Can Wi-Fi harm kids?

by Rob Wipond, March 2011

Hearings on Wi-Fi in classrooms discover large differences in the level of trust of information about health impacts.

It’s not often CBC radio host Gregor Craigie’s soothing voice puts someone on the defensive. But Craigie said he’d heard from many people complaining about the Greater Victoria School District’s (GVSD) decision to appease protesters by holding hearings about the health dangers of Wi-Fi. Since all the science shows Wi-Fi is safe, Craigie posed to school board chair Tom Ferris, “They wonder why [such hearings] would even be considered.”

Eventually, the elected official gave up portraying GVSD’s “investigation” as much more than political flak-catching. “The thinking is that if people don’t have an opportunity to air their views and get some sort of response,” Ferris answered, “then it’s something that may go on and continue to worry parents.”

Maybe that suspect commitment to truly investigating the issues explains the uncomfortable atmosphere later that same day in the GVSD boardroom as a 14-person Wi-Fi Committee commences a series of meetings. The committee includes teachers, parents, principals and several elected trustees, along with GVSD secretary-treasurer George Ambeault and technology director Ted Pennell; there are no health experts or scientists. Ambeault facilitates with grim terseness. Most committee members rarely if ever ask questions of the presenters, while teacher-member Michael Dodd, who’s already announced he’s wary of Wi-Fi, is perpetually lobbing softball questions at the anti-Wi-Fi presenters like, “Could you explain that further?”—to the obvious irritation of Ambeault and others.

Over consecutive Mondays in January and February, we learn from a few presenters like David Bratzer of the new group “Scientific Victoria” (advocating for “the consideration of science in local government decision making”) that the World Health Organization, Health Canada, and BC’s Medical Health Officer have declared Wi-Fi “safe.”

Conversely, a parade of presenters list the many dangers our health authorities failed to warn us about until it was too late, like asbestos, thalidomide, tobacco and DDT. They point to exponentially more stringent electromagnetic field (EMF) safety standards in other countries, and describe expanding Wi-Fi in our schools as “a massive uncontrolled experiment” that’s “short-sighted and dangerous.” (They prefer wired internet.) In verbal submissions accompanied by reams of documentation, they list innumerable studies which they claim demonstrate the possibility of impacts like leakage in the blood-brain barrier, DNA and cell damage, endocrine system disruption, chronic pain, neurological diseases, cancer, impaired memory and sleep disorders. “Electro-pollution,” says one presenter, “is the greatest medical threat of our time.”

Citizens for Safe Technology director Karen Weiss’ voice trembles describing her son’s agonizing pains due to his electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS). “I would love to see someone from Health Canada look my son in the eye and tell him their guidelines are safe, and then see their reaction when he can tell them they just got a message on their cell phone that’s in their pocket on silent mode.”

Weiss notes she is often asked permission for her son to go on field trips, “Yet I have not been asked for my informed consent to subject my child to low-level long-term exposure to microwave radiation.”

“I’m really struggling,” pleads school trustee Dave Pitre, “because there seems to be so much conflict on both sides.” He points to one massive report that appears scientifically solid, but which others “debunk.” “What am I supposed to do with that?”

It seems obvious that independent scientific analysts would be needed to help conduct this investigation reasonably. Instead, however, Pennell attacks presenter Tammy Keske’s exposure ratings using numbers he vaguely recalls he “heard” coming from an unnamed “health protection agency.” Keske admits hers came from a television show. And when electrician Walt McGinnis warns about high EMF levels, Pennell expresses skepticism by citing an article from the Medicine Hat News. 

Bratzer suggests we all place less weight on “pseudoscience” and “poorly designed research” and instead emphasize “quality, peer-reviewed science.” He then criticizes one famous, peer-reviewed study that claimed to detect heart rates accelerating in response to EMFs. Bratzer argues the researcher erroneously used a heart monitor that itself dramatically reacts to EMF interference. The citation he provides for this  attack? A blog written by two engineers. 

Seventeen-year-old Jordan Weiss privately tells me about his headaches, burning eyes, poor concentration, and sleep disruption when he’s close to strong EMFs. His mother is right—it’s hard to look Jordan in the eye and suggest he’s merely imagining things. “It’s kind of awkward to tell people at school that I have something like an ‘allergy’ to their cell phone,” he concedes, “because they’re so attached to them.”

Presenter-parent Robert Jeske finally digs to the root of the differences: lack of hard evidence on any side. 

Jeske describes the fragile nervous systems and brain tissue of growing children and states, “There have been zero pre- or post-marketing safety studies on chronic exposure of Wi-Fi radiation specifically in children...You can’t say it’s safe and you can’t say it’s unsafe; there are no studies.”

He cites the World Health Organization’s 2010 “Agenda for Radiofrequency Fields.” It identifies a number of “high priority” areas for research, like “behavioural and neurological disorders and cancer” in kids, because “little research has been conducted in children and adolescents.” 

Bratzer believes the WHO is responding more to public worries than scientific ones. And, in fact, that same paper suggests researching communications efforts, too, because, “The public often appears to demonstrate considerable misunderstanding of scientific evidence, especially when there is a lack of conclusive evidence about potential health hazards, as is the case with RF EMF exposure.”

That statement seems an apt explanation for why these debates keep coming down not to particular studies or evidence, so much as to differing levels of trust in media reports, government regulators, established health authorities, and mainstream science as a whole.

And there are certainly good reasons for increasing distrust. Most government regulators are former and future wireless industry insiders. Most studies of possible negative side effects are industry-funded. And many are being published in the same journals that have been struggling for years to overcome the epidemic of conflicts of interest in health and medical research. Meanwhile, a staggeringly vast profit-making machinery is building Wi-Fi infrastructures everywhere. High-powered “mini-towers” are poised to replace cell phone towers and spread ubiquitously on streetlights and hydro poles; the popularity of wireless devices looks like an advancing armada.

Notably, some of us really are feeling it, too. Research consistently shows a subset of the population can indeed reliably detect the presence of EMFs. Exactly how isn’t known, any more than we understand how migrating birds and fish orient by detecting Earth’s magnetic poles. But this intriguing and unsettling reality is often downplayed amongst mainstream EMF researchers. They instead highlight two connected findings: Many of the people who can reliably detect EMFs don’t suffer from EHS. And many EHS-sufferers cannot reliably detect EMFs. Emphasizing these latter facts helps paint EHS-sufferers as hypochondriacs, and helps diminish most people’s concerns about EMFs.

The cultural pervasiveness of this tendency to belittle the protesters makes me wonder, regardless of what the truth proves to be in the end, how many people will even care? After all, we’ve long known urban air pollution kills thousands of people annually. So if we ultimately discover that EMFs do actually torture 1 percent, 2 percent, or 5 percent of the population, will that stop cell phones, iPads and Blackberries? Why or why not? Ultimately, that may be the most important Wi-Fi question we could be collectively exploring.

Rob Wipond posts a few links for your reference -- and for what it's worth...

WHO Research Agenda 2006 and 2010

GVSD Wi-Fi Committee

A widely-quoted meta-analysis study that "debunks" EHS, but subtly glosses over the evidence of electrosensitivity in some humans

Canadian federal Senate Committee Report on Health Impacts of Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Radiation