Why, Wifi? Why?

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 glad she doesn't have WiFi at home. Presumably, she keeps her Blackberry atop a 20 foot pole at the end of her yard.

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.

Magda Havas, who is, I assure you, a PhD, did not see the bold, all-caps warning, and then reported the interfering noise as data. BAM! SCIENCE!

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).

    It's a little hard to shake the accusation that they're a bunch of Luddites when they're unplugging the power cords.

(photo source)

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:

1) Coffee

2) Construction Work

3) Talcum powder

According to the WHO: This is a possible carcinogen, in the same way EMFs are. Every EMF opponent who cited the WHO list, now has to oppose talcum powder. Gymnasts and Babies: You are warned.

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.

 

 

*I shall coin a new word that applies here, “smidgenimate.”

36 Responses to “Why, Wifi? Why?”

  1. Paul says:

    Dr. Havas is visiting my community this coming week. I wrote about it a bit here: The Hazards of WiFi in our Schools.

  2. Preston Garrison says:

    To be fair, caffeine is mutagenic, and if a construction worker stomped on the Petrie dish maybe we would have to count it as as an Ame’s test positive, based on the precautionary principle. Of course, if we had followed the precautionary principle we would all still be shivering in caves. Look at all the damage fire has done and continues to do… Yes, it is possible to be too cautious.

  3. Composer99 says:

    The hundred-loonie question is: will this article attract deever, or will the flounce after the last one stick?

    • Steve Thoms says:

      Deever constantly claims that he “has no time” for “skeptos” like us, and yet he continually shows up leaving volumes of drivel, peppered with insults, including one about my dead cat (yes, classy, that deever). I’m sure he’ll show up sooner or later (probably sooner). That’s what trolls do: they troll. Deever is an especially hateful troll.

    • Art Tricque says:

      I predict he will show up and: recommend books; say this or that rather quack expert is “esteemed” or similar; say Health Canada is corrupt re Wifi based on little evidence unrelated to wifi; say wifi naysayer “researchers” are downtrodden and abused, but provide no concrete and specific evidence; invoke the pharma shill gambit; and make up more random stuff (like his tree lost half its leaves from radiation). I would love for him to say again that during the hot, dry summer, trees in ravines seem to be greener than those elsewhere.

      • John Greg says:

        LOL! I had forgotten about deever’s tree bit. I’d almost welcome a reply as it was so hilariously dumb.

      • John Greg says:

        Whoops, again:

        “I’d almost welcome a reply….”

        Means: “I’d almost welcome a replay….”

  4. Fred Zlotnick says:

    Well, I don’t know about Tim Horton’s, but in the US every Starbuck’s and Peet’s has free WiFi. Combine that with the coffee the folks are drinking and they should be dropping like flies. I wonder why I haven’t noticed that?

  5. Art Tricque says:

    I love how Havas and the other wifi scaremongerers slip in half truths, which are swallowed up by the casual reader. For example, that schools all over the world are removing wifi. Casual readers (surprise) often understand this and inflate it to whole countries, and the scaremongers are happy to have this illusion of a groundswell against wifi go uncorrected. The truth is vastly different. The number of schools reported to have removed wifi by the scaremongers’ own reports can be counted on a few hands. In the same period, tens of millions of devices and tens of thousands of wifi base stations have been installed by schools, libraries, other public institutions as well as private businesses, residential users and organizations. The numbers do not lie.

  6. Art Tricque says:

    This is purportedly a survey being undertaken by Magda Havas: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/2LLYYM5

  7. Anonymous says:

    Don’t forget all those cell towers and radio towers that litter the land, independent radio devices (e.g., shortwave), et cetera. Oh, and don’t forget about all the various forms coming from within and without our solar system, blasting the planet on a regular basis. Admittedly, some forms of radiation from space is destructive. The point is, most people fail to take into consideration most forms of light (wave) propagation and still believe that WiFi is the source of evil. If waves could speak, I think they’d scream.

  8. Ange says:

    While I agree that EMF has shown to have no discernable effect on humans, it does seem to affect other animals including bats and birds and insects. And I’m not a nutter. There are legitimate papers on the subject.

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0928468009000157

    http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0006246

    http://informahealthcare.com/doi/abs/10.3109/09553000903567961

    • Art Tricque says:

      Ange, the evidence is far from persuasive. The first citation says “According to the majority of the investigations, no strong effects resulted regarding the exposure to EMF of mobile telephony in the animal reproduction and development”. The second deals with X-Band marine radar, which is an order of magnitude higher than cellphone and wifi frequencies, and the the final citation is a study by Mr. Panagolpoulos, who appears to be able to find issues … in fruit flies. He concludes “GSM bioactivity is highest for intensities down to less than 10 μW/cm2 and still evident until 1 μW/cm2 exhibiting ‘window’ effects.” These effects haven’t been confirmed elsewhere, let alone in other animal models (and even ffurther removed from in humans) and yet he has published subsequent research assuming the effect to have been confirmed.

  9. Art Tricque says:

    The CBC has published an awful piece quoting Magda Havas at http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/story/2011/10/06/nb-health-canada-cell-warning.html . The comments by PragmaticSkeptc (who is not me) on 2011/10/06 at 3:27 PM ET are dead on. Could someone at from this blog or the related community talk to Bob McDonald of Quirks & Quarks? He is also supposedly National Science Commentator for CBC Television and CBC Newsworld and should be giving a seminar to CBC journalists on how to conduct proper science journalism. Or maybe at least we could get them to look at Ben Goldacre’s work. Or at very, very least get them to watch Dara Ó Briain’s routine about false balance http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDYba0m6ztE . Or all three.

  10. Mike says:

    There would not be a problem with meters themselves but rather the media of transmission used to interconnect them. There is no doubt that wireless technology seems to be easiest way to implement, yet there are no proved evidences that it is safe technology. BC Hydro will not loose investments having smart meters installed using alternative already existing land lines either fiber, cable or regular phone. It is already existing infrastructure which BC Hydro overlooking, or may be intentionally discard. Land lines by law provide 7×24 911 service, they are secure, reliable, and safe. Ultimately meters could be “wired” to existing cell phone grid rather than they will introduce new grid.
    The more grids we have the less safe, or stable the structure. In our Hi Tech world it would be a smart move for BC Hydro to integrate their equipment into existing infrastructure.

    We do have alternative still using smart meters yet to interconnect them with 100% safe, and available communications.

    Weather WiFi safe or not watch who pays for research submitted. Science in many aspects became a whore who serves, and favours best to those who pays more (GMO spread up is a similar issue. “It is safe” – says who?)

    • Steve Thoms says:

      Mike: You effectively say “follow the money” (which my article predicted you would). If you can ask “Who says that wifi is safe?”, with the implication that telecommunications industry-funded studies, why can I not ask “Who says wifi is no safe?”

      I can follow the money both ways, and when I look at those saying wifi is dangerous, I find anti-wifi activists with dubious connections to known pesudo-sciences (Rodney Palmer), fringe academics who further their careers with this agenda (Magda Havas), and authors selling books and speaking engagements (Havas and Devra Davis).

      Mr. Palmer and Dr. Havas even went so far as to fly a “Cold War Era weapons expert” to Canada to do a media blitz saying that wifi was the same technology used in smart-bombs. Well so is the aluminum casing, but you won’t see me put down my Canada Dry any time soon.

      The studies I linked to (did you even look at them?) were government and/or university funded studies. Your argument, inasmuch as I predicted you would make it, is invalid.

    • Evilcyber says:

      “Science in many aspects became a whore who serves” – the famous “because some is bad, all is bad” argument.

      Bad science funded with economical interest in mind doesn’t make the very bad science of a Magda Havas better.

  11. Sean says:

    I believe that pickles are also possible carcinogens according to the WHO.

  12. Lorien says:

    Cell phones are really dangerous. Haven’t you all seen them pop popcorn when you put 4 of them together and you call them all at once?

    (being sarcastic)

    LOL

  13. Firefly says:

    I wrap tinfoil around my head. I could say I’m doing it to stop the waves, but truth is, I like to pretend I’m a robot.

  14. Evilcyber says:

    Sometimes I feel thrown back into the Middle Ages, when I look at what idiocy you have to cope with in these discussions.

    Replace “wifi”, “microwaves” or any other scare de jour with “witchcraft” or “evil eye” in any “wifi causes cancer” text and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

  15. Westcoast Guy says:

    It’s been a while since I dropped in here (the day job – it interferes with the fun stuff…).

    I am still getting asked for copies of the research summaries I did back in Feb about Wi-Fi (mainly for school board people – trustee’s, teachers, etc.) but also from more mainstreaam types.

    I’ve coined the following terms:
    “Pull a Krumwiede” means to obtain $’s by perpectuating the Wi-Fi scare tactis and selling something to the gullible.

    “Pulling a H-D-P” means to get ego-stroked / recognition by doing the same and getting recognition by talking about the bad things Wi-Fi is doing …

    And yes, some names do appear with both terms.

    And yes, I find it shameful that media such as CBC / CNN / BBC allow “equal time on the controversy” to the followers of such bad science. However, the mainstream media are in the business of creating controversy, not telling the truth. Which would not even be so bad if the “reporters” didn’t do such a quarter-a##’d job of writing in the first place.

    Ah well.

  16. snizenja says:

    I had no idea that caffenie is a mutagen! This would have made the Ninja Turtles much more relatable to Canadian teenagers (and Canadian turtles, I suppose)!

  17. [...] Thoms from Skeptic North has posted an excellent summary of the WiFi scare, detailing why you shouldn’t worry too much about [...]

  18. Make the web says:

    Replace “wifi”, “microwaves” or any other scare de jour with “witchcraft” or “evil eye” in any “wifi causes cancer” text and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

  19. thibo girard says:

    Hello

    I completely dis-agree , WIFI can not cause any harm to human beings wot so ever.if people thing wifi is causing harm , what about the GSM bands , they are actually in scad than wifi’s. Also there is not a single instance around the world of any mutation caused by electromagnetic waves in humans , its just a fake belief.

  20. Oh, and don’t forget about all the various forms coming from within and without our solar system, blasting the planet on a regular basis.The first citation says “According to the majority of the investigations, no strong effects resulted regarding the exposure to EMF of mobile telephony in the animal reproduction and development”. The second deals with X-Band marine radar, which is an order of magnitude higher than cellphone and wifi frequencies

  21. Leah Simmons says:

    Considering the various citations provided by the author it seems that Electromagnetic Waves do not have adverse effects on humans or kids. But recently some report published by WHO it is claimed that it does effect humans to some extent. Can any of the WHO experts comment on this fact?

  22. Art Tricque says:

    One thing for which one cannot fault Magda Havas is that she does get around. Most recently at this event at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto.

    She often says that Canada’s RF health standards are much worse than in Europe or elsewhere. This is incorrect. Canada’s standards broadly are those put forth by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP). The same guidelines form the basis for standards in almost all other countries in the Western world, including the UK, the US, Germany, Scandinavian counties, Japan, Australia and so on. Switzerland does have the ICNIRP standards and a standard roughly 100 times less for inhabited and sleeping areas. And some former East-bloc nations retain standards implemented during cold-war communist days that were based on anything but accurate science. Even then, the whole discussion over standards is a red herring.

    This is because regardless of safety standards are, what matters is what exposures are actually being measured in the environment. On that front, measurements of exposures in many counties consistently find values that are thousands of times less than standards, orders of magnitude below even the standards in Switzerland which Ms Havas so often touts. It makes sense: if one looks at the Industry Canada database of radio frequency (RF) transmitters and does the calculations — field strength is a matter of physics — they all come out at thousands of times below safety standards, even if one assumes they are transmitting at maximum power all the time (which is not what happens in the real world). It makes even more sense when one considers that mobile phone networks rely on re-using frequencies in a pattern where no two adjacent cells have the same frequencies. As the number of mobile phone use increases — because there are more users in an urban area, or demand for mobile phone data or voice telephony increases — the area of each cell has to decrease, meaning the transmitter power has to decrease. Yes, technological improvements can increase capacity too, but there are limits, and adding more transmitter sites in between existing sites eventually becomes necessary. Ironically for Ms. Havas, increasing mobile phone demand and adding more transmitter sites is beneficial: it will have the effect of reducing RF hot spots (RF variability) and ensuring an average RF level that is tens of thousands of times below safety standards. Add in the software already present on mobile phone handsets and at transmitter sites that allows them to negotiate the minimum power level required by each to ensure a connection, so as to reduce battery drain on the handset and power usage at the transmitter site; technological improvements to the sensitivity of handset receiving circuitry; and better transmitter antenna steering to direct RF energy only towards the handset with which it needs to communicate, and you have a win-win for telecom companies, mobile phone users, and safety advocates. Sadly, I do not expect Ms. Havas or other of her alarmist ilk to recognize this any time soon…

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. [...] Thoms from Skeptic North has posted an excellent summary of the WiFi scare, detailing why you shouldn’t worry too much about [...]

  2. [...] Carcinogenic’ | The Not-So-Dangerous Truth Behind Microwaves | Elizabeth May on EFM (SkepticNorth, Winnipeg Skeptics) | Evaluating The Evidence for Cell Phones and WiFi | “Dirty [...]


  • 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.