Scientists raise concerns about Google's Project Loon

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Google's Project Loon designed to connect the world to the internet via global wireless is reaping praise from technology buffs, but concerns are growing about the potential impact on public health. Lizzy Keen explains. 

FOR THE  most part, Google’s Project Loon is a moonshot in blues skies, reaping praise from technology buffs and telecom experts around the world.

But according to a growing number of scientists and community activists, there are storm clouds gathering around the multimillion dollar project’s potential impact on public health. 

Project Loon is a network of helium balloons designed by Google X to deliver global wireless internet, and has run test-flights in New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, the United States and most recently Sri Lanka.

Like Wi-Fi on steroids, Loon’s twelve-by-fifteen metre solar-powered ‘envelopes’ can transmit high-speed LTE connection to practically anywhere on earth, giving internet to the world’s “disconnected” 4.3 billion people.

But in December, shortly before Google sought the FCC’s authorisation for testing in the United States, the Global Union Against Radiation Deployment from Space (GUARDS) objected the proposal on the grounds that 24-hour exposure to radiofrequency (RF) radiation is a major risk to human health.

Google might start testing Project Loon in India

Is Project Loon totally harmless?

 In its submission, GUARDS cited the growing concern of independent and WHO scientists that the FCC’s current Radiation Standards (the safety limits of radiation exposure in the U.S.) don’t protect against the non-thermal effects of low-level RF.

Currently, like those set by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, the FCC’s safety limits are set below the level of exposure at which the radiation causes friction and heating in human cells. This is known as the thermal mechanism.

While sterility, skin burns, acute radiation syndrome and death can occur in people who experience high doses of radiation, the effects of low or prolonged doses (like those from wireless technologies) are not always detectable in scientific studies. 

 GUARDS maintains the documented health effects caused by exposure to RF radiation (emitted by radios, mobile phones, microwave ovens and Wi-Fi) have been hidden from public view.

American GUARDS member, Catherine Kleiber, told the writer:

“People have a right to know how dangerous the technology is so they can make informed choices about their own usage.”

If Wi-Fi is a concern, should Project Loon slow down?

Dr Dariusz Leszczynski, an Adjunct Professor in the Division of Biochemistry and Biotechnology at the University of Helsinki, argues the WHO should upgrade cell phone radiation from “possible” to a “probable” human carcinogen.

He also told the writer that he recommends the “precautionary principle” be applied to technologies like Project Loon.

We haven’t the slightest idea whether 24/7 exposure over years will or won’t have impact on the health of humans, animals or plants. There isn’t the science yet.

I think that Project Loon belongs to the category of endeavours that should be slowed down for the time being, based on the precautionary principle approach.

In light of growing concerns, Wi-Fi has been removed from schools, hospitals and aged care homes from as far as Italy, Israel and India, to Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Are these institutions overreacting?

Rodney Croft, Director of the Australian Centre for Electromagnetic Bioeffects Research (ACEBR) told the writer:

“Well, their actions certainly aren’t based on science at all.”

Speaking with the writer, Dr Croft said it usually comes down to community beliefs about health, rather than actual science, that sees Wi-Fi removed from schools.

Removing Wi-Fi is just not a reasonable position to take.

The radiation exposure level that you’ll find in a shopping centre with Wi-Fi, for instance, is about 50,000 times lower than the point where harm occurs. It’s very hard for skin to burn at this level.

Project Loon balloons fly 20 kilometres above ground, much further away from the body than a shopping centre’s Wi-Fi router.

And as stated in Google’s application to the FCC:

“even if an airborne transmitter were aimed precisely at a person on the ground below it, the signal strength received on the ground would be millions of times weaker than FCC limits for the band”.

 ACEBR and ARPANSA maintain that science shows no strong link between Wi-Fi and adverse human health effects. So, Dr Croft told the writer, the application of the precautionary principle to Project Loon would be invalid. 

“We’ve got good knowledge and research and we can’t find any [adverse] effects of this kind of exposure. The precautionary principle, therefore, doesn’t apply here.”

Scientists: “Radiation safety limits are not adequate”

Since 2012 a number of scientists and scientific bodies around the world have raised the alarm about the inadequacy of setting national safety limits with the thermal mechanism.

One of the most prominent calls to action is the International Electromagnetic Field Scientist Appeal, which was sent in May 2015 to the UN, the WHO and the UN Environmental Programme.

Signed by 220 scientists with expertise in the health effects of non-ionizing (non-heating) radiation, the Appeal implores the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, to establish more protective radiation safety guidelines as our exposure to wireless technology increases.  

Cellular stress, free radical formation, genetic damage and memory deficits are just some of the effects that the Appeal’s organisation, EMF Scientist, has shown to occur during exposure to low-intensity, non-ionizing electromagnetic fields (generated in the RF band of wireless technology).

 EMF Scientist alleges that the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, whose guidelines provide the basis for each country’s safety limits, are out-of-date.

The Appeal says:

ICNIRP guidelines set exposure standards for high-intensity, short-term tissue heating thresholds, considered not applicable for the long-term, low-intensity, chronic exposures we typically experience today.’

For over a decade, the University of Warwick’s Dr G J Hyland has studied the potential health hazards associated with the non-thermal affects of low-intensity, pulsed microwave radiation used in telecommunications.

Dr Hyland, who questions the effectiveness of international guidelines, explains that because the human body is a biochemical instrument, its internal bioelectric activities can be affected by incoming radiation, like the reception on a radio.

This explains why pulsed microwave radiation from mobile phones has shown to affect blood pressure and memory tasks, and shorten rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep in human subjects — all non-thermal effects.

Dr Hyland acknowledges, however, that non-thermal effects are controversial because “independent attempts to replicate them have not always been successful”. Until mainstream science proves otherwise, ICNIRP’s guidelines are deemed effective.

But, as some argue, the proliferation of wireless technology is relatively recent; the epidemiological data that could help demonstrate an adverse effect of long-term, round-the-clock exposure simply doesn’t exist — yet. 

In any case, Google would never let any dubious forecasts around human health delay its game-changing moonshot, or its access to the 4.3 billion new would-be consumers who are ripe for ad targeting. 

In the close future, driven by the tech giant’s pledge to humanity, we’ll certainly see more governments around the world buying bags of balloons with the money they’ve got.

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