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29/05/2007 - Our response to Ben Goldacre's comments re. Panorama, WiFi, etc.

Recently, Panorama have received a lot of criticism, especially from Ben "Bad Science" Goldacre, for their "WiFi Warning" programme, including their decision to use "scaremonger" Alasdair Philips. This page is written by Alasdair to provide some background information to support the science in the programme. Some typo corrections and minor clarifications in text were made on the 30th May 2007 at 9:30 hrs GMT.

Edit (04/06/2007): Ben Goldacre has recently changed his heading to add "But Alasdair Philips of Powerwatch sells the cure!". Sadly, especially for those coming hoping for their wonder cure, we can offer nothing of the sort. Obviously we appreciate the kind plug but our recommendation is unfortunately something we cannot sell. If you or anyone you know is concerned about WiFi, we can offer a far better solution for free. Turn it off.

Ben Goldacre's column has also been criticised (without much in the way of a reply) on the "Media Lens Message Board", amongst other criticisms with the Guardian's coverage of the issue (Unfortunately, Ben, in his own words, has chosen not to respond to the poster, but all four are well worth the read for their arguments alone). Sadly, the Media Lens Message Board seems to have disappeared, so we have rebuilt the posts up from our own records on our site.

Ben Goldacre's "Bad Science" claims

  1. Powerwatch is not independent and campaigns to stop WiFi and promote the products of Alasdair Philips' linked EMFields products.
  2. Alasdair Philips is not a suitable person to advise or take measurements.
  3. The instruments used (especially the COM monitor) were unsuitable.
  4. What we measured and how it was measured was bad science.
  5. The content of the programme was badly biased against WiFi.
  6. Where is the scientific evidence of possible harm?
  7. Where is the scientific evidence for Electrical Sensitivity?

Our responses

1. Powerwatch is not independent and campaigns to stop WiFi and promote the products of Alasdair Philips' linked EMFields products.

Powerwatch is independent and attempts to report the science and politics as we see it. It is headed by Alasdair Philips and represents the views of a loose collection of academics, engineers and other people who have been studying this field for some years. The website is done in unpaid time, other than the subscription section where the subscriptons help to cover time writing the subscription documents. Powerwatch overheads are supported by donations from EMFields. EMFields do supply EMF meters and screening materials, so could be seen as having a vested interest in promoting the subject. Although the prices do seem high, profit margins are small and EMFields does not make an overall profit after reasonable staff wages and overhead costs are taken off.

2. Alasdair Philips is not a suitable person to advise or take measurements.

Ben Goldacre describes me as "an 'electrosmog' pressure group campaigner". In fact, I am qualified in both electronics and agricultural engineering and have worked for over 35 years, 20 of them in the bio-effects field. I have many years experience in working with radio and other electronics systems, especially as regards electromagnetic field emissions, and have also given presentations to many councils and other groups about mobile phone mast planning and siting.

I have Chaired two international scientific conferences on mobile phones and health (a)(b) and given presentations at six industry conferences on the same subject since 1996. I was the principal instigator and co-ordinator of the 2004 CHILDREN with LEUKAEMIA Conference "International Scientific Conference on Childhood Leukaemia - incidence, causal mechanisms and prevention", which covered all known possible causes of childhood leukaemia, including radiofrequency radiation in reasonable depth.

I am a member of the Department of Health SAGE process on power-frequency EMF and health, and a member of Sir William Stewart's high-level HPA EMF Discussion Group. I do hold strong views on the potential dangers of the 'electrosmog' that we now all bathe in, and discuss these at the various meetings I am invited to attend, but Ben's description does seem rather prejudiced and unbalanced. I do not campaign against the use of WiFi, per se, but do believe that wireless technology should not be used, when standard ethernet cables could easily be used which would also provide a better access speed, more stable connectivity, easier security and would not be more expensive to implement.

  1. Mobile Telephones and Health. An Update on the Latest Research 16-17 September 1999, Gothenburg, Sweden
  2. Mobile Telephones and Health, City & Financial Conference, London 6-7 June 2001

3. The instruments used (especially the COM monitor) were unsuitable.

Ben Goldacre manages to make it sound as if the COM was used to take the measurements at the school. In fact, the main measurements were taken at the local phone mast site and in the school science laboratory using (i) a top-of-the-range professional Anritsu 2721A spectrum analyser with calibrated antennas and (ii) a semi-professional Gigahertz HF59B broadband HF analyser.

Goldacre criticises the use of the COM monitor, "a special piece of detecting equipment designed from scratch and built by none other than Alasdair Philips of Powerwatch, the man who leads the campaign against WiFi. His bespoke device is manufactured exclusively for Powerwatch."

I did, indeed, design it, but for Perspective Scientific (now Sensory Perspective) Ltd in the late 1990s.

It never has been made for Powerwatch, let alone exclusively. The COM was one of a number of different RF monitors used in the Panorama programme (although not at the school!) and is used by many UK schools in GCSE KS4 science and A-level physics classes when teaching pupils about microwave signals. It is also sold by a leading schools science equipment supplier and was featured on the Department of Education and Skills (DfES) stand at the Tomorrows World Live event at Earl's Court in London in 2000. It was tested and found fit for purpose by the MoD's Aquilla test facility. COM monitors also were used in a nationwide schools project by Sheffield Hallam University's 2001 Pupil Researcher Initiative, a curriculum development project from two of the UK's Research Councils. COM monitors are in regular use by telecoms engineers as a quick-look-see pocket microwave indicator.

For those with an interest in what the "red" actually means, the red light turned on at a signal strength of approximately 4 V/m, showing that the level exceeded the UK and European EMC susceptibility test level of 3 V/m.

4. What we measured and how it was measured was "bad science"

I believe that the science behind our measurements at the Norwich School was good. I had put together what I thought was a balanced and interesting PowerPoint presentation for the school pupils which had much of relevance for the GCSE KS4 science curriculum. Apparently, according to Goldacre, it was the teacher who decided that I was not going to be allowed to talk to the class - "I've just had to ask a BBC Panorama film crew not to film in my school or in my class because of the bad science they were trying to carry out".

Instead the science teacher told them about our "bad science" and showed them the Powerwatch and EMFields websites. According to Goldacre: "When the children saw Alasdair's Powerwatch website, and the excellent picture of the insulating mesh beekeeper hat that he sells (£27) to "protect your head from excess microwave exposure", they were astonished and outraged".

So, where was our bad science? According to Goldacre, it was because "They set about downloading the biggest file they could get hold of - so the Wi-Fi signal was working as powerfully as possible - and took the peak reading during that," says our noble science teacher. It was a great teaching exercise, and the children made valuable criticisms of Panorama's methodology, such as "well, we're not allowed to download files so it wouldn't be that strong", "only a couple of classes have wifi", and,"we only use the laptops a couple of times a week".

  • Firstly, not using WiFi very much will indeed greatly reduce their exposure, but it entirely misses the point. The comparison was between the usage of it as compared to being in the main beam of a phone mast, and as such was looking at Sir William's recommendation of whether they should use WiFi at all.
  • Secondly, it is normal practice to generate as continuous a signal as possible to make the best measurements as it makes it easier to catch the data bursts. In fact, this does not increase the signal strength (measured in volts per metre). It does increase the average power as the signal is active for more of the time, but not the signal strength of the data bursts. We measured the phone mast signals in the same manner. The reasons for measuring signals in this way were to be explained in my talk, but of course, the teacher cancelled that without hearing it or asking me what I was going to say. I explain more about why I believe we should use signal strength rather than average power for non-thermal EMF affects later.
  • Thirdly, the file was not downloaded from the internet, we merely accessed a .pdf document (one that according to the IT manager the pupils would have been looking at that day) on the public share of the school server. If the pupils don't access documents on the server, then they don't need their computers networked at all and the WiFi is completely unnecessary.
  • Lastly, it is not clear how the children could make "valuable criticisms of Panorama's methodology" when the teacher was only aware of about a third of the information that Panorama were going to share with the school class. This class discussion took place before the programme had even been completed, let alone shown. It is like criticising the gameplay of a computer game from the screenshots posted on a fansite. That is certainly not any type of scientific method and sets a very poor example to the young people of how a scientific review should be done. It would have been much better to allow me to make my presentation and then criticise me, if he could, in front of the class. That would have been scientific debate.

In fact, the teacher banning Panorama from the school half-way through the filming process made the programme much harder to complete in a balanced way, because part of my informative talk to the class and their questions to me was going to be used in the film. Some of this information had to be put into the programme in other ways which probably were not quite as good - for example Paul Kenyon (the presenter), walking around Norwich centre with a COM monitor.

Our Results

The results from our measurements are below:

Panorama measurements

The key parameters that the analyser was set to were: Resolution Band Width 100 kHz, Video Band Width 30 kHz, Peak detect, Peak Hold, capture for 30 seconds.

The readings from the Gigahertz broadband meter were similar - peak readings of 1.4 mW/m2 (0.7 V/m) near the mast and 8 mW/m2 (1.7 V/m) 50 cm from the laptop.

The vertical scaling was set to linear and in units of volts per metre signal strength. We didn't average over time as we were not concerned about power (we accept it doesn't heat anyone) and we are worried about peak signal interference with the body's internal bioelectric system. If you ride a bicycle down a road with sharp tacks scattered on it, what matters is if your tyre runs over a sharp point of a tack, not the average height of the tacks on the road surface. That was a subject I was going to explain to the pupils in my talk.

There is not yet scientific consensus about what parameters of a microwave signal we should be measuring for these purposes. It is fairly certain that it is not average power as that does not seem to correlate well with the times that microwave sensitive people report the symptoms they experience. We measured peak signal strength levels of the electric field. The power of the signal bursts convert into power (if you want to do that) proportional to the square of the signal strength integrated over the time it is active. Another parameter that has been suggested is the number of bursts per time period (e.g. per minute or per hour). Yet another is the LF amplitude modulation spectrum of the signal. WiFi signals have higher frequency components than do GSM signals. Far more work needs to be done measuring these signals using different metrics and seeing if any correlate better with reported symptoms than do others.

Maybe the next scientific question to be asked should be: How do the measured values compare with calculated predictions? The mast we measured was listed as 900 MHz, 16.5 metres high, 21.5 dBW EIRP. We measured it at 100 metres where we believe that we were in the main beam. The BCCH channel should be about sq.root(30*power in W)/100 V/m = 0.65 V/m. Well that matches, almost exactly, what we measured.

OK, so what about the laptop. If we assume that the laptop itself was the main source of the signals, we have about 0.1 W EIRP maximum at 0.5 metres distance. The wavelength at 2.4 GHz is 0.125 m, so we were measuring the signal at about 4 times the wavelength from the antenna, so the far field calculation should still be valid. We have sq.root(30*0.1)/0.5 = 3.5 V/m. That is about double the signal strength that we measured. The most likely reasons for this are (i) the antenna was not a very efficient radiator and (ii) that the radiation is not isotropic and varies considerably with position. In any event, the measured result is quite reasonable given the error budget uncertainties in any microwave signal measurements, and, if anything, underplays the possible maximum signal strength that the pupil would be subject to when using the laptop.

So, we have measurements taken with two different makes and types of instrument that agree well with each other and with the calculated predictions of field strength.

Ben Goldacre writes: "To me this is a very uncomplicated situation of heinous scaremongering and bias. - "Instead, - to produce a scare, Panorama - quite unnecessarily - took an "electrosmog" pressure group campaigner, let him decide what to measure, how, where, and with what equipment. They completely failed to come clean on this. The reality is, the producers probably didn't even know what they were having measured. They say it was because there was nobody else to ask: a nation of engineers reaches for another beer."

Really? Well, he is entitled to his thoughts. I have now set out the rationale behind my measurements. The key points would have been in the programme if the science teacher had allowed Panorama to complete the filming as planned. The programme makers certainly had been made aware of what I was doing and had already checked the protocols with two engineering based scientists at two different UK universities who had confirmed that what I was doing was reasonable.

5. The content of the programme was badly biased against WiFi.

The IEGMP Stewart Report, in 2000, recommended that the beam of greatest intensity from a mobile phone mast should not fall on any part of a school's grounds. This view was reached by Sir William Stewart's expert group, and not by him alone. The expert group included Dr Mike Repacholi. It would follow that Sir William might well have concerns about the similar pulsing radiation arising inside the school from WiFi. He says he does. Panorama went to a school and measured it.

Panorama then compared it with the levels that there would be in a classroom 100 metres away from a nearby and very typical local phone mast, which the Sir William had expressed his concerns about. Panorama checked with an independent scientist at the University of Bristol, who said that for the purpose of this programme these two sources would produce comparable fields in the classroom. It must be pointed out that Panorama interviewed Sir William before they carried out the tests at the school, and so his concern was not as a result of the tests.

The apparent purpose of the Panorama programme was to raise important issues that need to be thought carefully about when applying an appropriate precautionary approach to new technology and environmental issues. The BBC and other main media carry many programmes about the wondrous benefits that wireless technology is bringing to the world. They don't raise any issue of possible harm. The Panorama programme was, in a small way, helping to restore a more balanced perspective in the 28 minutes it had available.

6. Where is the scientific evidence of possible harm?

There is plenty of evidence that exposure to low levels of electromagnetic fields can have unwanted biological and health effects. One good starting point to find out about this vast and complex subject would be to visit Microwave News who have reported on it for over 25 years.

One important large group of scientific studies was called the REFLEX project. Especially worth reading is the late Professor Ross Adey's Foreword. This offers some wise thoughts from a lifetime's experience of investigating EMF and health matters. Ross was also an enthusiastic radio amateur, regularly bouncing signals off the moon to reach radio amateurs on the other side of the Earth using equipment that he built himself - so he certainly was not a technophobe or a wireless-phobe.

Ross Adey, who made fundamental contributions over 50 years to the emerging science of the biological effects of electromagnetic fields (EMFs), died in May 2004. In memory of his major achievements as a scientist and in recognition of his support of the REFLEX work, the consortium decided that his message would be an inspiration to all those scientists who are willing to accept the challenges posed by EMF research, and in addition, make a fitting introduction to the final report.

7. Where is the scientific evidence of Electrical Sensitivity?

We have produced a 74 page book about this and it isn't possible to summarise ES/EHS in a few lines here. One good starting point is Neil Irvine's HPA report and our response to it.

Also the Swedish FEB website is helpful, as is the H-E-S-E project website. The ES-UK Charity website also has lots of information on it.

In conclusion

I believe that I have addressed, and dismissed, all the main points of criticism raised by Ben Goldacre.