). When electric current is passed through the filament of the light bulb, it emits radiation in the form of heat and light. So, in real world terms, a common light bulb is exactly as dangerous to you as an oven element.
What's that, you say? There is a difference between those two scenarios: the oven element is way hotter than the light bulb, and it's also way closer to the little girl. Give yourself a gold star. You've hit upon the lie in these two cartoons. There is a difference between the radiation emitted by an electric oven and a light bulb, and between a microwave, and a WiFi router. That difference is one of scale. The element inside an average electric oven operates at about 2500 watts. The average bulb in a reading lamp, at about 40 watts. So, the light bulb is about 60 times less powerful than the oven element. As well, in the top panel of my cartoon, the little girl's head is barely six inches from the oven element. When you're reading, your head is more like two feet, or more from the light bulb.
We know how Electromagnetic Radiation behaves over distance. It has been studied in great depth for centuries, and described by what we call the Inverse SquareLaw. The Inverse Square Law explains that the intensity of EMF decreases by the square of the distance. So, if we are twice as far from an EMF source as someone else, we experience four times less radiation. If we are ten times farther away, we experience 100 times less radiation. So, in the case of the light bulb, which is about four times farther away than the oven element, it's radiation would be decreased by a factor of 16. Multiply that by the difference in starting intensity, and we find that the radiation hitting the little girl reading her book is almost 1000 times less powerful than the radiation hitting the little girl with her head in the oven. So, as long as she doesn't actually reach up and touch the bulb, we are confident that she is safe sitting under its light.
Let's compare that to our microwaves. The power of an average microwave oven is about 1000 watts. The power of an average WiFi router is about 0.1 watts. So the router is already 10,000 times less powerful than the microwave oven. As well, in the classroom setting, the little girl is going to be much farther away from the router than she would be from the emmiters were she inside a microwave. She's probably somewhere between five and fifteen feet away from the router, compared to about six inches away from the radiation emissions in a microwave oven. So, let's say she's five feet away from the router, which would be 10 times farther away in the classroom than in the oven. So the strength of the radiation is reduced by a factor of 10², or 100. Which means, when you do the math, that the radiation hitting the little girl in the classroom is on the order of one millionth as strong as the radiation inside the microwave oven. One millionth.
Here's an experiment for you to try. Take a cold cup of Tims, or water, or a piece of steak, if you like. Check its temperature with a thermometer. Put it in the microwave for 60 seconds, then check its temperature again. There's a pretty significant difference, isn't there. Now, put that same cup of Tims (OK, not the exact same one, 'cause it's hot now, right?) - put another cold cup of coffee, or whatever right beside your wireless router. Turn the router on. Leave it like that for a week. Then check the temperature of the coffee again. What will the temperature be? Room temperature. Now, don't get me wrong, the microwaves from the router are definitely heating the coffee, it's just that the coffee is re-radiating that heat faster than the router can produce it. That's what is happening to our brains from exposure to WiFi. They are being heated by a miniscule amount - so small we need sophisticated scientific machinery to even measure it - and our bodies are redistributing and re-radiating that heat far faster than it can even accumulate. In fact, the effect of the WiFi on our bodies is thousands of times less than the effect of that light bulb on our bodies. You can actually feel the warmth of that.
Is that it, then? Are the heating properties of microwaves the only cause for concern? Well, not to hear the anti-WiFi crowd tell it. They spin a great yarn about as-yet undiscovered dangers of which they are somehow aware, while the rest of the entire scientific establishment remains unenlightened. The group that are hosting the event advertised in the poster have a website at which they link to a couple of articles in the British Columbia Teachers' Federation Newsletter. These articles tell us that:
The wireless signal, oscillating at 2.4 to 5 GHz, moves much too fast for the body to recognize. So this wave isn’t doing the damage. However, anytime any data or information is transmitted, say through our voice, through text messages, or through the sending of information, the data is packaged and “piggy-backed” onto the first wave. This creates a second carrier wave and this wave is called the information-carrying radio wave, or ICRW. It is the information-carrying radio wave that is producing the harm.This is, to put it bluntly, poppycock. Whoever wrote that paragraph has been watching far too much Star Trek, because that is what we call Techno-Babble of the highest order. It sounds science-ish, but it means nothing. The idea that information can be "piggy-backed" onto a radio wave or microwave by somehow attaching a second radio wave is so far from the way the world works it's what we call 'not even wrong.' There is no second carrier wave; the microwaves themselves are the information. In much the same way as you can communicate using morse code via either radio or light, by simply turning the signal on and off again using a specific pattern, the microwaves used by WiFi routers, and cell phones, and cordless phones, among many other devices, communicate their information via the modulation of the frequency, amplitude and phase of the waves themselves. In this case, the old cliché from Marshall McLuhan is literally true: the medium is the message.
So should I be concerned, or not? I'll end this the way I began it: In a word, "no." There is no evidence to show that there is any harm, whatsoever, from WiFi signals. And any alleged evidence the anti-WiFi community claim to be able to produce can be very easily shown to be nonsense by a simple examination of the laws of reality. And that, as they say, is that.
Do I think this will be the last bullet that puts the horse out of its misery? Hardly. As long as there are people, there will be credulous people, who will believe almost anything, regardless of how unlikely or unrealistic it is. As a skeptic, critical thinker, and proud member of the reality based community, I consider it my responsibilty to vocally point out where people like the anti-WiFi community are mistaken, or sometimes flat-out wrong. Sure, we're not going to convince the hard-core fringe element out there, but if we can speak out loud enough, with reason and evidence on our side, perhaps we can keep the fringe to the fringe, and keep the average Jane and Joe from being led astray.
(Note: this article has been edited since it first appeared to reflect more accurate numbers regarding the intensity of the radiation from various sources. As well some minor changes were made to the wording of the final three paragraphs in order to reflect a more general point of view. -- Paul)