In May 2007, after UK Health Protection Agency head Sir William Stewart had recommended that mobile phone masts should not be sited near schools without consultation with parents and head teachers, the BBC program Panorama reported that radio emissions from a school laptop were 3 times that of a mast located 100 meters distant. After complaints a BBC Editorial Complaint Unit has concluded that the program was ‘misleading‘.
The ECU criticised the programme for not having adequate balance, saying it had included only one contributor who disagreed with Stewart, compared with three scientists and a number of other speakers who seconded his concerns.
The program gained wide news coverage and led to the postponement of wi-fi installations in some UK schools.
But critics called it “scaremongering drivel”.
Paddy Regan, a physicist at the University of Surrey, criticised the experiment at the heart of Panorama’s claims because the measurements of signal power had not been made at equal distances from the mobile phone mast and the Wi-Fi laptop. A spokesman for the programme told the Guardian that the “three times higher” comparison was based on measurements taken one metre away from the laptop and 100 metres away from the phone mast, although material sent to journalists promoting the programme did not make this clear. Dr Regan said: “It’s a basic fundamental of science measurement, that if you are trying to compare things you have to take into account the so-called inverse square law.” To make a fair comparison between two radiation sources the measurements should be taken at the same distance away. The levels measured by the Panorama investigation were 600 times lower than levels considered dangerous by the government. “It does sound like a scare story to me,” said Dr Regan.
The programme’s evidence was criticised as “grossly unscientific” by Malcolm Sperrin, director of medical physics and clinical engineering at Royal Berkshire hospital. “It’s impossible to draw any sort of conclusion from the data as presented there.”
Panorama’s spokesman defended the methodology by saying the phone mast measurement was “at the point at which the beam was at greatest intensity where it hit the ground”.
Scientists generally believe that Wi-Fi ought to be safer than mobile phone radiation because Wi-Fi devices transmit over shorter distances and so can operate at lower power. The Health Protection Agency says a person sitting within a Wi-Fi hotspot for a year receives the same dose of radio waves as a person using a mobile phone for 20 minutes.
The World Health Organisation says there are “no adverse health effects from low-level, long-term exposure”.