Despite the fact that both Australian nuclear advisory bodies and the World Health Organisation have downplayed the link between brain cancer and the radiation emitted by devices like Wi-Fi routers and mobile phones, Monash University yesterday issued a press release that might give parents second thoughts about having Wi-Fi and other wireless gadgets in the home. What gives?
The press release, titled "Policies on children’s tech exposure confusing" details a study conducted by Monash University's Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine. The study looked at 34 different countries and the advice they all gave parents surrounding a child's exposure to radio frequency electromagnetic fields, also known as RF-EMF.
The study is actually quite good: it found that there are loads of different guidelines for parents on how RF-EMF exposure should be handled in young children. Author of the review, Dr Mary Redmayne, wrote that these different guidelines can actually confuse parents rather than inform them. But Dr Redmayne didn't stop there.
What she implied in the release is that chronic exposure to RF-EMF from devices like Wi-Fi routers could be potentially harmful for young children over the long term.
The release didn't outright say that exposure to RF-EMF leads to cancer, but it did imply that exposure at a young age could lead to "a variety of health effects".
Dr Redmayne writes that parents should look to minimise their child's exposure to RF-EMF in the home due to "an increased risk of some brain tumours in heavy and long-term phone users" and "increased production of free radicals in the body". She adds that these are not in themselves "health effects", if the body could repair damage caused by exposure overnight while asleep:
"Where RF-EMF is responsible for this imbalance, then the chance to repair is most likely to come with periods of minimal RF-EMF exposure such as at night time, when WiFi can be turned off and devices can be put in flight mode or switched off. Such steps to minimise children’s exposure are recommended in many countries."
Dr Redmayne worries that the adoption of tablets and smartphones by the younger generation could lead to these "health effects" in the long term, saying that "increasingly younger children are using these devices, and we know they are more vulnerable to environmental harm than adults...however safety regulations and guidelines in most parts of the world only consider short-term heat and shock effects, and have not traditionally considered chronic or very low exposure."
She adds that the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency suggests minimising a child's exposure to RF-EMF, but a fact sheet on the safety agency's website says in big letters: "There is no established scientific evidence that the use of mobile phones causes any health effects. However, some studies have shown a weak association between heavy mobile phone use and brain cancer," while recommending a cautionary approach to exposure.
That's the advice from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (a division of the World Health Organisation) too. The IARC and WHO published a release [PDF] back in 2011 saying that there's no substantial link between mobile phones and an increased risk of cancer,
At the time, the WHO classified the radiation emitted from devices such as mobile phones high enough to be placed in "Group 2B". Basically, that means it's potentially carcinogenic to humans. But don't panic: also included in that group is an acid commonly found in coffee, and chemical compounds found in bitumen. The WHO recommends caution, but raises no immediate alarm bells over exposure.
Caution is actually a good thing. You're always better being safe than sorry, which means that Dr Redmayne's recommendation that parents turn off their Wi-Fi routers at night and put devices into flight mode when charging them in the wee hours is fairly sound advice. However, it's certainly not going to be universally followed. Apartments and homes are flooded with signals coming from their neighbours' homes 24 hours a day.
There's nothing wrong with a cautionary approach to things like RF-EMF this, but we certainly need to be careful of implications that may potentially panic parents with kids who use tablets and phones over Wi-Fi at school and at home.
We've reached out to Monash for comment.