Straddling the border of north central Virginia and southeastern West Virginia is a 13,000-square-mile mountainous region known as the United States National Radio Quiet Zone. To protect the clutch of radio telescopes located within its borders from radio interference, the federal government highly regulates wireless technology, which means no cellphones and few Wi-Fi hotspots.
Sleepy towns within this quiet zone might soon be invaded by folks trying to escape the onslaught of wireless technologies. You see, not only are cellphones suspected (emphasis on suspected) of causing cancer, but some scientists are now claiming Wi-Fi should be seen as a health hazard. But there are equally vociferous scientists who say all these Wi-Fi Chicken Littles are foolish fowl.
So, is Wi-Fi harmful to you?
This is an imponderable on the level of asking if animals have souls, or why we park in a driveway but drive on a parkway, or Coke or Pepsi. Of course, I have all the answers.
Let's get some facts out of the way.
First, there is no official medical establishment recognition for the allergic reaction-like symptoms from a malady dubbed electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS) or, more succinctly, electrosensitivity (ES).
I'm not saying some people — estimates are around five percent of the population — don't experience something when exposed to Wi-Fi, and I'm not saying the medical establishment is infallible.
And even scientists and skeptics who say there's nothing wrong with Wi-Fi admit some people experience something when exposed to Wi-Fi, even if these skeptics believe these symptoms are caused by other environmental factors or are psychosomatic.
I'm just saying no such condition has been recognized by the medical establishment.
Second, with all this talk about cell and Wi-Fi signals being carcinogenic, all cancer rates in the U.S. have dropped during the entire period in which cell phones have existed, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Third, in its latest report on wireless environmental hazards, the World Health Organization insisted:
"Considering the very low exposure levels and research results collected to date, there is no convincing scientific evidence that the weak RF signals from base stations and wireless networks cause adverse health effects."
So, what's all the hubbub, bubs?
Case for The Prosecution
For one thing, both the WHO conclusion and the last year the NIH has for cancer rates pre-date the iPhone and the smartphone revolution that put Wi-Fi radios in our pockets and routers in our homes.
In 2006, fewer than 10 percent of U.S. homes boasted Wi-Fi routers. By the end of this year, however, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) projects more than half of U.S. households will host a Wi-Fi router. And it's nearly impossible to walk down a modern city street and not be in constant range of about a dozen Wi-Fi hotspots — and more are on the way.
In other words, we have no official cancer data covering the first few years of constant Wi-Fi exposure. And even if we did, Wi-Fi-related cancers (if any) could take years to develop.
But over the last couple of years, there have been scattered anecdotal reports of adverse reactions to wireless signals and Wi-Fi in particular.
An investigative news magazine show on the GlobalTV network called "16x9: The Bigger Picture," ran a report on October 17, 2010, about how a Wi-Fi at the St. Vincent-Euphrasia Elementary School in Meaford, Ontario, was making some students ill. The day after the report aired, parents voted to ban the school's Wi-Fi, to be replaced by wired connections.
Country-wide Wi-Fi bans have been proposed in Canada, led by Dr. Magda Havas, an associate professor of environmental and resource studies at Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, as well as in the European Union.
In addition to the unspecified and unverified hazard to children, several papers have been published in respected medical journals detailing how DNA can be adversely affected by Wi-Fi, including Wi-Fi-equipped laptops, and how DNA acts like a fractal antenna that attracts and disrupts DNA.
So, were the aluminum foil helmet guys right all along?
Jane, You Ignorant Slut
A Canadian site called EMF & Health ("dedicated to real science") issued a direct challenge to Dr. Havas' research, wishing to duplicate her results under more stringent conditions. The EMF academics claim the Wi-Fi health concerns "are contradicted by the vast majority of solid scientific evidence."
And in a letter to the scientific journal in which a "Wi-Fi disrupts DNA" paper was published, a couple of researchers challenged the entire scientific basis for Wi-Fi being hazardous to DNA:
Genotoxicity of radiofrequencies is not a matter of opinion: radiofrequency energy absorption cannot break DNA molecules there is no known biologically plausible mechanism by which non-ionizing radio waves of low energy can disrupt DNA.
Don't you love it when big-brained people argue with each other?
And "Wi-Fi bad" advocates don't help their cause when they accuse the NIH of fudging its figures, an accusation made by one Wi-Fi DNA researcher I spoke to (who also admitted to me that the letter writers were correct, but started to hair split on the definition of "break" and "disrupt.") Scientific fact and conspiracy theories don't mix well.
So, is Wi-Fi bad for you?
Quite frankly, there simply isn't enough scientific evidence and nothing approaching consensus over even study methodology much less results. Screaming you know doesn't make it so.
And even if there were consensus (and the evidence would have to be overwhelming and definitive like it was for cigarettes), as I noted earlier, we're already engulfed by Wi-Fi everywhere we go. From a practical POV, the Wi-Fi genie is too big to get stuff back into its bottle.
But that doesn't mean do nothing. If you think where there's smoke there's fire and better safe than sorry, replace your home Wi-Fi rig with wired connections when and if you can. But that also means wearing some type of wireless-proof suit when you decide to emerge from your wireless-free home.
For me, what with breathing polluted air, eating processed foods, traveling in the New York City subway, playing poker weekly in a cigarette smoke-filled apartment and being a Mets fan, my life is piled high with unhealthy environmental conditions. As a friend used to fatalistically philosophize, I can do everything right and take care of myself and live an extra week. With my luck — it'll end up raining all week.
And here are the answers to my other imponderable questions: the ones I owned did, you have to drive into a driveway and you often end up parked on a parkway (especially the 405 at rush hour), and Coke. Definitely Coke. Sipped safely somewhere inside the National Radio Quiet Zone.