Oh, no! School wi-fi is making our kids sick! (2012 edition)

As I survey the lack of reason that infests–nay, permeates every fiber of–my country, sometimes I despair. Whether it’s because of the freak fest that the race for the Republican nomination has become, with each candidate seemingly battling to prove he can bring home the crazier crazy than any of the others, or antiscience running rampant in the form of evolution rejectionism, antivaccine lunacy, and anthropogenic global warming (AGW( denialism, it’s hard for skeptics and rationalists not to be depressed. Personally, however, I always looked to the north, to Canada, for a little more sense. Usually, Canada provided.

Not this time, unfortunately:

An Ontario teachers’ union is calling for an end to new WiFi setups in the province’s 1,400-plus Catholic schools.

The Ontario English Catholic Teacher’s Association says computers in all new schools should be hardwired instead of setting up wireless networks.

It also says WiFi should not be installed in any more classrooms.

In a position paper released today, the union – which represents 45,000 teachers – cites research by the World Health Organization.

Last year the global health agency warned about a possible link between radiation from wireless devices such as cellphones and cancer.

Some believe wireless access to the Internet could pose similar risks.

Yes, and “some believe” that vaccines cause autism, that evolution isn’t a valid theory to describe the diversity of life, that AGW isn’t happening, that the moon landing never happened (and neither did the Holocaust), and that scam artists like John Edward and Sylvia Browne can speak with the dead, too. We don’t pander to such irrational, scientifically unsupported beliefs. Oh wait. Unfortunately, yes we do sometimes, particularly creationists, antivaccinationists, and AGW denialists. I can only hope that our neighbors to the north (or, to be pedantic, to the south if you happen to live in the Detroit area) will find the intestinal fortitude to resist such foolishness. As I’ve pointed out time and time again, not only is there no good evidence that radio waves at the energies used in cellular phones cause cancer or any other health problems, but basic physics shows that electromagnetic radiation at such wavelengths and intensities are incredibly unlikely to have a biological effect that can result in cancer. Couple that with study after study (except from one group in Sweden) that have failed to show even a hint of a whiff of a correlation between mobile phone use and cancer, and the idea that mobile phone radiation causes cancer is pretty much an ex-hypothesis. Now take that ex-hypothesis and shrink it by ten-fold or more, and you get an idea of how implausible the idea is that radio waves due to wifi can have significant health effects, much less cancer, is. After all, unlike the case with mobile phones, which are held right up to the head, wifi transmitters are not.

Yet, none of this stops the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association (OECTA) from bravely marching away from where science should lead it with a position statement entitled, unimaginatively enough, A position regarding the use of Non-Ionizing Electromagnetic Radiation, including WiFi, in the workplace. It’s a lovely example of fear mongering winning out over science and Orwellian language touting fears of what dangers “might” exist without any real evidence that these dangers actually do exist. In short, it’s an embarrassment to teachers everywhere. The only way it could be worse is if it were science teachers writing this. If there were, I wouldn’t want them teaching my children science. I’ll show you what I mean. The badness starts from the very first paragraph:

There are growing health and safety concerns regarding the widespread use of technology, such as cellular phones and wireless computer networking (WiFi), which produce non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation. It is estimated that at least 3 percent of the population has an environmental sensitivity to the radiation that is emitted by these devices and, as a result, experience serious immediate physical/biological effects when exposed. As has been the case with other known societal health and safety issues, such as exposure to cigarette smoke or asbestos, the health effects of unprecedented long term exposure to this radiation may not be known for some time. Widespread use of, or exposure to, wireless communication devices and WiFi technology in Ontario schools, can be positioned as a potential workplace hazard.

Note the language. “There are growing health and safety concerns.” No, there aren’t. At least not among the vast majority of scientists who study the issue there aren’t. There have been mild health and safety concerns, but they aren’t exactly “growing.” In fact, with each new negative study, what little concern there was gets even smaller, particularly among those who consider how incredibly implausible from a pure basic physics standpoint, a link between cell phones and cancer is. No, the only place there are “growing health and safety concerns” are among either the woo set or the fear-promoting set.

In a way, though, it’s hard to blame the teachers, at least not completely. After all, they’re only taking their cue from a really execrable report that the World Health organization published last year. In that report, the WHO classified cell phone radiation as a a “category 2B carcinogen.” What that means is that the WHO thinks that such radiation might cause cancer. The result was every credulous blogger on the planet likening cell phone radiation to other category 2B carcinogens, like the pesticide DDT, engine exhaust, lead and various industrial chemicals and Dr. Sanjay Gupta referring to the announcement as having “dealt a blow to those who have long said, ‘There is no possible mechanism for cell phones to cause cancer.’ By classifying cell phones as a possible carcinogen, they also seem to be tacitly admitting a mechanism could exist.”

Not surprisingly, the WHO report figures prominently in the OECTA position paper:

On May 31, 2011, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as a class 2b carcinogen (possibly carcinogenic or cancer causing to humans). They citied biological effects recognized in adult cellular telephone studies for their decision. This categorization by the WHO prompted Health Canada to issue an advisory calling for prudent avoidance of cellular phone use among children and youth. No long term studies have been done regarding mobile phones on children or regarding WiFi on adults or children.

What then follows is an unconvincing discussion of alleged health effects of wifi radiation, in which it’s blamed for cancer, “headaches, nausea, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, weakness, pressure in the head, and a racing or fluttering heart (tachycardia).” It’s followed by this:

A portion of the population are estimated to be affected in some way by an environmental sensitivity called electro-hypersensitivity, which is an increased sensitivity to non-ionizing radiation, and may become ill when WiFi is initialized.

“Approximately 3 percent of the population (over 1 million Canadians) has been diagnosed with environmental sensitivities (ES) which include multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) and electromagnetic sensitivity.”

The problem, of course, is that ES does not exist as a clinical entity. It’s been incredibly difficult to demonstrate that electrical signals or radio waves cause the symptoms described under blinded conditions. Indeed, double-blind controlled studies have repeatedly shown that people suffering from ES can’t tell the difference between real electromagnetic fields and sham electromagnetic fields. Indeed, one review of the literature concluded:

The symptoms described by “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” sufferers can be severe and are sometimes disabling. However, it has proved difficult to show under blind conditions that exposure to EMF can trigger these symptoms. This suggests that “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” is unrelated to the presence of EMF, although more research into this phenomenon is required.

It should be emphasize that people who claim electromagnetic field sensitivity (or ES, as the OECTA abbreviated it) have real symptoms, just as those suffering from Morgellons disease have real symptoms. It’s just that they symptoms aren’t due to what the suffers think they’re due to. Just as the symptoms of Morgellons disease are not due to skin parasites, the symptoms of ES are actually not due to EMF. Rather, they must be due to something else, given how it’s been shown time and time again that ES symptoms are not related to the actual presence of EMF. Indeed, a more recent review concluded:

Despite the conviction of IEI-EMF sufferers that their symptoms are triggered by exposure to electromagnetic fields, repeated experiments have been unable to replicate this phenomenon under controlled conditions. A narrow focus by clinicians or policy makers on bioelectromagnetic mechanisms is therefore, unlikely to help IEI-EMF patients in the long-term.

In other words, the OECTA is demanding that all sorts of safety precautions be taken based on a nonexistent risk. And, yes, they want a lot of changes. For example, they recommend the continued use of wired Ethernet connections and that all new buildings be wired for Ethernet, not set up for wifi. In cases where networks need to be expanded, the OECTA recommends that more Ethernet cabling be used, rather than wifi. When wifi absolutely positively can’t be avoided (but it’s very clear in the report that the OECTA would prefer that there be no wifi whatsoever), the OECTA recommends the use of a PowerLine HD Ethernet Adapter (or similar technology) to pass a network signal through existing electrical lines, rather than a wireless router. One notes that this is not an inexpensive solution. The OECTA also advises that no permanent wireless routers be installed. Instead, it prefers that single application wireless routers be used that can be turned on only when needed.

In other words, the OECTA is making a whole bunch of recommendations that would be expensive to implement, inconvenient and far less useful than wifi, and highly inconvenient for school staff, all for no demonstrable potential benefit.

None of this is anything new, unfortunately. About a year and a half ago parents in Barrie, Ontario tried to blame wifi in their children’s school for a rash of nonspecific complaints. They were spurred on by an “expert” named Susan Clarke. The OECTA is also, no doubt, “inspired” by a woman named Magda Havas, noted woo-meister at Trent University in Ontario who is known for promoting the idea of “dirty electricity,” EMF sensitivity, “electrosmog,” and, of course, the idea that wifi signals cause all sorts of vague health problems. I sense her malign (to science, reason, and critical thinking, that is) influence in the EOCTA’s position statement. It’s clearly “inspired” by the sorts of pseudoscience Havas promotes.

Yes, sadly, Ontario seems to be a hotbed for this sort of nonsense, if not the epicenter for it. I can only hope that the politicians there are more resistant to this fear mongering than our own politicians are to Americans’ preferred forms of pseudoscience.