Oh, no! School wi-fi is making our kids sick!

Over the years, I’ve written a lot about cell phones and the scientifically highly implausible claim that radio waves from cellular telephones can lead to brain cancer and other health problems. For example, two years ago, when the then director of the respected University of Pittsburgh Cancer Center, Dr. Ronald B. Herberman issued a warning to the faculty and staff of UPCC to limit their cell phone use because of the risk of cancer, I had a definite bone to pick with him. The evidence upon which Dr. Herberman based his hysterical warning, which was duly picked up by the press and spread throughout the country, was so thin that you would need an electron microscope to see its edge, and it was truly depressing to see someone who really, really should know better engaging in such irresponsible fear mongering.

Since then, periodically, I’ve decided to take on studies of cell phones and cancer, for example this one or this one. I have yet to see one that makes me stop, scratch my chin, and think, “Hmmmm. Maybe there is something to this whole claim that cell phones cause cancer, after all. That’s some damn suggestive evidence there.” Of course, it would be surprising if such evidence were to come to light because of the aforementioned extreme improbability that the low energy radiation that makes up cell phone radiation could cause cancer. Cell phone radiation lacks one major ability that carcinogens in general have, and that’s the ability to break chemical bonds in DNA and thereby induce mutations. It’s just too wimpy to do it because it is not ionizing radiation. The primary action that cell phone radiation has is heating, but it’s so low energy that its ability to penetrate the skull and heat the neurons on the side of the brain is puny compared to the normal thermal heating that we experience any time we go out into the sun.

Of course, I do tend to part ways a bit with some skeptics on this issue in that I still leave the door open for a possible biological mechanism that we have yet to discover by which cell phone radiation could potentially cause cancer. Some of the rebuttals of the cell-phone cancer link that I see from those not well versed in cancer biology (usually physicists) reveal a painfully simplistic understanding of cancer biology along the lines of “mutations = cancer,” but that’s what happens when you wander too far afield from your own specialty without the requisite humility. In any case, as I’ve said before, I still consider the likelihood that there is an as yet undiscovered biological mechanism by which cell phones could cause cancer to be highly implausible. Maybe not homeopathy level implausible but pretty darned implausible.

Even more implausible an etiological link between cell phone radiation and cancer is what is being claimed by some parents in Barrie, Ontario:

A group of Barrie-area parents is demanding their children’s schools turn off wireless Internet before they head back to school next month, fearing the technology is making the kids sick.

The parents say their children are showing a host of symptoms ranging from headaches and dizziness to nausea and even racing heart rates.

They believe the Wi-Fi setup in their kids’ elementary schools may be the problem.

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.

“Parents are getting together and realizing this is the pattern,” said Rodney Palmer of the Simcoe County Safe School Committee. “We went to the school board and they did nothing.”

The symptoms, which also include memory loss, trouble concentrating, skin rashes, hyperactivity, night sweats and insomnia, have been reported in 14 Ontario schools in Barrie, Bradford, Collingwood, Orillia and Wasaga Beach since the board decided to go wireless, said Palmer.

Cases like this are always difficult to figure out, but if there’s one thing that’s for sure: If this is a real cluster of health problems, it’s highly unlikely that wifi radiation is to blame. As I’ve pointed out 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. Indeed, as Steve Novella points out, the absorbed radiation dose from a typical wifi setup is less than 1% of the exposure from a cell phone. If a significant biological effect from cell phone radiation is highly implausible, a significant biological effect from the radio waves of wifi is arguably approaching homeopathy-level implausibility.

Whenever there is a cluster of reported illnesses, the first thing to consider is whether the cluster is real or not. By random chance alone, frequently there will be upticks in the rate of various health complaints in various regions, without there necessarily being an environmental cause. This has long been known by epidemiologists, which is one reason why determining if “hot spots” for disease or health complaints are in fact evidence of a real, causative, link between an environmental factor and the complaints or simply random statistical noise. This is made even more difficult when the symptoms are as vague as what is being described. Add to that the Internet and a heapin’ helpin’ of normal human confirmation bias and selective memory, and to parents it can seem for all the world as though there is a real problem here. Add to that the suggestibility of children, who have likely been listening to their parents express their fears and observing them complain to the school board all summer, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there were an elevated number of these vague complaints even if the school district shut the wifi off without telling anyone.

In fact, it’s very interesting that the parents state that the children are getting sick at school but not at home. Did it ever occur to them that complaining of feeling sick is a good way to get out of school for the day? I never did that myself (I was too much of a geek; I actually liked school most of the time), but I sure knew a bunch of my classmates who did over the years. Also, I find it highly unlikely that these kids aren’t exposed to wifi at home or at their friends’s house. Their parents may not have wifi, but I’d bet a lot of the surrounding homes have wifi.

Next, the “expert” weighs in:

Susan Clarke, a former research consultant to the Harvard School of Public Health, said Wi-Fi technology alters fundamental physiological functioning and can cause neurological and cardiac symptoms.

“We have statistics that show that children, especially young children, are going to absorb much more radiation than older children and adults because of their thinner skulls and because the size of their brains more closely approximates the size of the wave length being deployed,” said Clarke.

I wondered just who this Susan Clarke was, given the nonsense she spouts about the size of younger children’s brains “more closely approximating the size of the wavelength being deployed.” I couldn’t find much about her, despite much Googling. All that came up were articles about this controversy. Then, after scrolling down a few pages of Google searches, I found this:

Susan Clarke comes highly recommended by Harvard and Boston University professors. Holding a certificate in Health and Human Rights from the Harvard School of Public Health, her primary area of expertise is radio frequency (RF) radiation bio-effects. She presents to medical and epidemiology faculties, at scientific conferences, on radio and television, and debates industry experts with up-to-date research.

In the 1990’s she was a Research Associate with the Institute for Media Research in Cambridge, MA and she was also a consultant to research at the Harvard School of Public Health. In 1995, Clarke organized a medical conference on the Gulf War Syndrome, and received for this effort special recognition from the American Association of Environmental Medicine. In 1993, she awakened Congress and the US health agencies to emergent problems in indoor air pollution and inhalation neurotoxicity.

It appears quite clear that Ms. Clarke has an agenda. Whether or not she was a respected academic now, it looks as though these days she’s on the environmental scare circuit stirring things up for groups like the Simcoe County Safe School Committee, whose website contains a scientifically useless survey and a whole bunch of anecdotes like this:

I’ve been getting calls from the school in the last year because my children won’t settle down. When my kids are at home on weekends they are fine. They play with their toys and are pretty quiet. My son has been having more panic attacks then ever before. He has had to wear a heart monitor at school and his heart rate went up to 190 beats per minute. One day this month I had to go get him because his heart was racing so much inside the school. The doctor calls it tachycardia. He’s not sleeping well at night. He gets red in the face and ears and my daughter seems to forget things a lot. This is all in the last year or so.

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And this one:

My daughter goes to school in Wasaga Beach and she has been complaining about headaches and has been having the fast heart beats. It all started last November when we moved here from the Toronto area. She is scheduled to have exploratory heart surgery at Sick Kids for Tachydardia. She has really fast heart beats and circulation problems.=

My heart goes out to this girl. It really sucks to be so sick at such a young age. But the biological plausibility of the claim that the wifi caused this girl’s cardiac arrhythmias is slim and none. This truly does appear to be a case of confusing correlation with causation–in a big way. In fact, one wonders, given its ubiquitiousness, whether there was wifi in this girl’s school in Toronto that she attended before moving, possibly egged on by articles like the credulous piece of tripe published in GQ last year and linked to on the Simcoe Safe School Committee website.

All of the parents and children relating these anecdotes state that the symptoms began after the schools installed their wifi systems. It’s probably worth reemphasizing that correlation does not necessarily equal causation, and that would appear to be true in this case, just as it is for the purported link between vaccines and autism that the anti-vaccine movement promotes. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t something going on that is worth investigating. The problem is that the parents appear to have prematurely latched onto a cause for their children’s problems, when there are many far more likely culprits that should be investigated first, from environmental causes that span the school district, such as pollution from nearby industry or dumps or perhaps a chemical cause. Given the extreme biological implausibility of wifi as a cause of these health problems, it should be near the bottom of the lists of environmental exposures to be examined. When the parents in the article say that “every possible other source” has been eliminated as a potential cause, I highly doubt that’s true. To do that would require a systematic and difficult investigation.

I normally recoil at an idea like this, but given the evidence that wifi radiation poses no harm, I wonder if it would be ethical to do a double blind experiment, in which schools could be randomly chosen to be hooked up to hard wired connections to the Internet or wifi. There would, of course, have to be dummy hard-wired connections in the schools in the wifi group and dummy base stations with realistic looking blinking lights in the group with computers hard-wired by Ethernet connection. Then the rates of complaints in both sets of schools could be monitored. My guess is that they would be equal. Of course, such an experiment would be a logistical nightmare, and all it would take is one student or teacher with a smart phone to blow the blinding by checking for a wifi signal with his iPhone, Droid, or BlackBerry.

Let me just finish by emphasizing that I don’t doubt that the parents care deeply for their children. Nor do I think the parents are crazy, nuts, loons, or whatever other derogatory term they no doubt think they are being called. They are exhibiting very human shortcomings in critical thinking, probably because, like most people, their critical thinking skills are not very strong and they do not have an understanding of the science that would tell them that their concerns about the wifi are highly unlikely to be identifying the correct cause of their children’s problems. There is a cure for these shortcomings, and that cure consists of a mixture of science, skepticism, and critical thinking.