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Biology Medicine Pseudoscience Science Skepticism/critical thinking

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.

\

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.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

118 replies on “Oh, no! School wi-fi is making our kids sick!”

[Since] the absorbed radiation dose from a typical wifi setup is less than 1% of the exposure from a cell phone… [then] a significant biological effect from the radio waves of wifi is arguably approaching homeopathy…

Homeopathic WiFi toxins! They get stronger the weaker the signal is…

(Apologies for munging the quotation.)

This Ms Susan Clark is a specialist of “indoor air pollution”? And it never occured to her that (if the kids are really sick) it might precisely be the case? Indoor air pollution because of wall paint, floors, furniture etc., is now a known, recognized and measured problem. Unlike wifi-induced headaches.

Also, let’s not rule out a psychosomatic explanation. Have those parents spoken a lot to their kids about the dangers of electromagnetic waves and the fact that they would be immersed in them?

And isn’t wearing a heart monitor a good way to ensure that your heartbeat will get a rush everytime you pay attention to it?

I hated school and could make myself ill very easily – I could throw up just by thinking about it. The nausea and headaches were genuine, but disappeared the instant I was told “OK, get back to bed.”
And don’t any of these parents have wi-fi in their homes?

This reminded me of the South African phone tower that local people claimed was damaging their health. They complained of similar symptoms to those of the children in this case. At a meeting residents said that they still had the same symptoms, which disappeared if they left the area, and demanded that the transmitter be turned off. It transpired that the tower had already been turned off, over six weeks previously.

Aside from the highly suspect “children are more susceptible” argument, I see so no reason why problems associated with Wi-Fi wouldn’t have shown up in the University population first.

Universities were some of the first places to implement widespread Wi-Fi use and students would have been constantly bombarded day in the night, both in the classroom and in the dorms.

Now that I think about, I had some of the same symptoms as a college student. Sometimes my heart would race, I would get chills, nausea, insomnia, and much more. Hell, even my cold and flu-like symptoms were probably caused by the evil radiation.

that (if the kids are really sick) it might precisely be the case? Indoor air pollution because of wall paint, floors, furniture etc., is now a known, recognized and measured problem. Unlike wifi-induced headaches.

Also, let’s not rule out a psychosomatic explanation. Have those parents spoken a lot to their kids about the dangers of electromagnetic waves and the fact that they would be immersed in them?

Seems to be a clear case of expectations causing results. Kids get sick. Kids will also find ways to get out of school if they don’t want to go (such as moving from the school with all your friends to one in a completely different area where you know no-one). IIRC, we as kids did some things that would make our hearts race quite deliberately, like spinning in circles until we threw up, doing deep knee bends to see if we could make ourselves pass out, and generally running around like we’d set ourselves on fire and forgotten “stop drop and roll”.

I think wi-fi is just about anywhere there are clusters of people (except at my farm, which only gets verizon and satellite TV, because it’s in the middle of freaking nowhere). If it was going to make people sick (homeopathic levels of likely notwithstanding), a lot more kids would be sick. Yay for non-critical thinking.

In the one school’s case, I wonder if they’ve investigated whether the school was painted over the summer break? I recall getting *very* sick from fresh paint fumes in my school.

I don’t believe that the wifi is making them sick at all but a very good way of changing these kids tune would be to just enforce a technologies ban. no computers at school. all phones taken away. no video games or computers at home for the first month of school. I imagine they would be better before school even starts up in Sept if they just heard that a rule like that would be enforced.

While reading the list of symptoms the children are experiencing, I couldn’t help but think back to my school days when I felt many of the same things. Funny thing since Wi-Fi wasn’t an issue then. Of course, like Sophia8 above, my symptoms also went away as soon as my mom said I could stay home.

We have WiFi in my office, and the only time I have symptoms like a racing heart is when my boss calls me into his office for something.

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.

Please, don’t use that “sciency” stuff on them… These are the same people that would ask, “F*cking magnets, how do they work?” and demand that it not be scientists who answer because scientists just piss them off.

“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 ,b>and because the size of their brains more closely approximates the size of the wave length being deployed” said Clarke.”

I would really, really love to hear the science behind the brain-wavelength connection. Could Ms. Clarke be invited to explain it to us?

While I do not exclude the possibility of “indoor air pollution” causing the kids’ symptoms, it is also possible for psychosomatic outbreaks to be triggered by fears about these things. There’s a classic Berton Roueche medical detection tale about an elementary school in which new carpeting had been laid down and there was a pronounced smell. Kids suddenly started getting sick with fainting spells, nausea etc. and emergency responders were called in. Pretty soon there was a full-blown outbreak with disruption of classes and parents rushing to the school. It all began dissipating with amazing speed when a doctor announced that potential triggers had been investigated and ruled out and that the problem was an outbreak of mass hysteria.
Apparently one child was genuinely ill with some sort of stomach bug, others saw her being taken to the school nurse’s office, noticed the funny smell from the new carpet and started developing their own symptoms.

I wonder if there’s a kind of subacute mass psychosomatizing problem going on in Ontario, fed by the hovering anxieties of the parents.

I heard the guy who seems to be spearheading this interviewed on the radio this morning. He’s quite articulate, but it was pretty obvious there’s some major confirmation bias going on combined with ‘I believe everything I read on the internet’ syndrome. He was going on about how wi-fi is like microwaves, like somehow being in an area with wi-fi is just like sticking your kid in the microwave. And this all started when his wife was visiting their kid’s kindergarten classroom and got a headache.

It’s all quite silly.

Obviously Orac is a shill for Big Cellular.

Just how many corporate masters do you have sir?

This article was on the front page of my city’s newspaper yesterday, and it’s level of credulity made me very frustrated. A follow-up article was SLIGHTLY better, noting that there was no evidence for this issue and that only 12 parents out of 50,000 students complained, but I felt they should have been way more skeptical.

But I guess it becomes clearer when you realize 2 of the ‘family health advisors’ on the Simcoe County Safe Schools committee are chiropractors. CLEALRY the wifi is somehow causing subluxations in the children! Oh noes!1!!1

@dangerous Bacong

It is just a fact of physics that in order for energy in the form of a wave to transfer to an object that it is interacting with, the maximum amount of energy transfer happens if the object is about the same length as the wavelength of that wave. However, that is not the whole story, there is also something called impedance. In order for maximum energy transfer, there has to be both a wavelength match and an impedance match between the medium that the wave is traveling in and the material of the object. When it comes to electromagnetic waves and people, the impedance mismatch is pretty high, meaning only a very small amount of energy is actually transmitted this way.

I am no expert on power transfer, maybe I’ll do some more reading on this and get back to you.

Ha!! I used to live in Collingwood, visit Wasaga Beach and spend summers with my mother in Barrie. It’s actually a very pretty part of Ontario, with lots of lovely biking trails between cities.

I’d like to know exactly why a frequency wave being the same length as a kid’s head makes it more vulnerable. I can’t really criticize the comment that much – microwaves are apparently between 1 and 10 cm so the distance is about right. I just don’t see why it’s relevant.

Anybody? Anybody? Bueller?

LOL for homeopathic radiation. Anyone knows you have to shake it to get any effect. Learn some “science”!!! It’s 200 years old!!!

[Since] the absorbed radiation dose from a typical wifi setup is less than 1% of the exposure from a cell phone… [then] a significant biological effect from the radio waves of wifi is arguably approaching homeopathy…

Homeopathic WiFi toxins! They get stronger the weaker the signal is…

Wiait, if Like Cures Like, and WiFi by itself facilitates communication…

ZOMG, WiFi is causing autism by homeopathy!

Like Christopher at #2, I find it very curious that the first assumption on Ms. Clark’s mind wasn’t an actual environmental contaminant. Between cleaning products, paints and dust, there are a hell of a lot of allergens to contend with. And there is always the possibility that some of the mold and mildew that is virtually impossible to eliminate from an environment as large as a school, could also be a problem.

All of the symptoms listed could be caused by any of the above.

Of course given my proclivity for psychology, I would be looking at bullying or general social anxiety. Performance anxiety (of the scholastic kind, geez folks) is also a very real possibility. And if we are talking about elementary school, there could also be problems with being separated from parents or daycare. It isn’t necessarily something that is limited to kindergarten. Some kids go through it for a few years – they eventually settle into class, but have serious problems for the first few weeks after vacation.

The whole not remembering things is pretty easily explained, especially with young children. When kids are getting a lot of information stuffed into their little heads, it can become very overwhelming. For that matter, at thirty four, I have that same problem on occasion. It is really easy to forget things when you just keep getting overwhelmed with new information. Add attention deficit issues to the mix and forgetfulness is almost a forgone conclusion.

I would really, really love to hear the science behind the brain-wavelength connection.

Ms. Clarke is presumably implying a resonant cavity scenario, something along the lines of how wind instruments work. It’s still a bogus argument. A wi-fi system will broadcast in a narrow range of frequencies, at either (IIRC) 2.4 GHz or 5.6 GHz. The relevant wavelengths would therefore be 12.5 and 5.3 cm, respectively (λ = c / ν). I have no clue what the Q factor of the skull would be, but there are two possibilities: either it is high enough to have an effect, but only a few children with skulls exactly the right size and shape would be affected, or it is low enough that most children would be affected if there were an effect, which there isn’t. I think the latter is more likely, since I don’t think bone reflects waves in this frequency range well enough to make a good resonant cavity.

If someone told me “we installed new hardware at the school and the students started getting sick,” I’d want to look at what they did in the install. Did they open up walls, for example? That could have meant exposing mold or mildew, or the walls might have been replaced with hazardous material (I know a lot of dubious drywall was imported to the U.S. in the last couple of years, and Ontario might well have gotten some too). Again, if the school is old enough, stripping walls and repainting could create lead dust.

ORAC: [There is a cure for these shortcomings, and that cure consists of a mixture of science, skepticism, and critical thinking.]

Does critical thinking and skepticism promote neo-atheism?

To the parents who say their children only get sick at school:

Presumably, you have no wi-fi at home, but do you have a microwave oven or ghz cordless phone? Both of these operate at the same or similar frequency ranges as wi-fi. Do any of your neighbors have wi-fi? If so, is the signal strength of your neighbor’s wi- fi strong enough for you to connect to it in your home? To say you have eliminated all other possible causes implies you have confirmed your children are not exposed to EM radiation in the wi-fi range at home, not just that you don’t have wi-fi devices in your 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.

This actually made me laugh out loud. Nonspecific symptoms in schoolchildren that disappear on the weekends? Holy fucking shit, call CNN!!!!

@ Duwayne:

“It is really easy to forget things when you just keep getting overwhelmed with new information.”

“How is education supposed to make me feel smarter? Besides, every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain. Remember when I took that home winemaking course, and I forgot how to drive?”

: )

“Does critical thinking and skepticism promote neo-atheism?”

Neo-atheism? As compared to what? Paleo-atheism?

The commenter who asked about disturbing environmental items during wifi installation has a good point. The base stations provide wireless access but they are wired devices, usually mounted on ceilings strategically located throughout the building. I would expect that the maximum amount of dust was disturbed over the widest possible area to locate, mount and wire up there access points. I’d have a few ceiling tiles carefully removed and checked for mold or other allergens.

You know, I wonder what the hell augie’s fixation on atheism is all about. What does one’s religious beliefs (or lack thereof) have to do with anything? Augie is sounding a little, well, obsessed.

I am also really confused as to why they have latched onto wifi as being the culprit. My first thoughts were that they were seeing symptoms where there really were none or that there might be an environmental issue with the school. It would not be the first time that there has been a problem with a school building that led to poor air quality and caused problems for some students.

Our world is absolutely filled with stray RF, everything from broadcast radio to mobile phone transmissions to WiFi to restricted band communications (e.g. police, fire, military) to the sun to incidental emissions of power lines and electric motors and all sorts of electronic equipment including the computers people are sitting at when they make blog posts and send e-mails and write letters about the dangers of RF. I’m pretty sure you get more from your monitor than you do from WiFi. (I wonder if people know that electric cars give off RF? Will that be the next paranoia fad?)

True, except for the sun this wasn’t true 100 years ago but it’s been true for a long time now. It’s how proximity detectors work BTW because we are all of us big fat antennae.

@Travis

I am also really confused as to why they have latched onto wifi as being the culprit.

Here’s my guess. The school has been around for a long time. The only major change made was installation of wi-fi. Wi-fi stands out much more than the actual installation process, which is just an everyday bit, easily ignored. Since wi-fi has such significance as a recent, unusual change, combined with the temporal association, the wi-fi signals must, therefore, be at fault. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy at work.

It’s similar to the idea that a person has some sort of strange ability to cause street lights to turn off as the individual passes by them.

Travis — in addition to the Sun, don’t forget good ol’ Sagittarius A* (the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy), Jupiter, the Crab Pulsar, and heck, the cosmic microwave background. Even thunderstorms produce natural RF emissions right here on Earth — and in amounts sufficient to overwhelm mere WiFi.

I would be happy with schools banning WiFi, but not because of illness. I’d be more worried about students leeching their bandwidth with their own personal mobile devices. Also, it’s easier to secure a wired network than wireless one. I also have some concerns about the long-term infrastructure implications. The proliferation of wireless devices is rapidly polluting the radio spectrum. This has major implications for future use of that spectrum; interference is already a serious issue, and it will only get worse. We only have so much bandwidth; it’s not possible to make more. The answer will have to be partly technological and partly regulatory, and the longer we wait, the more expensive it will be. This parallels the growing problem of bandwidth crunch in the wired world — the Internet has only so much bandwidth, and there’s only so much you can do by simply adding capacity to the backbone servers. Increase in bandwidth demand is rising faster than the actual available bandwidth, and our infrastructure will not support it indefinitely.

@augustine

Whut?

@OP

Every once in a while I need a reminder of why I never want to teach again, so thank you. These parents enable disruptive behavior by inducing psychosomatic illness in their children and administrators always take them seriously. What is wrong with parents that they let their kids use disorders (real or fake) as an excuse for behavior instead of something to be compensated for and minimized?

The double-blind study wouldn’t be as hard as described. Have both schools use a wired connection for their computers, but set up the wireless network at one of them. Then hide the SSID of the wireless network. Without broadcasting the SSID, nobody will be able to find the wireless network with their devices.

Another slightly OT point on wireless versus wired access: At the company where I work, the cost to have wireless access installed and maintained in a building was almost 10 times the cost of the already existing wired connections. That was astounding considering wired connections were way easier to secure and somewhat to wildly faster for access, I could understand why the boss told corporate IT to pound sand.

Mass hysteria does seem the most likely, but I have a couple of other thoughts:
Have they checked the lights? My first thought was that headaches, dizziness and nausea would be classic for migraine, with the rest flowing from stress. And only affecting a small number of kids.
Alternatively, as many people have observed, I’m sure I’d have tried that one to get out of school if I thought my parents would fall for it.

I’m not so sure about the environmental contaminants – I’d expect dust or mould to be causing respiratory distress in every asthmatic in the building, and (since this seems to be an ongoing problem) wouldn’t most solvents and such have dissipated by now?

While I don’t give it much credence given the overall lack of evidence about anything specific, I think the idea of RF causing health problems is very intriguing. I recall the story of a Swedish cell phone engineer who apparently became so sensitive to RF radiation that he had to quit his job and literally move into a cave. Yeah, it is an anecdote, but it is intriguing to wonder if there are people who are this sensitive to this kind of radiation.

Here’s the article which described his situation:
http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2010-02/disconnected

Fluke or lie, I don’t know… anecdote.

It’s possible some parents in Canada read this pop-sci article and got freaked out about it… they’re describing the same symptoms.

why the focus on kids heads and their skull size? do kids stick the access points in their ears?

since a microwave photon is only about 0.0001 eV, you are not gonna have it breaking chemical bonds or knocking out core electrons. the only effect is gonna be due to dielectric heating.

you should worry more about the absorption length of microwaves in meat and the power output instead of wavelngth and skull size.

since wifi access points only emit about 100 mW and a typical microwave oven is 1 KW, it is hard to imagine there are any significant heating effects for wifi.

heck, if you go out and lay down in the sun, you are gonna be exposed to a couple hundred watts over the sun’s spectrum. a portion of which is UV and *will* break chemical bonds and burn you.

He has electric lights, a phone and a computer, but their power source — a 12-volt battery — is buried in an underground cellar about 30 yards from his house, far enough away that the EMFs can’t reach him.

I skimmed that PopSci article and came across that gem. The battery is buried in the yard, so he’s safe from the EMF from the phone, computer and lights!?!?!? What???

This case, like most EHS cases I’ve read about stinks to high heaven of being completely psychosomatic.

I don’t worry about cell phone use causing cancer in my children. I’ve been told that *nobody* uses their cell phones for mere *talking* — all they do is text.

This is not that damned difficult.

In order to determine whether or not EM radiation is potentially carcinogenic, it must first be able to cause chemical change. There’s a simple bit of physics to figure that out:

The weakest organic covalent bond is the O-O bond, at 35 kcal/mol, or ~1.5 eV. To cause chemical change, a photon needs to have more energy than this bond in order to break it.

To calculate the energy of a single photon, all you need is its frequency and Planck’s Constant:
E = hv

We can then use this to determine the minimum frequency of EM radiation needed to cause carcinogenic effects:
v = 1.5 eV / h = 362.7 THz *

Wifi operates in the 2.4 GHz frequency range. It is four orders of magnitude too low frequency to cause chemical change.

There’s another option: if you absorb enough EM, you’ll experience radiative heating. Fortunately, this is measurable and testable as well, in the form of watts / kg.

The Wifi transmission distance record belongs to the Swedish space agency, who used a 6 watt amplifier to get their signal out. Over a 50kg body, assuming similar properties to water, that 6 W, absorbed entirely, would result in an increase in temperature of less than 1/1000th of a degree per second** – much lower than your body’s natural heat dissipation, again by orders of magnitude.

* If anyone’s interested, that’s in the far infrared.
** 2.9 × 10^-5 K / s

I looked up some of this stuff a few years ago. I am too lazy to dig up the references, but what I recall is this: cell phone radiative flux is limited by regulation to 2 mW/cm2, which translates to 20 W/m2, or around a third of the radiation you’d be exposed to on a sunny day. Modeling of an absolute worst-case situation (cell phone at max emission glued to the user’s well-insulated head for hours) results in a peak temperature rise in the few cc of brain nearest the cell phone of 0.5 – 1.0 deg. C. And the brain is extremely well-perfused, so even that is an overestimate.

Bottom line: it’s hard to imagine any mechanism by which a cell phone could cause harm. But that’s just my imagination. Others, I’m sure, can do better.

and in the late 40s and early 50s, parents were Highly Concerned about “waves from the TV”. And even into the 60s and 70s the belief persisted that Television Ruins Your Eyes! Now that televisions and computer monitors are ubiquitous, it’s wi-fi. I haven’t looked, but I would not be at all surprised to find that in the 1920s it was radio.

@anaea on comment 38

The double-blind study wouldn’t be as hard as described. Have both schools use a wired connection for their computers, but set up the wireless network at one of them. Then hide the SSID of the wireless network. Without broadcasting the SSID, nobody will be able to find the wireless network with their devices.

Not exactly. There’s a number of tools that will find an access point if it’s on the air whether it’s broadcasting an SSID or not. Now, that doesn’t invalidate the basic concept of: “Install AP’s at multiple schools. Leave some off, turn others on. Don’t tell them which is which. Observe.” It just makes it more difficult to blind the study.

#47: two suggestions for mechanisms by which a cellphone could cause harm.

(i) Perhaps brain tissue has a non-uniform conductivity, so that more current is induced in the more conductive regions. If this effect were extremely pronounced significant localized heating could result even though the temperature rise averaged over the whole brain would be tiny.

(ii) The brain can in some sense be viewed as an electrical device. Perhaps the voltage induced in it by the em radiation might cause it to malfunction, just as cellphones can interfere with sensitive electrical machinery.

This is obviously pure armchair speculation on my part, and I’m completely ready to be told that neither suggestion is relevant to the human brain. I’m just making the point that – as Orac says – we aren’t quite at homeopathic levels of implausibility here. Cellphone radiation is real. However, I fully accept that the weight of evidence against there being any actual effect is enormous.

@46

Some nitpicking: You could imagine that some molecules can change their chemical behavior without explicit bond breakage, for example, two distinct states could be separated by a barrier, in which case it is enough to absorb enough photons to cross the barrier.

In this case, the RF radiation has to compete against ordinary thermal equilibration, which suggests a typical energy scale of Boltzmann’s constant times temperature, or approximately 25 meV in practical situations. Of course, you still need dozens of photons to see a visible effect.

In the perturbative regime, usually applied to low intensities, the probability for, e.g., an excitation scales roughly with the intensity to the power of the number of photons involved, so you would expect to see some dead children due to intensity fluctuations as well. And a non-perturbative effect at these intensities would probably give you something on the order of a ticket to Stockholm because it would be so astonishing.

I think we need to call this what it is: It’s dangerous. It’s life-threatening. Not the hypersensitivity bull, but the belief in it.

I live in a small community that is one of the places in my state that is most vulnerable to bush fire. The state has an automated warning system that sends out an SMS when there is a bush fire nearby; but we don’t get cell coverage because there is a lunatic in our community who is so loud and vocal, she’s successfully kept all communication towers out. She bullies people into signing her surveys; she does regular mail-outs with outlandish lies; she’s a certified lunatic (she walks around with tin foil in her hair, for cryin’ out loud) but she’s managed to put all of our lives at risk with her claims of ‘hypersensitivity’.

My favorite of her claims: Did you know you can use your cell phone as a geiger counter? She claims that the reception bars measure radiation (as in nuclear radiation) and that more bars = more radiation.

What a coincidence. This morning on Canada A.M. CTV, I caught a few minutes of Kevin Bryne talking about this.
http://www.ctv.ca/CTVNews/TopStories/20100816/wifi-sick-kids-100816/

It only took a few minutes to suspect he was selling something (he is, in fact he’s the president of a company that will sell filters to block “dirty electricity”). [google Bryne EMF solutions]

When the host asked him if there was any science behind this, he said Dr. Magda Havas, Trent University, showed that 40% of people suffered heart irregularities when using a cell phone and doubled heart rate. I figured he was quote mining or misusing a study. If it was that bad those things would never have made it to market.

I went back to my hotel room and went online. Unfortunately what I did find in the general searches (no journal access here) didn’t speak well of Dr. Havas (five case studies of the effects of EMF, another one on putting in suppressing equipment in schools and having teachers report on student behaviour–all subject to confirmation biases, pleasing the examiner bias, placebo effect, etc). Maybe she’s done some double-blind trials and published them in the peer-reviewed journals though. If so, it is a shame she’s tainted her name with that other work.

As for Byrne, I also found he endorses the Q-link bracelets. That’s about all you need to know about his credibility. Too bad–there actually might be a measurable widespread effect, but serious scientists might not pursue it because of the implied association with people like Byrne, or questionable work by other scientists.

Hmm, maybe EMFs cause autism? EMF increases have coincided with autism increases, cancer started in 1945, and the Amish don’t have autism… 😉

Great post Orac! I fell out of my seat laughing at that quack Susan Clarke (Susan Clarke causes bruising and sprained wrists!)

“the size of their brains more closely approximates the size of the wave length being deployed” Ooh, that’s just toooo funny. The 2.4GHz band has a wavelength of roughly 12.5cm; however size has nothing to do with the absorption of this energy. If we were making an antenna (which *must* be a conductor) at this wavelength, then dimensions do matter. However, in this case the absorption is dependent entirely on the susceptibility of tissue to excitation by this radio frequency band. Despite her post, Clarke’s rambling suggests that (a) she knows jack shit about the interaction between biological tissue and electromagnetic radiation and (b) she knows jack shit about radio. Oh Harvard, how I envy your quacks and scientific frauds!

I recall the story of a Swedish cell phone engineer who apparently became so sensitive to RF radiation that he had to quit his job and literally move into a cave.

He should have a little chat with James Randi, because a million bucks will buy a really, really nice cave.

There is a collaboration at my university between the physics and biology departments looking at the effects of cell phone microwave radiation on sperm over long exposure times and they turned up some slightly significant effects. Theyre conlcusion being that having a phone in your pocket 8 hours a day, 5 days a week for a decade may lower sperm count and sperm vitality by around 30%.
Its just to hard to get out of the habit though..

Actually, the idea of microwave radiation causing effects on the human brain is not too ridiculous. There has been research showing that electromagnetic radiation can cause physiological effects on humans.

http://wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Microwave_auditory_effect

The research of Dr. Frey in the 70’s shows that microwaves can be audible, as well as cause nausea, dizziness, and pins and needles. It doesn’t seem too ridiculous that wi-fi could cause similar effects in sensitive people.

Of course, I have wi-fi in my house, and it doesn’t bother me. In fact, most people who claim to have problems stemming from cell phones and the like are probably deluding themselves. The claims of cancer are even more ridiculous. However, we cannot reject these people’s complaints without further examination, as the lab data backs them up.

Woohoo Science,

Admiral Bell

I wonder if the schools in Barrie have pop machines in them. Things like racing heart and anxiety sound like the kind of effects one can get from drinking too much caffeine. Your kids not having problems at home? Well, that’s because they aren’t drinking a bunch of Coke like they are at achool.

My favorite of her claims: Did you know you can use your cell phone as a geiger counter? She claims that the reception bars measure radiation (as in nuclear radiation) and that more bars = more radiation.

When I teach the nuclear chemistry part of gen chem, I like to pull out the geiger counter and show the students some of the things that emit nuclear radiation. Smoke detectors, for example (americium), and we have a rock sent to the dept by Marie Curie that is a radium sample. Old red Fiesta ware is another, and one of my favorites is a commercial sample of potassium iodide (the 1 lb bottle has enough 40K and 131I to give above background signals). Then I ask the students what else we can check out and they inevetably request a cell phone.

It’s nothing, of course, even when the cell phone is in use.

I’m going to blame mold. I remember people getting sick from carpets that got damp when it rained/leaked in a 30+ year old building. They had to tear up all the carpets and clean thoroughly to get rid of the problem.

It might correlate to the wifi installation, since you would need to run cables to the access points possibly through dusty drop ceilings or walls. All that movement could release previously undisturbed mold spores.

When I worked for the school board in Ottawa (also in Ontario for the geographically challenged), the elementary school I was working in had a classroom that none of the teachers wanted to use because they claimed it made them sick. In spite of tests that found the air quality was well within normal for that area of the city, most of the staff were convinced. I bring this up only that I was distressed by the number of teachers in that school who believed in all manner of woo and were, obviously, in contact with parents. I can see this type of story gaining traction with teachers and that this could reinforce the parents’ view. Many teaching staff I worked with firmly believed that sugar caused hyperactivity and I have worked with nurses who vehemently defend the notion that full moons increase ‘crazy’ behaviour…….just saying……

I recall the story of a Swedish cell phone engineer who apparently became so sensitive to RF radiation that he had to quit his job and literally move into a cave.

He should have a little chat with James Randi, because a million bucks will buy a really, really nice cave.

I would want to see a testing of it: for something like this, while I’m not convinced he’s having a reaction directly to the radiation, I do wonder if he’s got some interesting psychosomatic thing happening of which he’s not even aware. He may honestly think he’s having a reaction… I mean, narcolepsy is a real thing. Maybe his brain has conjured up a pavlovian response to perceived RF, even if it’s not an actual response to RF.

While the energy of the radiation is much too low to cause chemical reactions, there are still a lot of different processes associated with radiation absorption that could translate into information in the nervous system. The army does have a non-lethal microwave weapon that causes pain. Cancer is not likely, but I’m curious if there are some interesting phenomena there to find. That would make for a really cool paper.

@Admiral Bell –
It’s pretty well documented that high intensity microwave energy can cause physiological effects because it’s…well…high intensity microwave energy. My Grandfather told me that when he was in the navy, they had several radio techs injured on his Aircraft Carrier by the microwave transmission system being accdientally switched on while they were by it. In addition, the high-power microwave transmission dishes on communications towers can cause burns if you’re close to them while they’re on, like within a few feet.

We’re not talking about that though, we’re talking about something that produces a signal strength of comparitively nothing.

@Augustine, 56

Translation: Religious discourse irrelevent to topic, herp derp whargarbl.

Chance Gearheart:

How dare you insult the noble Augustine! He’s a faithful acolyte of the church of the ineffable vacuity! Augustine prays 6 times a day that the holy trinity of dullness, wingnuttery and plagiarism may be visited upon him.

Why, my good friend Augustine was the very man Pope had in mind when he wrote The Dunciad:

“Next o’er his books his eyes begin to roll,
In pleasing memory of all he stole.”

I feel rather sorry for the parents here. As Orac says, they are not properly educated in scepticism, and in trying to do their best for their children they are being misled by cranks.

“Does critical thinking and skepticism promote neo-atheism?”

No Augustine it doesn’t. Many critical thinkers and skeptics are not neo-Atheists.

“So I’m not the first to draw this conclusion based on the evidence.
Critical thinking, skepticism, and a little “mixture of science” is a good formula for the atheist recruitment. Orac has it right.

What you appear to be suggesting here is that Orac is promoting Atheism indirectly through promoting critical thinking, skepticism and science.

What you need to understand is that Orac is promoting critical thinking, skepticism and science. If Atheism is a by-product of these things, then that’s just life, but the important part of that is the part he is explicitly promoting – for very good reason, when people start believing in Woo, proper treatment falls by the wayside and people get hurt and die!

I’m not sure the intention of your posts is, do you believe that you have discovered a sneaky atheist plot on Orac’s behalf? Do you think that you are getting the word out there and pulling back the curtain to reveal his nefarious motives?

Unfortunately that is not the effect your posts are having. People know that good medicine requires good science and critical thinking, and they know that good medicine saves lives and reduces suffering, so they know that promoting science and critical thinking is important regardless of whether it promotes atheism.
Given that, all you are doing is making religious people look paranoid. You give off the impression that you think any promotion of science or good medicine must be atheist duplicity with hidden motives.

You’re like a radical feminist who keeps posting “Does the phallic shape of the ‘post’ and ‘preview’ buttons indicate that women are not welcome to give their opinions here? Are you secretly promoting the patriarchy by talking about scientific medicine? (invented by men during even more patriarchal times)”
You’re wrong, she’s wrong, and you are both making your respective ideologies look bad. Where they do not need to because your paranoia is something of your own, not a logical result of your beliefs. Please stop showing up Christians with your unjustified fears of secret atheist blogs hiding out in science clothing

But of course ! How could we be so dumb ! The solution was at hand all the time, and none of us thought of it !

Mandatory wearing of a tinfoil hat for all children in this school.

Or perhaps, just carrying a small protective amulet might do. You know, like those terracotta dots that you can buy. You stick one on your mobile phone, and it absorbs all the harmful radiations. Or so says the guy who sells them, at least.

Agashem “… I have worked with nurses who vehemently defend the notion that full moons increase ‘crazy’ behaviour …”

Reminded me of hearing this nurse talking on radio about the study below. She was prompted to do it because their statistics did *not* show a lunar cycle difference for admitting crazies, despite everyone saying and believing that there was a full moon effect. It was only when they recorded the figures then analysed by sorting out into the ordinary crazies and the completely off-the-wall violent crazies that they *did* find a difference.

http://ama.com.au//node/5233

Viggen @65: Narcolepsy is a possible explanation for that Swede’s illness – although it comes on quite early in life and produces other symptoms besides.
“Multiple chemical sensitivity” and “electro-sensitivity” has been researched and studied since at least the early 70s. Blinded study after blinded study has shown that these peoples’ illnesses are not related to anything in their environment. For instance, in one study, the “sensitives” only became ill when they were exposed to a chemical-smelling fragrance, regardless of whether or not there were any actual claimed allergy triggers in the room.

“Psychosomatic” symptoms are just as real as symptoms produced by real illnesses; the vomiting, high temperatures and headaches that I could induce when I was a kid were definitely real. I wish there was some other name for it – people don’t like being told their illness is psychosomatic, because that implies they are either mentally ill or just faking.

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

It’s called Subliminal Distraction exposure and usually is only found in incorrectly designed business offices.

It was discovered when office workers using the first close-spaced workstations began having mental breaks. The cubicle was designed to deal with the vision startle reflex to prevent it there by 1968.

An outbreak is very unusual. I suspect that it is the cause of strange disappearances and suicides of college students.

#63 “I’m going to blame mold. I remember people getting sick from carpets that got damp when it rained/leaked in a 30+ year old building.”

I don’t think that any physical cause of illness needs to be explained in this case. Magda Havas spoke (induced fear mongering) in Bridgenorth last fall (which is about 10 minutes north of barrie and in the middle of those communities listed in the piece) about the illnesses that she feels wifi causes shortly before those illnesses started to appear. Correlation does not equal causation, but there is a far better correlation between these complaints following the appearance of Havas than these complaints following the appearance of wifi. She has guarenteed that at least some suggestible children will feel sick in Peterborough this fall because she has instilled grave fear in a small minority of parents with her talks and quotes in the newspapers. Wifi was installed in peterborough schools over the summer.

#15 “But I guess it becomes clearer when you realize 2 of the ‘family health advisors’ on the Simcoe County Safe Schools committee are chiropractors. CLEALRY the wifi is somehow causing subluxations in the children! Oh noes!1!!1”

It is worse than that. The supposed leader of this group of parents is Rodney Palmer who makes and sells magic saunas. Asthma? Cancer? Fibromyalgia? Lead? Mercury? Pesticides? Then this is your lucky day.

http://www.saunaray.com/

From his website (Unionist, from a Canadian forum, should be credited for looking into Palmer):

“Cancer prevention studies are successful in SaunaRay units.”

“Chronic fatigue, Chronic pain, Chemical sensitivity, heavy metal exposure and other difficult to treat conditions are managed swiftly, safely and successfully in SaunaRay saunas.”

“The general public has grown acutely aware of toxins in everyday consumer goods. From Lead contaminated toys to poisonous agents in dog food. Many doctors now look to SaunaRay as a trusted Canadian manufacturer that was founded on the principles of toxin-elimination and
toxin-free construction.”

“SaunaRay works closely with Naturopathic doctors who are making discoveries with our units in clinical practice.”

“Far Infrared sauna is a method now taught to naturopathic doctors in North America’s largest naturopathic post-graduate medical college.”

“SaunaRay showed that mercury is reduced in the body after 3 months of regular sessions. Further observation showed that high levels can be reduced to normal background levels in 6 months to one year of regular use.”

“…Dr. Magda Havas, Trent University, showed that 40% of people suffered heart irregularities when using a cell phone and doubled heart rate…”

Hey! I have that! I call it social phobia.

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