Ontario’s Wi-Fi Phobia

*update: 08/26, 20:15 EST* Unbeknownst to me when I wrote this, a part 2 to this post would later need to be made.  The linkages in this story go pretty deep.  Click here for the new post.

Despite my old stomping grounds AND my old University being directly involved, I was going to steer clear of this one.  However,  there’s been a recent uproar in Ontario that is quickly escalating to ridiculous proportions.  Parents in the Barrie area are worried that WiFi signals in their childrens’ schools are making them sick.  The parents have grouped together and petitioned the local school board to remove the WiFi infrastructure and ‘investigate’ the causes of the apparent symptoms, which the parents blame on WiFi.

The Timeline:

1) The School Board installs WiFi transmitters in the schools

2) Parents report their kids showing symptoms of headaches, dizziness, nausea, memory loss, hyper activity, insomnia, skin rashes, night sweats, faster heart rates, and problems concentrating.  It is assumed that no child anywhere, ever, exhibits these symptoms just by being a kid at a school.  All memory of a hyperactive child before the days of WiFi vanishes overnight.

3) Parents “eliminate out every other possible cause”.  No explanation of this supposed investigation is ever given, and this one statement is all the media needs as a cross-check.

4) Parents petition the school board to remove the WiFi infrastructure, using a ‘just to be on the safe side’-type of rationale.  Presumably, they proceed to contemplate a ban on looking at puppies and touching doorknobs using the same precautionary rationale.

5) The School Board refuses the petition, citing sound scientific consensus, despite the claims of one single scientist (incidentally, from my old University) who claims otherwise.  Consensus of many scientists take a back seat to one or two fringe scientists.  My brain breaks a little bit.

6) The parents group continues, prompting Ontario Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky to pass the issue onto Ottawa, where the issue will be decided.  The fact that education policy is provincial, not federal,  jurisdiction, escapes everyone’s notice.

7) The media continues to present a false-balance view of the topic, giving inordinate weight to anecdotes, and airing on the side of precaution rather than analysis. My brain breaks a little more.

8 ) No one thinks to Google the topic.  Google cries.

The Science:

I’m not a scientist, but I do understand the value of scientific consensus.  I won’t argue with the science with the power of my anecdotes, because actual scientists are best able to look at these sorts of things…not music teachers or heads of parent safety groups.  Rather than assume that the subjective experience of my own kids (which I don’t have) trumps a ton-of-science, the actors at play here might want to look into the scientific data, to see what the scientists (that’s scientists….plural.  Not the one lone scientist being trumped up in this case) are actually saying.

Yale Neurologist Steven Novella writes:

The amount of energy that is absorbed by a person living in a Wi-Fi field is negligible - less than 1% of exposure from a typical cell phone and well below current safety levels.

The first question is simply – what is the exposure from Wi-Fi networks? Such exposures to EMF are typically thousands of times less than current safety limits. In fact, one review found:

In all cases, the measured Wi-Fi signal levels were very far below international exposure limits (IEEE C95.1-2005 and ICNIRP) and in nearly all cases far below other RF signals in the same environments.

So not only are exposures from Wi-Fi access points thousands of times less than safety limits, they are also less than the background radio frequency (RF) radiation.

Surgical oncologist “Orac” writes:

…prolonged exposure to cell phone radiation has yet to demonstrate any clearly detectable health effects in the form of an excess in cancer over 15 years, and, because cell phones are held next to the head, they actually give a much more concentrated dose of microwave radiation than any wifi set up. Proximity matters, after all.

The Argument(s):

Logical fallacies and sloppy thinking pepper this entire story.

At the root of this is the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy: Symptoms appeared after the WiFi was activated, therefore the WiFi is to blame.  No.  First you have to actually identify that there even is an effect.  Then you have to isolate all variables that you’re able to.  If there are some you cannot control, then you cannot make a definitive claim of cause and effect.

Rodney Palmer of the Simcoe County Safe School Committee said that,

“These kids are getting sick at school but not at home.  I’m not saying it’s because of the Wi-Fi because we don’t know yet, but I’ve pretty much eliminated every other possible source,”

and then provides no further explanation.  The CBC (who, as far as I know, broke the story nationwide) could have asked him to elaborate on his investigation, as it is extremely unlikely that he eliminated all the possible environmental factors.  I wonder if Palmer’s “pretty much” descriptor covers:

  • Is this just a slight upswing the random noise in the normal rate of various health conditions?
  • Children can experience stress at school but not at home, has this been ruled out?
  • Are children staying up too late and getting up too early during the week?
  • If this is indeed an issue at school, has every possible angle at school been looked at? Recess, teachers, study time vs. rest time, even the design of a building can affect a child’s mood and behavior in similar ways to some of the named symptoms.

If these kids are truly experiencing symptoms (which we have nothing more than the anecdotes of parents to go on) at school but not at home, then we need to isolate the factors that are present at school but not at home.

The parents complain they can’t get the Simcoe County school board or anyone else to take their concerns seriously, even though the children’s symptoms all disappear on weekends when they aren’t in school.

I wonder if the ubiquity of WiFi signals these days has occurred to anyone covering this story.  I’m from Simcoe County, and I often visit my friends and family.  We’re not so backwater up there that we don’t have the same WiFi coverage that most of you reading this don’t also have.

Even if the parents involved do not have WiFi in their homes, are they so sure that their neighbours don’t? Did Palmer’s exhaustive “pretty much” study bother to ask the neighbours of all the parents?  Did he take WiFi signal readings of  neighbourhoods? It’s not hard to do: this little shirt might have helped him in that affair.

Do their kids exhibit these apparent symptoms every time they go through a wireless hotspot?  Large portions of Toronto are completely covered with wireless signals (such as these free ones,) so shouldn’t a proportionally similar number of kids be reporting the same symptoms there too?  Out of the 50,000 students in the Simcoe County School Board, “about a dozen parents” came forward with symptoms. This is less than 0.1% of the population. So assuming that each parent reported 2 kids with symptoms, if we extrapolate that to Toronto’s population of over 2.5 million , around 1000-1250 kids in our largest city should be exhibiting the same symptoms.   I’ve yet to find such numbers.

There is also the issue of the symptoms themselves.  These are all nonspecific symptoms.  The difference?  A broken bone is specific.  Clogged arteries are specific.  “Difficulty concentrating” is nonspecific.  This is not to say that these are false-symptoms, but they are notoriously hard to pin down to a specific cause.  This is why so many peddlers of alternative “medicine” do so well: they make their customers think they have all these nonspecific symptoms (lack of energy, sleep troubles, low libido), then give them a pill for it.  Eventually, the nonspecific symptom goes away due to the placebo effect, and the alt-med practitioner sells more pills made of roots, herbs, and buzzwords.

We’re seeing something similar here: a long list of hard-to-quantify symptoms gets pinned on a specific cause (without an appropriate search and investigation).  If the WiFi were to be removed, you can bet dollars to donuts (a scientific term, don’t look it up) that these symptoms would likely vanish.  WiFi would get blamed, and since we know of no serious attempts to investigate the problems /cause,  anecdote would unfairly triumph over statistics yet again.

Taking a Step Back

I’d like you to rethink this one: The kids exhibit symptoms during the week when they’re going to school, but they’re not exhibiting them during the weekend.  Sometimes you don’t need to cite statistics and studies to figure some things out: you just need to remember how hard it was to be a kid in a world where adults tell you what to do, what to think, and in this case, what you’re feeling.

Tangentially, you can follow me on Twitter, @SomeCndnSkeptic

23 Responses to “Ontario’s Wi-Fi Phobia”

  1. Kim Hebert says:

    I wonder when the wifi was installed and when the complaints were made. It seems odd that this is coming up right before the start of a school year, when presumably (barring summer school) the kids haven’t been attending classes for months.

  2. Paul says:

    I agree, Kim. The timing here is very questionable. I think if we were to do a little bit of digging we’d find one parent who has initiated this compaint, and has convinced all his or her neighbours and friends that their kids are also affected.

    The media’s response has been infuriating. As Steve said, the false balance here is outrageous. And this Magda Havas they quote has a brand in this fire. If you read her bio at the link Steve provided she villainizes EMF radiation as part of her mission statement. This is a scientist who has gone off the rails and is looking to support her own personal beliefs with her research.

  3. Steve Thoms says:

    I looked around for a while and tried (and failed) to find a few key details:
    1) When was the Wifi installed, and in what schools?
    2) When did these complaints start?
    3) How often do these kids report similar symptoms?

    Also, a friend of mine who is just finishing up his Masters at Trent just told me that Magda Havas is a bit of an embarrassment to Trent. I know of many embarrassment profs there, so that’s hardly surprising too.

  4. Blondin says:

    Not only are most of us exposed to WiFi signals in our own homes but how many people also have cordless phone systems and other RF gear that puts out similar RF signals. It’s pretty hard not to be exposed to it unless you’re some kinda cave hermit or something.

    • Steve Thoms says:

      Not only are they similar RF signals, but they’re typically 100 times more powerful, and held up to the head. So far, the science has not shown an effect, and we’re not entering the 15 year mark where scientists can do more longer term studies then they could have before.

  5. Donald says:

    Steve, I’d be curious to know how many of these kids are on Facebook till 2:00am on school nights, using their safe “wireless” home networks, only to enter the dreaded Wi-Fi zone in the school the next morning.

    Perhaps Leona Dombrowsky could work to have all ISPs in block MSN and Facebook after 10pm, on school nights. That would likely have an effect superior to placebo.

    • Steve Thoms says:

      I wondered that too. Kids these days are up later then they were in previous decades: not necessarily on the internet, but also on their gaming systems, or with their phones. Even if they were playing single player games, and their phones were broken, they’d still be up late on a school night.

      I was one of those kids. I had a Nintendo. I was bad at math, and I had trouble concentrating.

      I wish more adults could have a better sense of connection to what their kids are going through. Obviously the parents care deeply for the safety of their kids, and I don’t want to automatically assume that they’re negligent parents, but Occam’s Razor insists on a much simpler explanation:

      Are there invisible WiFi signals that are harming the kids yet have somehow escaped scientific scrutiny? Or do the kids just need to go to bed earlier and eat a healthier diet.

      I teach kids all day, and the ones who can’t concentrate are the ones who are video game addicts and Red Bull drinkers. I don’t need to invoke a magical field to explain their behavior.

  6. I downloaded a cool little app to my phone the other day. It uses the phone to scan for Wi-Fi networks, and displays the SSID and signal strength (amongst other things).

    I was surprised when I took a bus ride down Bathurst street, and was constantly able to see at least 2-3 wireless networks. They mostly weren’t strong enough to connect to (being somewhat removed from the houses/buildings containing the routers), but the networks were strong enough to see.

    If Wi-Fi really were causing these problems, we’d all be screwed.

  7. Michael5MacKay says:

    The solution is simple: the affected kids could block the wi-fi signals by wearing tinfoil helmets.

  8. karl says:

    Reminds me a bit of the “sewer gas” panic of the 19th century. While President Garfield laid dieing with a bullet in his back, people were digging up the white house plumbing thinking sewer gas was making him sick.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1275984/

  9. L K Tucker says:

    The problem is real but it isn’t the W-Fi. There is video on CBC News showing school children in incorrectly designed computer use areas.

    The phenomenon is called Subliminal Distraction exposure and was discovered after office workers using newly designed close-spaced office workstations began to have mental breaks. The cubicle was designed to deal with the vision startle reflex to stop it there by 1968.

    This usually happens to one person in an office. An outbreak like this is very unusual.

  10. Rob says:

    Thanks for this post; this media coverage has been bothering me for all the reasons you elaborate on, not the least of which being the fact that these kids probably live in homes blanketed by wi-fi signals (though presumably their parents don’t use wi-fi so don’t realize that). If they keep clinging to the belief that wi-fi is the cause, they’re going to have to go after a much wider ban. Meanwhile, tragically, the real cause of any real problems (barring skipping school of course, ha!) will be ignored, alas.

  11. Paul says:

    These visionandpsychosis.net cranks are blanketing the Internet coverage of this story, claiming the students are suffering from what they call Subliminal Distraction Syndrome. They have made this diagnosis based on a few seconds of video from only one of several allegedly affected schools. They have no idea if all, some or even any of the allegedly affected students have ever been in the room showed in the news report, yet they are sure they know the cause of the problem. A google search for “Subliminal Distraction Syndrome” reveals absolutely no mention of this imaginary disorder anywhere except a handful of pages that all lead directly back to visionandpsychosis.net. I am prepared to dismiss this unless actual documentation of published, peer reviewed, properly controlled studies can be produced. I’m in agreement with Steve (and Steve) on this one. Some kids are having typical kid type problems. There are probably as many causes as there are compainants. The parents have glommed onto WiFi as cause, and are going to run it into the ground. Nothing will have changed. In ten years, a new group of parents, with identical complaints, will pick s different thing to blame for their kids’ problems, and we’ll be having this discussion all over again.

  12. Funkydebunker says:

    Sorry I can’t give a link or reference for this, but I am sure that someone out there has heard this and knows where to find it. A while ago there was a community that lived under some recently installed power lines. They had a class action lawsuit against the power company. They claimed that in the months since the installation they had trouble sleeping, anxiety, headaches, trouble concentrating- the works. The lawsuit was dismissed after it was learned that at no time had the power actually been turned on.

  13. Blondin says:

    I’m sure my Mum can affirm that I suffered a lot of headaches and tummy aches in grade school, long before personal computers, the internet or WiFi. I was particularly likely to feel ill when there was a scheduled test or some homework was due that I hadn’t done.

  14. Steve Thoms says:

    There’s an update to this story,

    The Ontario Elementary Teachers Federation will not support a WiFi ban or moratorium. Good for them!

  15. L K Tucker says:

    Paul, If you could just Google it and find out about it there would be no problem in Ontario schools they would have correctly designed the computer use areas.

    The instructions on how to verify the problem is real are on several pages on my site.

    Subliminal Distraction is a normal feature in our physiology of sight and is communicated in psychology lectures about subliminal sight and peripheral vision reflexes. It is advanced course material and may not be in every beginning college psychology course.

    You will have to phone a designer working in Systems Furniture and have that person explain Cubicle Level Protection. They see only light exposure and believe the phenomenon is a harmless nuisance.

    The point is that a simple problem exists capable of causing mental breaks and it has not been investigated since it was discovered forty years ago.

    It does not require treatment or therapy of any kind to avoid it. Everyone using a computer at home or unprotected workspace is at risk.

    My site points out that although it was discovered in offices they were only the first place under observation so that it was noticed. It has always been present in any human population and the behaviors it causes cannot be distinguished from mental illness.

  16. Jay says:

    It is IMPOSSIBLE to develop cancer from cell phones, Wi-FI, powerlines or EMF. It is a myth and a wives tale that there are seriously health effects from EMF. It has been studied thousands of times over becuase people refuse to let the myth die. Power lines over you house will not hurt you (unless you grab them). There is not enough energy in any of these (period, end of discussion) to mutate a cell. It is not cummulative either.

    The energy from these hitting your cells is akin to the following (and the river is the Mississippi);

    “It’s a little like trying to hit an object across a river with a stone. Even if your aim is poor, you might expect to hit the target now and then if you throw enough stones. But it won’t matter how many stones you throw if you can’t throw that far.”

    - Robert L. Park,

  17. Donald says:

    This item got covered in the news section of The SGU podcast #266…
    Certainly a good listen.

  18. PM says:

    “The CBC (who, as far as I know, broke the story nationwide) could have asked him to elaborate on his investigation, as it is extremely unlikely that he eliminated all the possible environmental factors.”

    Do you expect reporters, especially those who work for the CBC, to ask pertinent questions thay might, say, make the story less newsworthy? Perhaps the CBC reporter(s) should have asked how many of the allegedly ill students live in homes with Wifi.

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  • Steve Thoms

    Steve is a professional music teacher living in Kitchener, Ontario. He studied recorded music production at Fanshawe College, and Political Studies/History at Trent University, where he specialized in political economy and global politics. He is an amateur astronomer, and an award-winning astro-photographer. Steve also runs the blog, Oot and Aboot with Some Canadian Skeptic." can can be followed on Twitter, @SomeCndnSkeptic.