Tablets:
Health concerns about tablets (iPads)

The school’s website gives parents an opportunity to ask questions about its tablet proposal, which the school then answers.

I asked two questions and later sent comments on the school’s answers to the school’s governors.

Question 1:

You give reassurance on the health risks of iPads by quoting the World Health Organisation. But the WHO document you quote is dated May 2006. Since then, the WHO has classified radiofrequency radiation, which includes wifi - on which iPads depend - as "possibly carcinogenic" to humans. Is this not a development you should give importance to?



The school’s answer:

"The WHO has also classified some widely-used substances as Class 2B, including coffee and talc powder."



Comment:

1. There seems to be an implication here that the WHO classification is not to be taken seriously. But presumably that is not what you mean.

2. Talc is associated with ovarian cancer, endometrial cancer and pulmonary fibrosis. Talc containing asbestiform fibres is classified by the WHO as carcinogenic to humans (class 1). Coffee is associated with bladder and urinary tract cancer.

Of the approximately 250 items on the Class 2B list, about 230 are chemicals I have not heard of. I doubt that they are in everyday use. In any case, the implication that because something is widely used, it is unlikely to be carcinogenic doesn’t stand up. Tobacco (class 1)? Alcohol (class 1)?

3. The WHO classification of radiofrequency (RF) radiation as possibly carcinogenic is important because
• it is a recent development, indicating a change in scientific opinion
• it contradicts the hitherto widely held assumption that RF radiation cannot be carcinogenic
• it results from research into the use of mobile phones, and is therefore directly relevant to the issue of wifi

The classification is based on results from the Interphone study, which showed a 40% increased risk for gliomas in heavy users of mobile phones. Gliomas are a type of brain cancer. "Heavy use" was defined as 30 minutes a day over 10 years, or 1,825 hours over that period.

Children in school are exposed to wifi 6 hours a day, 5 days a week, 40 weeks a year, for – on present practice - 14 years. This amounts to 16,800 hours – nearly 10 times as long as for “heavy users” of mobile phones.

These figures are important because
• the effects of RF radiation are cumulative
• children are up to 60% more vulnerable to RF radiation than adults
• iPads / tablets will greatly increase children's exposure.
   
In addition, raised cancer rates have been associated with exposure levels equivalent to or lower than those of wifi. (See www.wificoncern.org, sections 10 and 11.3.)

At the Children with Cancer conference in London in April 2012, Professor Leszczynski of the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority called for RF radiation to be reclassified as a Class 2A carcinogen; that is, as probably carcinogenic.

In October 2012, Italy's Supreme Court ruled that a man's brain cancer was due to his mobile phone use. The expert witnesses included an oncologist and a neurosurgeon, who concurred with the judgement. The ruling was made despite ICNIRP guidelines (which the UK HPA follows).

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/9619514/Mobile-phones-can-cause-brain-tumours-court-rules..html

A reaction very different from the school’s to the Class 2B classification was given by Dr. Joel Moskowitz at the University of California, Berkeley, where he is Director of the Center for Family and Community Health in the School of Public Health. He said, “The US government now has a scientific basis to issue precautionary health warnings, revise existing cell phone regulations and fund research on radio frequency electromagnetic field radiation.” 

In the UK, the TUC advises employers to avoid Class 2B carcinogens in the workplace.

In view of these facts, can the Class 2B classification be dismissed?


Question 2:

In replying to a question about the health risks of iPads and wifi, you quote the Health Protection Agency, which says that there is no reason not to use wifi. Many internationally respected scientists disagree. or example, Prof Johansson of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm (which awards the Nobel Prize for medicine / physiology): "wireless systems, such as wifi routers and cell / mobile / smart phones, cannot be regarded as safe in schools, but must be deemed highly hazardous and unsafe for the children as well as for the staff." (For more examples of scientific opinion on wifi see 'Safe Schools', a document that can be downloaded from www.wifiinschools.org.uk )
Why do you choose the advice of the Health Protection Agency - which is not mandatory - and not the advice of scientists who are independent of government and industry?



The school’s answer:

"The HPA is deliberately set up to be independent of government (so that its conclusions are not influenced by political considerations) but it was set up by our government precisely to digest the large and often contradictory scientific literature, and give citizens informed advice about health hazards. It must be the first source of advice for any school.

The UK's Health Protection Agency has just (April 2012) published a 348-page study of Health Effects from Radio Frequency Electromagnetic Fields.  The link to the report is a the bottom of this project page .  Appendix A of the report is a 5-page report on Wifi in Schools (page 325).  This is all very helpful because it's clearly (a) substantial (b) recent (c) from a reputable, UK-based source.  As we understand it, it says

• Wifi radiation from a school classroom context is 1% of that when using a mobile phone (Appendix A)

•"Under a pessimistic scenario...personal exposure in the classroom could reach 16.6 mW/square metre, compared with the ICNIRP international guideline reference of 10,000mw/square metre."  (Appendix A)

• "The limited available data on other non-cancer outcomes show no effects of RF-field exposure.  The accumulating evidence on cancer risks, notably in relation to mobile phone use, is not definitive, but is overall increasingly in the direction of no material effect of exposure.  There are few data, however, on risks beyond 15 years from first exposure." (Executive summary)

• "In summary, although a substantial amount of research has been conducted in this area, there is no convincing evidence that RF field exposure below guideline levels causes health effects in adults of children".  (Executive summary)

Schools and parents constantly balance a very small risk of something bad happening against immediate but more modest benefits; school trips, crossing the road to get to the playing fields, and so on.  Given the HPA advice, the governors believe that there is insufficient evidence that wifi is harmful to justify the loss of its benefits.

The vast majority of parents use mobile phones, and allow their children to do so, but their electromagnetic fields are much stronger than those of wifi.

We have recently conducted a risk assessment of wifi in relation to this project which concluded that “Hazard levels so far considered so low as to not present material risk, but situation should be monitored. Governors attended recent meeting in Cambridge to consider risks. Government guidance considers risks negligible.”

In conclusion, as a school we take guidance and advice from the DfE and bodies such as the HPA and WHO. Until such bodies give us information to suggest that we should not have wifi in school then our policy is to do so."
 

Comment:

Taking your answer point by point:

1. “The HPA … was set up by our government precisely to digest the large and often contradictory scientific literature, and give citizens informed advice about health hazards.  It must be the first source of advice for any school.”

No one would disagree with this. The problem is that many scientists strongly disagree with the HPA’s advice. They disagree because its advice doesn’t take into account evidence of health effects – as its own report shows (see below).

It is clearly reasonable to consider the HPA to be the first source of advice for schools. But it does not have to be the last or the only one.


2. “The UK's Health Protection Agency has just (April 2012) published a 348-page study of Health Effects from Radio Frequency Electromagnetic Fields … This is all very helpful because it's clearly (a) substantial (b) recent (c) from a reputable, UK-based source.”

The report is certainly substantial and recent. However, it has also been described as “biased” and “not … comprehensive.” (Professor Leszczynski, referred to above). The reasons for this are not hard to find (see below).


3. “As we understand it, [the report] says: Wifi radiation from a school classroom context is 1% of that when using a mobile phone (Appendix A).”

(a) The exact quotation is as follows: “The reported SAR value in the head represents less than 1% of the SAR previously calculated in the head for a typical mobile phone exposure condition.”

(i) The SAR value referred to did not result from a classroom context. It was the result of exposing a model of a 10 year old to a single wifi device. This is very different from exposing a child to a classroom of 30 devices plus a classroom node.

(ii) SAR, or specific absorption rate, is a measure of the energy absorbed by tissue as a result of RF radiation. Its relevance is to the heating effect of RF radiation. The concerns many scientists have are about the non-thermal effects.

(b) The quotation implies that the likelihood of health effects reduces with the level of exposure to RF radiation. This has been found not necessarily to be the case.

(c) Epidemiological and animal studies show health effects at levels of exposure to microwave radiation equivalent to or lower than those found with wifi. The effects include behavioural and functional degradation, neurological damage and cancer. (See www.wificoncern.org, section 11.)

(d) Exposure to wifi is for far longer periods than mobile phone use – hours, not minutes.


4. “As we understand it, [the report] says, ‘Under a pessimistic scenario ... personal exposure in the classroom could reach 16.6 mW/square metre, compared with the ICNIRP international guideline reference of 10,000mW/square metre.’  (Appendix A)”

(a) This claim is based on a distance from a laptop of 0.5 m. Children will often hold iPads / tablets much closer to their bodies than 0.5 m, meaning that personal exposure could be much higher than the figure given, 16.6mW/ square metre. (Placed at 5 cm from the front edge of a laptop, the peak reading on my RF meter goes off the scale, i.e. over 95.5 mW/square metre.)

(b) ICNIRP exposure guidelines, which the HPA follows, take into account only heating and electric shock effects from microwave radiation. These occur only at very high levels of exposure. The guidelines are widely disputed because they do not take into account the many effects observed in humans and animals far below the guideline levels (for research references, see www.wificoncern.org, appendix D).

ICNIRP guidelines were voted obsolete in 2008 by the European Parliament, which called for stricter exposure limits (522 votes to 16 (with 7 abstentions)).

Resolution: [items R22 and R23]
Vote:


5. “As we understand it, [the report] says, … ‘The limited available data on other non-cancer outcomes show no effects of RF-field exposure.  The accumulating evidence on cancer risks, notably in relation to mobile phone use, is not definitive, but is overall increasingly in the direction of no material effect of exposure.  There are few data, however, on risks beyond 15 years from first exposure.’ (Executive summary)”

Unfortunately, none of this is true except the last sentence. The report itself refers to research that does indicate non-cancer outcomes.

Page 93: “ …the data on apoptosis are not consistent and the results somewhat confusing. There is approximately an equal distribution of findings showing increased apoptosis and studies showing no effect of exposure to RF fields”

Page 103: “In general, most studies report finding effects on cell membranes when exposures are made at mobile phone frequencies”

Page 105: “The tertiary structure of haemoglobin, and hence its ability to bind oxygen, was affected by exposure to 900MHz at 15.7W m2. In general, most of the studies that have investigated changes in protein function or structure due to exposure to RF fields have found effects”

Page 133: “Significant increase in leakage [of the blood-brain barrier] … significant increase in dark [damaged] neurons.” “Significant increase in [blood-brain-barrier] leakage at 0.012W/kg.”

Page 136: “Studies investigating effects on cellular physiology have produced some evidence to suggest that low level exposures are capable of causing measurable biological changes...”

Page 226: “A number of EEG studies have reported increased alpha-band EEG power during and/or after exposure. Such effects have been found both in resting EEG and during sleep. These studies provide the most consistent body of evidence for an effect of RF field exposure on brain function.”

Page 252: “These raise the possibility of an association between RF field exposure and behavioural problems among children … Additional research … would be worthwhile.”

The report also notes cancer risks:

Page 86: Cellular studies - “ …there are also studies … did show potential genotoxic effects… a clear answer is still elusive”

Page 87: “ … authors suggested that the exposure to an RF field had affected DNA repair mechanisms. A similar conclusion was reached by authors of a study that exposed whole blood whilst inhibiting DNA repair. They found an increase in the number of DNA breaks ... (Tiwari et al, 2008).

The report does not mention the WHO classification of RF radiation as possibly carcinogenic, nor the evidence from the Interphone study that led to the classification. The claim that the evidence on cancer risks “is overall increasingly in the direction of no material effect of exposure” is therefore incorrect.  The research suggests cancer effects are probable.

In summary, evidence referred to in the body of the report, and the omission from the report of the WHO cancer classification, contradict your quotation from the report.


6. “As we understand it, [the report] says, … ‘In summary, although a substantial amount of research has been conducted in this area, there is no convincing evidence that RF field exposure below guideline levels causes health effects in adults or children’.  (Executive summary)”

The key word here of course is “convincing”. By what criteria is evidence to be thought ‘convincing’? The HPA follows ICNIRP guidelines. But ICNIRP’s standards of scientific proof are so stringent that they would rule out a causal connection between smoking and cancer (see www.wificoncern.org, appendix B). If we are concerned about safety, a much lower probability of causal connection is needed to trigger safety measures. Animal studies show evidence of effects below the (obsolete) guideline exposure levels which, if replicated in humans, would be harmful. Epidemiological studies around phone masts – where the level of exposure is similar to that with wifi - show harmful effects. For anyone concerned about health, this evidence (some of it cited by the HPA itself) is quite enough to justify taking a precautionary approach to microwave exposure – which means avoiding it until it is shown to be safe.



In conclusion: It is of course entirely reasonable to expect that a report from the HPA will be a reliable source of advice. However, the HPA’s Health Effects from Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields shows serious inconsistencies between its executive summary, which claims that there are no health effects below guideline levels, and the evidence given in the body of the report. The evidence given in the report shows that there are health effects below guideline levels.

The report does not then “digest the large and often contradictory scientific literature”, which you point out was its task, and cannot as a result form a basis for policy.

My original question then remains, but with added point: why choose the advice of the HPA on which to base your wifi and tablet policy, rather than that of scientists independent of government and industry, when the HPA’s advice does not reflect the evidence?




You say that schools and parents are constantly balancing “a very small risk” of something bad happening with benefits. The evidence about microwave radiation does not suggest a “very small” risk, but a variety of likely ones. They are also risks that are completely avoidable by the use of cabled connections to the internet.

The examples you give of benefits (crossing the road, school trips) are of a different kind from the ones you associate with wifi: they are everyday needs and wants. The benefits of wifi in school can either be achieved in a different way (cabled connections), or they can be done without, without diminishing the quality of education – because we have done without them until now.

I.e., you are not comparing like with like. You are comparing unavoidable risks (crossing the road, etc) with avoidable ones (wifi effects), necessary benefits (getting to the other side of the road) with unnecessary ones (mobile connectivity, classroom photography, etc).

The risks of wifi (and of mobile telephony) are new, and of a completely different order from everyday risks. It envelops us, and our children, in a type of radiation – microwaves – that hardly occurs in nature, and for which human beings have evolved no protection. It should not be surprising that a wide variety of potentially adverse health effects have been found. (Nor that there is controversy about them – the ways in which we are affected are poorly understood, and a lot of money is at stake).




You also say that the vast majority of parents use mobile phones and allow their children to. Most parents don’t know about the risks they run in doing so. The UK Chief Medical Officer’s advice is that children under 16 should use mobile phones for essential purposes only, and to keep calls short.
http://www.dh.gov.uk/prod_consum_dh/groups/dh_digitalassets/documents/digitalasset/dh_124899.pdf

Shouldn’t a school set high standards of safety, and of knowledge about safety – not follow the practice of those who haven’t examined the risks? Lots of parents let their children drink alcohol, but that doesn’t mean the school should. Most parents don’t exercise enough (including me). Would the school recommend following their example?




The bottom line is that the school has a statutory responsibility to care for the safety of children while they are on its premises. In view of the fact that the UK HPA does not offer reliable advice on the use of wifi, the school and parents have to decide for themselves whether it is safe to use.

It seems to me that there are two possibilities. In view of the contradictory nature of the scientific literature, which you recognise, to accept that this implies the possible existence of health risks, and that this means avoiding the use of microwave-emitting equipment until it is shown to be safe.

Alternatively, in view of the school’s moral duty not to take risks with children’s health without the consent of parents, to consult openly with parents about the possible risks of wifi before making a choice about whether to continue using it.






1 Germany warns citizens to avoid using Wi-Fi’, Independent, 9.9.07
LINK