Peter Griffin, manager of the Science Media Centre, and former New Zealand Herald technology editor responds to recent claims about the safety of Wi-Fi and modern electronics.

It has become one of the perennial topics of debate in the 21st century - are the mobile devices we increasingly use to work, socialise and entertain ourselves online, making us physically ill?

After all, our use of gadgets that rely on wireless technology is unprecedented in history - surely all the radio waves produced by those billions of Wi-Fi routers, smartphones and tablets are having some affects on us?

Read more: Is Wi-Fi making your child ill?

Actually, the scientific answer is no, they are not. The radiation these devices put out cannot physically harm us. To put it in technical terms, there is no biological mechanism whereby it can cause things like brain tumours, fertility problems or headaches.


That is the conclusion of World Health Organization-backed scientists who have reviewed thousands of research papers on the subject, including a University of Auckland study released in February.

It looked at trends in primary brain cancer incidence in New Zealand between 1995 and 2010 from New Zealand's national cancer registry and found that, despite a dramatic increase in use of Wi-Fi and mobile phones over the period, there was actually a small decrease in the incidence of brain cancer.

Numerous other well-designed studies from elsewhere in the world have come to similar conclusions on everything from cancer to hypersensitivity - where people report feeling physical pain or discomfort when exposed to radio frequencies.

There are outlying papers that show some anomalies, but when all of the evidence is considered in full, scientists come up empty handed. That's what has to be remembered when we read stories such as those outlined by the Daily Telegraph about parents linking illness in their kids to wifi or mobile phone use.

The power of the anecdote can't be denied. People look for answers in the world around them and regularly confuse correlation and causation. It is only natural.

That's why we have to trust that the best science will give us the answers.

Of course, we should keep studying the use of wireless devices and there are some serious and valid concerns about the social and behavioural impacts our growing use of technology is having - particularly on children.

But switching off wifi routers and mobile phones does absolutely nothing to protect your physical health and wellbeing. That's a fact.


- Peter Griffin, Manager, Science Media Centre, former New Zealand Herald technology editor