Adding light to heat of WiFi debate

July 22, 2010:  Peterborough Examiner. Adding light to heat of WiFi debate.

Are microwaves, emitted by WiFi and mobile phones, safe? Why is this question so controversial and why can’t scientist agree on the answer?

Let’s take a closer look at the WiFi debate. Microwave radiation was first used for radar

during the Second World War and exposure was restricted to military personnel. The original guidelines were based on the ability of a 70 kilogram male to dissipate heat. The effects of microwave exposure -cataracts, reduced sperm viability, headaches, and tinnitus -were assumed to be due to heating.

Today we use microwaves to talk to and text our friends (mobile phones) and to share data (WiFi). We are all exposed, including young children who are the most vulnerable among us. Canada’s guidelines are still based on a heating effect despite numerous scientific studies documenting adverse effects that are non-thermal and potentially life threatening.

So the WiFi debate hinges on the question, “Is heating the only adverse effect of microwave exposure?”

The current heat-based Health Canada guideline for microwaves is 1,000 microWatts/cm2. Levels of microwave radiation are unlikely to exceed that guideline in most Canadian environments and so we have nothing to worry about. Right? Wrong!

Let’s take a look at the other side of the debate.

Some countries have much lower guidelines than Canada. The guidelines in Russia and in Salzburg, Austria are 1% and 0.01% (respectively) of our federal guidelines. These countries do not follow the U.S. military assumption from the 1950s that, “damage associated with heating is the only possible effect of microwave radiation.”

Scientific studies document biological and health effects well below the thermal guideline at levels to which we are currently exposed in the classroom and in our homes and offices.

These effects include difficulty sleeping, fatigue, chronic pain, skin problems, difficulty concentrating, poor short-term memory, dizziness, nausea, tinnitus, depression, anxiety, irritability as well as cancers and reproductive problems..

Even Health Canada (Safety Code 6 1999) acknowledges that sensitivity to radiation varies and that, “Certain members of the general public may be more susceptible to harm from RF [radio frequency] and microwave exposure.”


During the past 10 years various countries and institutions (including Toronto Public Health) have issued warnings about the use of cell phones (which are still more prevalent than WiFi) and scientists and medical doctors worldwide have signed at least 10 Resolutions and Appeals, asking that regulatory agencies revise their guidelines downward to take into account the non-thermal effects of this radiation.

It takes time for policy to catch up to the science, especially when maintaining the status quo has financial benefits for both the government and for the multi-billion dollar wireless industry. We knew that cigarette smoking was unhealthy back in the 1950s but it took several decades to develop the political will to acknowledge this and limit smoking in public places.

The same is happening with microwave radiation. The user of the technology has the greatest exposure but those who are near the antennas that communicate with WiFi computers or with mobile phones are exposed to “second hand radiation” that is also dangerous.

Do we really want to risk the health of students and teachers for the convenience of wireless technology when wired technology does the same job without microwave exposure?

I, for one, would like to err on the side of caution, especially in schools where the health of children is at stake.

Magda Havas is Associate Professor of Environmental and Resource Studies at Trent University.

Article ID# 2679960