Wireless Electro-Sensitivity: a physicist with ES replies to NewsWireless

by Guy J Kewney | posted on 19 June 2007

Following a recent "Panorama" investigation into electro-sensitivity, NewsWireless criticised the programme for failing to quote proper medical tests using double-blind methods. Our comment provoked the following carefully argued response from Powerwatch director, Alasdair Philips. He writes:

You make some valid comments but really miss the point as regards testing ES people. They often have a low threshold to provoke symptoms and a long 'relaxation time' which means that they should really be in an EMF 'free' environment for at least 24 hours before testing.

At present I think the best evidence would be to analyse all patients from a GP surgery and then assess their homes. It wouldn't be a cheap study and would require high-level ethics approval. I have been pushing the HPA and Dept Health for this for the last few years. I attach part of a report that gives details of what is being reported close to base station. Some of these studies are quite high quality, and the one on storks suggests that it can't all be psychosomatic!

Secondly, your new blog/report states: But the way forward is NOT to start spouting nonsense about "WiFi is three times more powerful than mobile phone masts!"

No-one said that [See footnote* below - Ed]. What was said was that the Stewart Report recommended that schools were not in the main beam of mobile phone masts. So we measured the level 100 metres from a nearby mast (main beam comes to ground, maximum signal level there) and the values we measured are very typical. We then measured the WiFi signals in the classroom. What we showed (was it really that complicated to understand?) was that the signals levels from the WiFi laptop were 3 times higher that the signal level the pupil would have been subject to sitting in a classroom on the main beam of a mobile phone base station 100 metres away. I have just re-watched the programme it was very clear that was what was described. Nowhere are the words "WiFi is three times more powerful than mobile phone masts!"

I attach the signals strengths measured (1) 100 metres from a phone mast close to the school and (2) 50 cm from a WiFi enabled laptop downloading a large file in the classroom on Panorama. I took the measurements for Panorama. The equipment I used (the Anritsu 2721A) is among the top/best used by the cellular phone industry to analyse signals. The antennas were suitably calibrated and the main settings were RBW 100 kHz, VBW 30 kHz, peak detect, peak hold, and collected over about 60 seconds to show all the frequencies being used.

I was making walkie-talkies while still at school in the early 1960s. I grew up with RF and radio and thought electronics and technology were the best. I qualified in electronic engineering at university 35 years ago. I have designed multi-million selling pieces of electronics from audio equipment to early computer systems - including one of the Dr Who Tardis control computers(!). I have spent years doing detailed EMC (look it up) measurements and helping companies meet EC/EU and UK legislation on EMF (not health) matters. I have 'lived electronics' for 40 years. I am a real geek/techie at heart, but at least one open to a change of opinion.

I first became aware of the issue when investigating non-lethal EMF weapon technologies in the 1980s. In the 1990's I started to become ES myself when I was working on an RF based soil moisture analyser for farm fields. It caused me blinding headaches that would last for 4 to 6 hours following exposure.

I am not a Doctor, as you know. Yet I instigated and brought to fruition the CHILDREN with LEUKAEMIA's 5-day International Conference on the Causes and Prevention of Childhood Leukaemia held in Westminster in September 2004. This was praised by the HPA and the Department of Health and the feedback from most academics and doctors who attended was "that was one of the best conferences I have ever been to". See: .

I am on the DH's SAGE group who reported recently and am also on the small Management Group of SAGE. I am on the Mobile Operators Association Stakeholder Advisory Group. I am on the HPA's EMF Discussion Group of 20 senior people, personally chaired by Sir William Stewart, HPA Chairman.

Sir William Stewart, was a Chief UK Scientist under Margaret Thatcher and also ran the MoD's DSTL Porton Down Biological and Chemical Warfare Labs for many years - indeed he is still involved with them.

Sweden thought they had about 3% of their population exhibiting ES symptoms. They have now reported that the real figue looks like 9%.

Lets take a lower figure of 1%. That would be 600,000 people in the UK who may be experiencing unnecessary headaches, memory and concentration problems, chronic fatigue, irritability, depression and other symptoms purely because of their exposure to the background levels of RF, which have increased 100-fold in the last 20 years and also have become far more 'pulsatile' - i.e. more pulsing. This has given rise to many EMC problems in the early days (like mobile phones in the front seats causing National Express coaches to change gear) just because pulsing signals are much more invasive. The equipment problems have no mainly been solved by requiring higher EMC immunity from newly designed electronic equipment and systems. But what about people?

I wrote an article for Electronics World last year asking the question - Electrical Sensitivity - A Human EMC Problem? [Available to subscribers to Powerwatch only - Ed] I will send you a copy if you ask.

Personally, I have no doubts at all that ES is a real problem. The signal levels that ES people report problems start at about 0.05 volts per metre (V/m). The levels close (where the user sits) to a WiFi enabled laptop are between 10 and 100 times higher than this. As most laptops used in classrooms need to have their mains power charger units connected, it would be just as easy to also plug in a standard ethernet cable. That would provide a faster, better quality connection and not expose the pupils to unnecessary pulsing microwave signals. Most classroom require two or three wireless access points as each one can, effectively, only reasonably service about 8 laptops in use at the same time - and even that can become quite slow.

This race to install WiFi everywhere is, in my opinion quite unnecessary. If we are going to do it, then the least we should be doing in monitoring pupils health and comparing those who regularly use the technology with the health of those who do not.

If the problem is real (which I believe it is) then it will be a tremendous public health problem with possibly millions of people performing well below the level that they would have done without being bathed in this new sea of pulsing microwaves. That is costly to society and terrible for the well-being of those affected.


Alasdair Philips BSc(Eng), DAgE, MIAgE, MInstPhys Director of Powerwatch

* Footnote: Guy Kewney writes:

Alasdair Philips is correct. The quote was: "The Government insists WiFi is safe, but a Panorama investigation shows that radio frequency radiation levels in some schools are up to three times the level found in the main beam of intensity from mobile phone masts." This quote is not from the Panorama script but from the BBC Web site, which is referenced in the NewsWireless comment.

However, there is a section in the film where the test engineer measures the WiFi signal and says: "That's about three times what we were getting near that phone mast."

Alasdair Philips asks: "Was that so hard to understand?"

Yes, I believe it obviously was, or the BBC web site wouldn't have made the same mistake.

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