*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.
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.
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.
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.
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