Over at the Santa Fe Review
, science writer George Johnson has no kind words for the Santa Fe New Mexican's continued (mis)handling of a story that's gotten national attention: That is, the claims of this city's vocal and surprisingly influential anti-wi-fi lobby.
In two stories
today, Tom Sharpe, in his usual style, digs up some good detail. For instance, that wi-fi foe Bill Bruno—last seen ranting and waving a copy of GQ at a City Council meeting—"sometimes wears a silver-coating nylon veil to protect his brain
from wireless signals."
But, as Johnson writes, Sharpe and his editors have completely ignored their responsibility to the truth
After giving a fringe group an open mike, the New Mexican had a responsibility to focus on what the science really says. Instead we get a profile of a local “healthy home” consultant, Daniel Stith, who concedes that his evidence about the supposed dangers of wifi (and a whole slew of other things) is “more anecdotal ... versus some kind of study.” We also hear from Vicki Warren, who teaches courses on “electrosmog” and is allowed to go on for seven paragraphs reeling off misinformation that could have easily been checked.
It is not enough to counter all of this propaganda with some quotes from a Motorola spokesman. This “he says, she says” approach is lazy journalism that creates the false impression that science is simply a matter of opinion, and that there are two equally weighted sides to every story.
I'll go one step farther and say that with its half-assed reporting, the New Mex risks spreading hysteria
. The likely consequences could be that some con men get rich, while some sick people get sicker
, believing their symptoms are best explained by "electrosensitivity." (The latter, at least, has already happened in Santa Fe. I reported on such a case last year
Sharpe also reports that "the [anti-wi-fi] movement's most valuable ally" may be the influential Sallie Bingham, who in a recent letter berated
SFR's Zane Fischer as "unkind
," and faulted the paper for ignoring the "quantity of reputable scientific research
regarding the health hazards of cell towers." (As though cell towers = cell phones = wi-fi transmitters. More on that later.)
To his credit, Johnson already picked apart some of "the movement's" favorite research in a previous post
. And despite grumbles from some in "the movement" about SFR's lack of homework
on the dangers of wi-fi, this newspaper is evidently the only media outlet in Santa Fe, aside from Johnson's site, that has bothered to do any background research at all. Overwhelmingly, that research shows "the movement" makes unsupported claims
Here are links to a couple of reports on "electrical hypersensitivity" that may be helpful to anyone who's been confused by the New Mex' reporting—including, apparently, the New Mex' own editors.
The first (PDF
) is a study by Stacy Eltiti at the University of Essex (UK) Department of Psychology: "Does Short-Term Exposure to Mobile Phone Base Station Signals Increase Symptoms in Individuals who Report Sensitivity to Electromagnetic Fields?
A Double-Blind Randomised Provocation Study."
Eltiti tested 56 self-reported sensitive people, and a control group of 120 ordinary (non-sensitive) folks, to see if they could tell whether a radio frequency/electromagnetic field generator was switched on or off. They couldn't
—even when the field was many times stronger
than one created by a wi-fi node.
The present data, along with current scientific evidence, leads to the conclusion that short-term rf-emf exposure from mobile phone technology is not related to levels of well-being or physical symptoms in [electrosensitive] individuals. Furthermore, [electrosensitive] individuals are unable to detect the presence of rf-emf under double-blind conditions. It remains the case however, that [electrosensitive] individuals present with a range of distressing and serious symptoms and often have a very poor quality of life.
She goes on,
Given the current findings, together with findings of related research...it is imperative to determine what factors other than low-level rf- emf exposure could be possible causes of the symptoms suffered by [electrosensitive] individuals, so that appropriate treatment strategies can be developed.
In other words, something
is wrong with people who think they're electrosensitive—but it's almost certainly not a result of their bombardment by wireless signals
The second (PDF
) comes from the European Commission's Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks, which has been studying this issue for a decade or more. Based on a review of research around the world, the Committee's 2007 report on "Possible effects of Electromagnetic Fields (EMF) on Human Health" found the following:
The main conclusion is that although symptoms described as EHS [electrical hypersensitivity] are real and may be severe and disabling, a relationship between symptoms and RF [radio frequency] field exposure has not been proven. Most likely, the health problems described as EHS are not related to the physical presence of EMF and more research is needed to learn more about the conditions inducing EHS.
A 2009 update to the report (PDF
) said that none of the research conducted in the intervening two years suggested those conclusions be changed.
For even more reading, check out the proceedings of the World Health Organization's 2004 "International Seminar and Working Group meeting on EMF Hypersensitivity," available here
. One more time
, from the WHO:
EHS has no clear diagnostic criteria and there is no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to EMF [electromagnetic field] exposure. Further, EHS is not a medical diagnosis, nor is it clear that it represents a single medical problem.
And, finally, here is a nice primer by the Federal Communications Commission on what electromagnetic fields are and how they work (PDF