Wi-fi, fear-mongering, and pickles


Once again, I have to respond to a fallacious letter to the editor in my local paper, the Flamborough Review. And once again, it’s by the same guy. This is the third of his letters I’ve responded to; the first was about teachers and the second was about vaccination. Here is the letter in its entirety:

The  idea of  “learning commons” in children’s libraries is a noble idea, although I am not an advocate of this kind of technology in primary schools.

We are distancing our children so far from the fundamentals that they will no longer have a foundation to build on.

Reading, writing, arithmetic and spelling has gone the way of the dodo. As a parent I am concerned, as are many others, that technology is beginning to replace the fundamentals. I can see it in the work my daughter brings home, and the work she doesn’t bring home.

Another concern is the use of Wi-Fi in primary schools. Our children’s exposure to electromagnetic frequencies (EMF) is a cause for worry. According to Dr. David Carpenter, director of the Institute of Health and Environment at the University of Albany, there is a great body of work that shows continued exposure to EMF effects changes in the ability to learn and remember. Last fall, the World Health Organization could no longer afford to ignore the research and deemed EMF to be a Class 2 carcinogen. The list of Class 2 materials also includes items such as asbestos, lead and diesel fumes. I am certain I would not send my child to a room full of diesel fumes, so how can I consciously send her to a room full of harmful radiation?

In 2011, biologist Andrew Goldsworthy gave a witness statement to a standing committee on health regarding the dangers of EMF. One of the most horrific statements from his speech was, “it was first shown by Bawin et. al in the ‘70s that weak amplitude radio waves can remove calcium from brain cell membranes. This destabilizes them, making them more likely to leak. This is important in the brain because the normal function of brain cells depends on the controlled passage of specific ions through the membranes. When they leak, ions flow uncontrollably…When this occurs in a fetus or young child, it retards brain development…Wi-Fi should be considered an impediment rather than an aid to learning and should be avoided, especially by pregnant teachers.”

The very governments and agencies mandated to protect us allow this kind of harmful technology to exist. We need to reduce or eliminate our exposure to as many toxins as we can, for our own health, and that of our children.

There is a parents’ group in Collingwood trying to get Wi-Fi out of their schools, yet officials are siding with Health Canada, which is ignoring its own scientific data. Please go to safe school.ca and read up on this issue. Some of the evidenced side effects include nausea, headaches, dizziness, attention and focusing problems, low blood counts, disturbance of the immune system and heart palpitations and racing heartbeats.

I will be asking the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board for the results of their testing to see what levels my child is being exposed to.

Kevin Inglehart, Lynden

My only comment on the opening bit about education is that my sons are in grades 9 and 6, all in the Hamilton public system, and they are certainly learning the fundamentals as well as technology. They certainly learn things differently than I did thirty years ago, but that’s to be expected. Perhaps this is a problem with the particular school or his daughter’s teacher. It could also be a problem with his expectations and not with the school board at all.

But onto the other issue he raises, that of wi-fi routers causing health problems. This time, I’m not going to write a letter to the editor in rebuttal of this. I’m going to write my rebuttal here rather than submitting it to the Review. Submitting it would require making it fit for general consumption, and so I’d have to refrain from the sarcasm and ridicule that I really feel like using. I’d also have to shorten it since I’ll probably write a lot here and the Review won’t print it if it’s too long. Quite honestly, I just can’t be bothered to clean it up and make it short. Writing concisely is much more difficult than just spouting off; in the words of Blaise Pascal, “I have made this [letter] longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter.

So, to business. First off, the EM radiation given off by a wi-fi router is called “non-ionizing” radiation, which means that it’s not strong enough to remove electrons from atoms. This also means that it does not cause damage to cells. This is in contrast to ionizing forms of radiation, such as X-rays and UV rays, which do cause cell damage. Some forms of non-ionizing radiation (like microwaves) can heat things up and the heat can cause damage, but wi-fi signals are just not strong enough even for that.

It’s true that electromagnetic radiation is considered a class 2B carcinogen by the World Health Organization (WHO). All that means is that it’s on a list of things that have not been shown to be carcinogenic but require further study. Ken Foster, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, says:

Saying that something is a ‘possible carcinogen’ is a bit like saying someone is a ‘possible shoplifter’ because he was in the store when the watch was stolen. [reference]

Here are some other things that are on the same “Class 2B carcinogen” list (the entire list is here):

  • coffee
  • asphalt
  • nickel
  • pickled vegetables
  • carpentry and joinery
  • chroloprene (also known as Neoprene, a synthetic rubber used in hundreds of products including clothing)
  • aloe vera
  • gingko biloba extract
  • talc-based body powder

Presumably Mr. Inglehart will be petitioning the school board to move the local Tim Horton’s further away from the schools, to remove wood shop entirely, and to ban pickles from student lunches.

Asbestos and diesel exhaust, which Mr. Inglehart claims are on the type 2 list, are actually type 1. (Diesel fuel is 2B.) Lead is on the 2B list, but lead is known for being a neurotoxin, not a carcinogen.

I did visit the web site Mr. Inglehart suggested, and found many anecdotes describing how people became sick when they installed wifi routers in their home or school. But as we all know (don’t we?), such anecdotes are scientifically meaningless. (One famous skeptical quote is “The plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’.”) There were also some studies that showed a possible association between cancer and cell phone towers – note that this is “possible association” not “proven causality”, and a cell phone tower is not the same thing as a wifi router.

It comes down to this: unless you are a biophysicist specializing in this kind of research, you have to read what others have done and then trust someone. I haven’t done the research myself, and I probably couldn’t understand the details of the studies if you put them in front of me. But I do trust the World Health Organization, who says (emphasis mine):

In the area of biological effects and medical applications of non-ionizing radiation approximately 25,000 articles have been published over the past 30 years. … Based on a recent in-depth review of the scientific literature, the WHO concluded that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields. [reference]

The Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion says

After a decade of additional research, there is still no conclusive evidence of adverse effects on health at exposure levels below current Canadian guidelines.

and

…there is no plausible evidence that would indicate current public exposures to Wi-Fi are causing adverse effects on health. [reference]

Just like a lot of other conspiracy theories, this one is based on bad data, bad assumptions, and mistrust of the scientific community. Then you wrap it all up with scary words like “carcinogen” and stories about people getting sick, and give it to parents while implying that if they don’t do anything about it, they obviously don’t care about their children’s health. If you do that, you might be able to convince parents that this is a real problem. That’s why we have school boards considering getting rid of wi-fi, not because it’s actually a problem.


I’ve seen a number of other letters to the Review from this same person. The majority of them are filled with fear-mongering and conspiracies like the “dangers” of vaccines and water fluoridation and that “banks and large corporations own and control the media“. Most of them are just opinions and have no references, but some of them, like this one, have references to one or two articles or scientists who happen to disagree with just about every other scientist in the world. It’s possible that he accidentally stumbled upon an article that describes the exact opposite of the scientific consensus and believed it wholeheartedly. But it seems unlikely that he’s done this several times, so I am forced to assume that he simply mistrusts science and government, and believes in any conspiracy theory he hears.

I find it partially amusing but mostly irritating that these conspiracy believers (and many alt-medicine believers too) are all “mainstream science is wrong” and “mainstream science is covering up the truth” until they find a scientist who supports them, and then they’re all “this person believes us and he’s a scientist so he knows what he’s talking about and you can trust him! And not all those other scientists! Just this one!” Sorry, folks, you can’t have it both ways. Either you trust the scientists (or more accurately, the science) or you don’t.


Update: I did end up writing a letter to the editor. Here it is:

I feel compelled to respond to Mr. Inglehart’s letter, which contains half-truths and misleading statements, so that other parents don’t concern themselves with a problem that does not exist. Wi-fi routers in our schools are not a cause for concern. There are certainly people who believe that they are, including a few scientists, but the vast majority of studies that have been done have shown no negative effects on health at all.

It’s true that electromagnetic radiation is considered a class 2B carcinogen by the World Health Organization (WHO). What that actually means is that it’s on a list of things that have not been shown to be carcinogenic but require further study. Other items on this list include coffee, asphalt, pickled vegetables, carpentry and joinery, aloe vera, and talc-based body powder. I don’t hear anyone leading the charge against wood shop or pickles in school lunches.

But if you’re going to believe the WHO’s “possible carcinogen” list, you should really believe the WHO when they say “In the area of biological effects and medical applications of non-ionizing radiation approximately 25,000 articles have been published over the past 30 years. … Based on a recent in-depth review of the scientific literature, the WHO concluded that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields.”

More locally, the Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion says “After a decade of additional research, there is still no conclusive evidence of adverse effects on health at exposure levels below current Canadian guidelines. …there is no plausible evidence that would indicate current public exposures to Wi-Fi are causing adverse effects on health.”

There is no point is spending more taxpayer money looking at something that has been studied this much when the overwhelming majority of the studies show the same thing – that there are no negative health effects caused by wi-fi signals.

Graeme Perrow
Waterdown

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