Monday, 23 November 2009

The radiation bogeyman

Every now and then, Swindon, for all its negative connotations does something that makes it interesting. We had the Mondex (electronic cash) trial here. Swindon proudly decided to get rid of speed cameras, to cheers from Top Gear. And now Swindon has announced that there will soon be public WiFi available throughout the borough (thanks to Paul Tuck for bringing this to my attention).

I'm going in to Radio Wiltshire this morning to discuss this - because there has been some talk (I was told by an organization called Powerwatch, though I haven't seen it) of Swindon's action putting us at risk. Because of the 'radiation' from the WiFi transmitters.

This is what I describe in Ecologic as a bogeyman, where fear of something nasty that doesn't really exist gets people in a panic. And one of the classic ways of inciting a bogeyman is to use terms like 'radiation' - which sounds scary. Technically WiFi is radiation - electromagnetic radiation - just as is the light from the Sun, or a TV broadcast. A much more neutral term for WiFi is radio waves - but 'radiation' is used to scare us.

The fact is that there have been over 30 controlled trials of the impact of WiFi and phone masts, none of which has come up with positive results that should make us worry. There are a few trials that do claim to show that such transmissions cause headaches and other unpleasant feelings - but they are mostly subjective questionnaires, and don't have any kind of double blind control to ensure that the trial is producing actual data, rather than what people believe.

Let's face it, statistically people are going to have headaches around WiFi. I often have a headache in the kitchen - does this mean kitchens are bad for you?

Even if there is some small risk attached to WiFi - and there is no evidence there is - we need to get it in proportion. For example, if we were talking about a technology that killed over a million people a year, then, yes, I would be worried. Such a technology does exist - and you probably use it - but it's not WiFi. It's the car (or, at least, road transport).

So I, for one, am cheering this move by Swindon Council. Good on you, guys.
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