Concerns about the safety of WiFi, particularly around school children, has continued to be a contentious issue in small towns across Canada, and Ontario especially. Supporters of the technology have mountains of scientific data on their side, opponents have screaming, hysteria, and the precautionary principle. Even Green Party of Canada Leader Elizabeth May unwittingly found herself the subject of criticism (and ridicule) when she tweeted concerns about WiFi safety…from her BlackBerry. See that Irony? It’s a common thread in these discussions.
So why does this issue keep propping up? It’s not science that fuels WiFi opponents. This area of study has been done, and done, and done again, and the current scientific consensus is clear: Wifi poses no danger to people, children included. There are tens of thousands of studies showing Wifi and EMF (electro-magnetic frequency) safety from all over the world: The United States? Check. France? Oui. The UK? Aye. The Netherlands? Ja. Canada? Check, eh. Australia? Check, mate. Want more sources? Erik’s got more for you!
When opponents of Wifi try to produce studies that support their claim that WiFi is harmful, they will respond in one of two ways:
1) Criticize the existing scientific data, no matter how robust and reputable, as being illegitimately funded by the telecommunications industry. Rather then address the specific studies, or produce their own research, they discount the entire scientific process as being corrupted by exterior interests (a tactic mirrored by climate change denialism). The phrase “follow the money” will be repeated a few times, and no one thinks to follow the money of the opponents, who might also have financial interests, such as Devra Davis, who I’m sure has nothing to sell. Oh wait…
2) Respond with a small handful of poorly-designed studies done by equally poor scientists: Studies whose results have not been replicated by other scientists, and published by a small group of fringe academics whose entire careers are vested with the idea that EMF radiation is harmful. The notoriously active Magda Havas (of Trent University) is one of these academics: In one of her most trumpeted studies on cordless phones and spiking heart rates, other scientists replicated the conditions of her study with the same equipment, and found the same spike in heart rate…without a patient even being present! As it turned out, the heart monitor that Havas used listed in its instruction manual that it was especially susceptible to EMF interference.
These are the kinds of “quality studies” WiFi opponents with bring to the table: Hilarious ones.
When opponents of WiFi are asked why they think WiFi is harming their children, they respond in profoundly uncreative and short-thinking ways:
“These kids are getting sick at school but not at home,” Said Rodney Palmer, the vocal anti-Wifi activist who once threatened to sue me. “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.” Two years later, Mr. Palmer has still not produced his evidence that he has “pretty much eliminated every other possible source”, despite once claiming before a parliamentary comittee that he had “become an epidemiologist.”
This is an alarmingly common charge: that kids show symptoms at WiFi-equipped school, but not at home. Well, it would be alarming, if you’re an alarmist, I suppose. I see a few problems with this logic, that no one in the media seems to pick up on.
1) The claims of the parents are taken at face value. I’m not suggesting the parents are dishonest, but how do we know these parents are adequate judges of illness? Yes, some symptoms are pretty easy to identify (mucous comes to mind), because you can quantify them. However, these parents are reporting things as non-specific as “lethargy”, “grogginess” and “difficulty concentrating”. This makes their claims difficult to accept at best. Give me some data (or better still, give it to a doctor), and then I can be sure you’re not misrepresenting something, knowingly or not.
2) If these symptoms are genuine (and I have no evidence that they are, but giving the parents the benefit of the doubt, I’ll assume they are), knowing what we know about EMF, it strikes me that these parents are unwittingly risking the health and safety of their children by assigning a cause to something with next-to-zero plausibility. What if these symptoms are genuine, and they’re the first stages of something more serious, like depression or diabetes? By blaming EMF, how many kids who do suffer will be denied adequate medical attention? Remember what I said about irony being a common theme?
3) Were these parents ever children? Do they remember how bad it sucked going to school? Were they ever picked on by a bully, picked last for sports, or singled out by the teacher for not getting a math question right? School is a very stressful time for a kid,and whether real symptoms are manifesting or not, it seems like rather than show the kids some sensitivity to what is a difficult time in their lives, the parents would rather blame a proven, safe technology.
4) Where is the body count? If the claims of EMF/WiFi opponents were a smidgen legitimate,* there should be sick, dizzy, nauseous kids everywhere, especially in WiFi saturated areas like Toronto, New York, or Tokyo. Wifi technology is ubiquitous these days: go for a walk along Dundas or Spadina in Toronto, and count the number of wireless networks you’ll pass through. So we are left with a glaring question: Why is it these claims largely seem to erupt in small, rural and suburban towns (Collingwood and Orillia in Ontario, and Maple Ridge, BC, though there are others), and not in regions where WiFi technology is saturated?
5) Luddites. I say this not to be glib, but in the sense that WiFi is a new(ish) technology, and new(ish) technologies that penetrate the masses are always met with a fringe group of opposition who claim the same, non-specific symptoms. We heard the same thing when Microwave ovens were commonplace in the 70′s and 80′s (and some stallwarts still hold to this notion), and the Luddite attitude goes something like this:
- We were once told that these other things were safe. They weren’t. Remember thalidomide and cigarettes? Huh? Do ya? I thought so! They’re like Hitler, but are chemicals!
- Because of thalidomide and ciagarrettes, anything scientists tell me is safe, must not be safe.
- Ergo: no wireless technology in my kids’ schools. (seriously, thalidomide and tobacco).
To add fuel to the fire, the World Health Organization listed EMF as a possible carcinogen. It’s easy to be alarmed by that, until you see what else is in that very same list, of possible carcinogens:
2) Construction Work
3) Talcum powder
Wifi is everywhere. I find it a little amusing (and a little sad) that people think they can protect their kids by moving them to a different room of their house (What of their neighbours WiFi?). More amusing (and more sad) is the story of this woman, who claims she suffered from EMF waves so badly, her husband built a cage for her to live in.
Wifi is safe. I did my first story on this over two years ago, and the science that has come out since just re-inforces what I said then. It’s safe, and people are needlessly panicking. The media has given these cranks (yes, cranks) entirely too much positive reinforcement, and I call on media outlets to treat this claim the way they would a guy on the street in a sandwich-board handing out pamplets warning of approacing doomsday.
Like Susan Powter said at 2:00 am every morning in 1995, “STOP THE INSANITY!”
Oh, and before any commenters bring it up: Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity, the claim that some people suffer allergic-like reactions to EMF waves, is bunk. It’s not a thing, and when it’s tested on the people who claim they have it, their symptoms disapear whenever they think the EMF is turned off.
My fellow Skeptic North bloggers and I have extensively coverred this topic. Inevitably, there will be some commenter come in and accuse us of not having done the research. I beg to differ. If you’re still unhappy with this article and want to call me nasty names (as one insipid commenter tends to do), do everyone a favour, and take it to Twitter, not the comment thread.