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Banning Wi-Fi from Schools

by Steven Novella, Aug 16 2010

In the town just north of where I live the middle school was completely torn down and an entirely new middle school was built. The reason for this was concerns that mold in the old school was making children sick.

Apparently, Wi-Fi is the new mold. In central Ontario parents are lobbying the school to turn off the Wi-Fi due to fears that it is making their children sick. You can take the news report of the parents concerns, time-warp about ten years in the past, and substitute “mold” for “Wi-Fi” – the arguments are the same, and the evidence as weak, but the identified problem has just shifted.

The Evidence

Let’s start by reviewing what we currently know about the health risks of Wi-Fi – wireless signals used to connect computers to a network or the internet. From a basic science perspective, there is little plausibility to the notion that Wi-Fi radiation would have any health effects. The amount of energy that is absorbed by a person living in a Wi-Fi field is negligible - less than 1% of exposure from a typical cell phone and well below current safety levels.

I have written about the risk from cell phones recently also. To summarize, there is no compelling evidence at this time that there is a health risk. The evidence so far seems to rule out any significant risk for adults with up to 10-15 years of exposure, but not yet for children or for >15 years exposure. In short, if there is any adverse health effect it must be tiny to be so difficult to detect – and Wi-Fi causes only 1% of the energy exposure as cell phones.

Further, the hypothesized risks of non-ionizing radiation (insufficient energy to break chemical bonds) is considered by many to lack plausibility due to the fact that so little energy is transferred to tissue.For non-ionizing radiation, regulations have focused on the thermal effects – heating tissue – which can occur depending upon the specific frequencies used and how easily it is coupled or transferred to tissues. This is the same effect exploited by microwaves (a form of non-ionizing radiation) to heat food.

The current regulations are largely based upon the thermal effects of EMF exposures – exposures are low enough to prevent significant heating of tissues. Some argue that this is not enough, however, and that there may be non-thermal biological effects, and therefore safety limits should be lowered.

While I agree with those who argue that a significant non-ionizing, non-thermal effect is unproven and implausible, a biological effect is not impossible, and so epidemiological and clinical studies are reasonable. The first question is simply – what is the exposure from Wi-Fi networks? Such exposures to EMF are typically thousands of times less than current safety limits. In fact, one review found:

In all cases, the measured Wi-Fi signal levels were very far below international exposure limits (IEEE C95.1-2005 and ICNIRP) and in nearly all cases far below other RF signals in the same environments.

So not only are exposures from Wi-Fi access points thousands of times less than safety limits, they are also less than the background radio frequency (RF) radiation.

Is there evidence for biological effects on cells? An extensive review of this research concluded:

Overall, there is little evidence of cellular effects of RF fields of health significance below current safety limits.

While they argue for further research in some areas, they were also including cell-phone level exposure, which remember is 100 times that of Wi-Fi, which in turn is no higher than background radiation.

What about electromagnetic hypersensitivity – the reporting of common non-specific symptoms, such as headache, fatigue, dizziness, and confusion, while being exposed to EMF? Well, the same review also summarizes this research, which finds that under blinded conditions there is no such hypersensitivity syndrome. Even with people who consistently report symptoms with exposure to EMF, in blinded conditions they cannot reliably tell if they are being exposed to EMF.

Wi-Fi in Schools

With the research as background, let’s take a look at the current Wi-Fi in school hubbub. News reports indicate:

Some parents in the Barrie, Ont., area say their children are showing a host of symptoms ranging from headaches and dizziness to nausea and even racing heart rates.

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.

That is a familiar list of symptoms – non-specific, common and subjective. They are similar to the symptoms that people previously blamed on mold in schools. (But it should be noted that the analogy to mold is not perfect as there is evidence to support the conclusion that some people have a genuine mold allergy, and developed real allergic symptoms to measurable exposures to mold. At the same time, there are those with non-specific symptoms who blame it on mold as the available explanation.)

How do parents know their children are having symptoms secondary to Wi-Fi?

“These kids are getting sick at school but not at home,” he said.

“I’m not saying it’s because of the Wi-Fi because we don’t know yet, but I’ve pretty much eliminated every other possible source.”

I doubt “every other possible source” has been adequately eliminated. That is tough to do for environmental exposures. Further, it should first be determined if there is an actual medical phenomenon, before explanations are sought. One of the primary sources of disconnect between medical professionals and the public is that professionals know from history of published evidence that people can exhibit symptoms without there being a specific physical cause, while the public remains largely unconvinced of this fact. As stated above, even those who had dramatic and consistent symptoms to EMF could not reproduce them under blinded conditions.

Further, the parents are more compelled than they should be at the timing of the symptoms. It should not be that much of a surprise that students are exhibiting non-specific symptoms at school but not home. Stress alone is a sufficient explanation, but there may be others. For example, many students go to school sleep-deprived because they are staying up too late. This is not an issue on weekends and over the summer. Sleep deprivation is a good explanation for most of the symptoms being reported.

There likely is no one answer to what the children are reporting. Once a community has identified a culprit, then many people with non-specific symptoms from any cause are likely to latch onto the available explanation for their symptoms.


Often these issues are framed as a debate over what level of safety is appropriate. There always seems to be those arguing for “zero” risk, or an absolute guarantee of safety. Absolute safety does not exist in our world and is not a reasonable goal. Even with this extreme position aside, it is always easy to argue for greater safety limits than are currently in place. It may always seem reasonable to say that we should err on the side of safety, or wait for further research.

But I do not think this is always the reasonable position. It makes more sense to consider risk vs benefit. In the case of Wi-Fi we have very low biological plausibility given the low levels of exposure, a 1000 fold safety margin with current regulations, no compelling evidence from cell studies of a biological effect, and no clinical evidence of a real health effect.

Meanwhile, convenient internet connectivity is increasingly a vital aspect of our modern lives – certainly in the context of education.

I wonder if those parents arguing against Wi-Fi in the schools, based upon vague anecdotal evidence in the face of low scientific plausibility and lack of evidence of risk, use cell phones. Do they drive, use power tools, have a swimming pool, or snow ski? There are probably hundreds of things we take for granted in our daily lives that have greater risks than Wi-Fi.

These news stories also highlight the need for greater public education in critical thinking. These parents mean well, they are just falling victim to poor critical thinking skills. The news report also indicates that the school board has been largely ignoring them, which is not a good strategy. Professionals and regulators also need to learn how to deal with the public over such issues.

What we have here are the seeds of yet another grassroots movement that is disconnected from science and hostile to authority. This is a scenario we have seen played out many times before, and no doubt we will see it many times again.

40 Responses to “Banning Wi-Fi from Schools”

  1. Some people should go back to living in caves.

    • L K Tucker says:

      Debating the effects of EMR from WiFi won’t help. It’s not the WiFi.

      Video from CBC News and pictures on-line illustrating typical computer installations show students using computers while sitting in each other’s peripheral vision without Cubicle Level Protection.

      It’s a problem called Subliminal Distraction. Discovered when it caused mental breaks for knowledge workers using the first prototypes of modern close-spaced workstations the cubicle was designed to block peripheral vision for a concentrating worker preventing it by 1968, forty years ago. It is caused by your brain’s repeating failed attempts to trigger the vision startle reflex in those crowded situation.

      When you learn to consciously ignore distracting movement around you the expected startle will stop. But that does not turn off the primitive subliminally functioning brain system that detects threat-movement and begins the attempt to startle.

      That detection and your brain’s reaction to it are a Subliminal Distraction. The name comes from the normal feature of our physiology of sight that allows it to happen.

      It is dangerous. These students don’t have enough exposure to cause a serious mental event. But if one of them created the problem at home for longer exposure they might have it. Confused wandering in a Canadian winter would lead to hypothermia before anyone realized the student was missing.

      Visit my site and perform the demonstration of subliminal sight and habituation in peripheral vision. You will witness something disappear while you observe it in peripheral vision.

  2. Jason says:

    Seems like a perfect opportunity to teach the children and public about critical thinking. They should turn off the wireless, but not tell anyone. In September when this group of parents go screaming to the media, they can issue a press release calling the parents out on their stupidity, and then promptly turn on the wireless.

  3. david says:

    More information about the biological effects of non-ionizing radiation from wireless technology is coming out every day. Enough is not being done by cities, counties, states and the Federal Government to protect us from the potentially devastating health and environmental effects. Through the 1996 telecommunications act the telecoms are shielded from liability and oversight. Initially cell phones were released with no pre-market safety testing despite the fact the Government and the Military have known for over 50 years that radio frequency is harmful to all biological systems (inthesenewtimes dot com/2009/05/02/6458/.). Health studies were suppressed and the 4 trillion dollar a year industry was given what amounts to a license to kill.
    On it’s face, the 1996 telecommunications act is unconstitutional and a cover-up. Within the fine print city governments are not allowed to consider “environmental” effects from cell towers. They should anyway! It is the moral and legal obligation of our government to protect our health and welfare? Or is it? When did this become an obsolete concept? A cell tower is a microwave weapon capable of causing cancer, genetic damage & other biological problems. Bees, bats, humans, plants and trees are all affected by RF & EMF. Communities fight to keep cell towers away from schools yet they allow the school boards to install wi fi in all of our schools thereby irradiating our kids for 6-7 hours each day. Kids go home and the genetic assault continues with DECT portable phones, cell phones, wi fi and Wii’s. A tsunami of cancers and early alzheimer’s await our kids. Young people under the age of 20 are 420% more at risk of forming brain tumors (Swedish study, Dr. Lennart Hardell) because of their soft skulls, brain size and cell turn over time. Instead of teaching “safer” cell phone use and the dangers of wireless technology our schools mindlessly rush to wireless bending to industry pressure rather than informed decision making. We teach about alcohol, tobacco, drugs and safe sex but not about “safer” cell phone use. We are in a wireless trance, scientists are panicking while young brains, ovaries and sperm burns.

  4. No No, I think this is a great idea. There’s no reason to start with the assumption that obesity and resting heart rates of 97 are making the kids sick. Lets start with the wifi, then we’ll move onto the ridiculously obvious options.

  5. DCurmudgeon says:

    I think wi-fi at schools should be shut off, but not for health reasons. I am more concerned about cheating and distractions than health. It would be ideal if there was a way to block all cell phone and wi-fi communication at a school unless there was an emergency. Something similar to a panic button could be pushed that would allow total access to cell service and wi-fi. As an employer, I would like to block all cell phone and wi-fi use in the work place unless a fire alarm or 9-1-1 is called. Too many of my employees side step the company policy of not making personal calls on company time by using their cell phone. Some are using their personal laptops to circumvent policies regarding use of computers for personal business at work. Current federal law prohibits the use of a signal blocking device to prevent these abuses.

    If there were health effects from wi-fi then there should also be health effects from broadcast TV, broadcast radio and your microwave oven. If you think wi-fi is a health issue, move to a remote island in the Pacific that is so totally off the grid that you do not know the day or year.

    Finally, with the Sun’s natural cycle, the entire Earth could be experiencing the effects of solar storms. Wi-fi will be a minor problem in comparison to what happens with solar flares.

    • WScott says:

      If you think wi-fi is a health issue, move to a remote island in the Pacific

      Reminds me of a conversation I had with an anti-nuclear activist in Santa Fe. I suggested that if she was really that worried about radiation, she could cut her annual dose 2/3 by moving to sea level. She was not amused.

      • Max says:

        If she was worried about a nuclear meltdown or nuclear war, I can understand why she wasn’t amused to get advice about cutting exposure to cosmic radiation.

      • WScott says:

        Actually she was mainly worried about getting radiation poisoning from passing trucks carrying nuclear waste shipments to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP). The hottest of those trucks give off 10 mrem/hr at 2 meters (that’s roughly 1 chest x-ray over an hour), and most are 1-2 orders of magnitude below that. I was trying to put things in perspective for her by explaining that even if a truck passed right in front of her house every hour for a year, she still wouldn’t get a fraction of the increased background dose in Santa Fe from cosmic rad & radon. Her response, naturally, was that background radiation was natural and therefore good, while radiation from the waste was man-made and therefore bad. Oh, and something about DOE smuggling drugs in the empty shipping containers. You’re right, tho – I wouldn’t have used different arguments with someone worried about war/meltdown.

  6. Max says:

    Did the students stop getting sick after the school was rebuilt without Wi-Fi?

  7. MadScientist says:

    About “non-thermal biological effects” – what are these meant to be, exactly? Humans are just another walking bag of chemicals and we know a hell of a lot about how various radiation interacts with chemicals. At radio frequencies, heating is the only significant effect because it allows some reactions to proceed a bit easier (you might call this ‘activation’). Anyone who has a microwave oven can show how some things can be heated so much by radio waves that they’ll burn.

    But going back to the chemistry of things, what “non-thermal” effects can there be? Well, since activation is a thermal effect it can’t be the activation of reactions. That leaves us with radiation-induced damage. Oh, gee, there’s not enough energy in single photons at radio frequencies to be able to cause chemicals in the body to fall apart – no, we have to go all the way into the ultraviolet for that. There is simply no known means by which damage can occur except by absorption of multiple photons and consequent heating; radio frequency photons have so little energy that they can’t even knock electrons out of their orbits. Other effects we can observe with moderately high power radio signals, such as the beautiful sparks across a CD’s surface when it’s placed in a microwave oven, cannot happen with these low power radios because they will not be able to induce the high electric fields possible in a microwave oven, not even if you stuck the antenna up an orifice.

    • MadScientist says:

      Well, in addition to what we *do* know about chemical reactions, we can always say that philosophically there is the chance that we don’t know *everything* (well, technically we’re certain that we don’t know everything). Even in such a case where our knowledge is defective and we cannot imagine a cause, there *must* be evidence of the claim that Wi-Fi is making the kids sick. OK you morons behind this scare – where’s *your* evidence?

      • NightHiker says:

        Although I would think it very unlikely, we can’t really discard indirect damage caused by influence on our own “internal communications”, so to speak, or biofeedback. Something might not cause damage per se but work as a signal to trigger biological events that in the long run have deleterious effects. I guess that’s what Steve meant by “non-thermal biological effects”. I have no idea what they could be, if possible, or how they could make such radiations worse, or even significant, compared to naturally occurring ones, but it’s the only theoretical avenue I can think of that might provide a basis for concern, albeit very, very small.

      • MadScientist says:

        Even if we were absolutely ignorant of mechanisms for damage, if any claims of damage are to be believed then we need evidence of it, and there is absolutely no valid evidence in support of the claims. For example, thousands of years ago humans would undoubtedly be familiar with radiative burns from large fires – they could not possibly know the mechanisms for their burns but they would have correctly associated the burns with the fire. In the case of the WiFi claims (as well as the cell phone claims), there is not even credible evidence in favor of the claims being made and (except for RF heating) no mechanisms currently known to us could result in what is being claimed. In short, no evidence and no current knowledge that would suggest that we might be able to find such evidence. In the case of RF heating, the matter had been studied extensively and multiple times and every single time the conclusion is the same – no danger.

      • NightHiker says:

        I agree with you there’s likely no reason to be alarmed. I just like to make an effort to think of ways I could be wrong, and that’s the only alternative I could think of that could, albeit unlikely, bring credence to the idea that such radiation might bring deleterious health effects, but only after new data regarding longer exposures kick in. Even then the problem persists: if its such a small effect that only much longer exposures might show it, then how does that make the damage significant or even relevant compared to all the other kinds of radiation we have to endure on a daily basis?

        In short, I’m saying is that though we can’t exclude the possibility of any deleterious effect with certainty at this point, whatever damage it might bring in the long run, it’s still not the cause for the alleged symptoms of those school children.

    • Max says:

      Wi-Fi signals work by inducing currents in antennas that receive them, so explain why they can’t induce currents in the nervous system.

      • MadScientist says:

        The nervous system just isn’t as good a conductor, so it’s an extremely poor receiver. It’s a better absorber than an antenna, but then we’re back to the RF heating issue which was resolved over 2 decades ago.

  8. steelsheen11b says:

    “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.”

    Jeez I had everyone of those symptoms as a kid back in the 70’s before the onset of Wi-Fi. I chalk it up to, you know, being a kid and spending a lot of time running around outside doing things nonstop. It’s sad what adults have done to children and what they have made them into.

    • Max says:

      You chalk it up to what you were doing, and they chalk it up to what they’re doing, which is using Wi-Fi.

      • steelsheen11b says:

        No I chalk it up to being a kid. kids are hyperactive and often forgetful and when they use to let outside kids get rashes and are forgetful and don’t concentrate well. So in other wards they are being kids.

  9. Stephen Williamson says:

    Good for you for not stooping to ad hominems. With names like Magda Havas and Susan Clark associated with this story, you had ample cause and opportunity, and I think it speaks well of you that you avoided it. Cheers!

  10. I figured my neighbour unwittingly distributes his wifi connection throughout the street. Or does he? Hmmm…I smell a conspiracy.

  11. walt says:

    I think the one thing that deserves further scrutiny is Professor Madga Havas of Trent University. Every barking-mad EMF story these days seems to have comments from her.

    So far I’ve seen very little scrutiny of her from the usual critical-thinking circles, and I think she warrants and deserves further observation and reflection.

    As you might guess, I’m trying to be very polite here.

  12. Canadian Curmudgeon says:

    In the Canadian news sites that I regularly read, the general consensus of the commenters is that non-specific illnesses that occur at school and not at home are very common in students. They also mention that most of us has ‘experienced’ this in our youth. It was just a matter of playing it well enough to convince our parents to let us stay home.

    My parents were smart enough to recognize it for what it was. These parents see just don’t believe their kids would ever do something like that. Hah.

  13. WScott says:

    MadScientist @7: You bring up a good point. I think it’s important to acknowledge that, as you say, it is always possible there’s some unknown mechanism at work and we just haven’t figured it out yet. The classic example is Becquerel stumbling across ionizing radiation, despite initially having no idea how it worked. Of course, Becquerel had clear evidence that something was going on…

    My point is not to suggest that there is some mechanism here we don’t know about – based on the lack of evidence, I highly doubt it. But IMX the “there’s no mechanism” argument is pretty poor at persuading people. It plays into the “scientists just dismiss what doesn’t fit their neat little textbooks” charge that the loons like to throw around. I think the better tactic is to explain what we do know, acknowledge the limits of that knowledge, and then put the burden on the woo-proponents to provide some non-anecdotal evidence in support of their claim.

    • Whut? says:

      Those two options are the same. If I explain that modern science has no mechanism, or explain all manner of science and then say there are gaps, essentially does the same thing. Except of course, that the gaps part may help people to act stupidly “There’s plenty science doesn’t know” “Science is always being proven wrong”. If someone makes a pseudoscientific claim, explaining that their claim is irrational, unscientific, and unfounded, is the best way to assauge their fears. It doesn’t mean being a dick.
      But there’s no need for the whole Post Modernist-Science isn’t perfect, line, as while science may have flaws, it has a sound methodology. First, you must observe a trend, which has no known explanation, and then, your explanation, must be provable. Here, they have no specific trend, no proof that the trend is different to what children normally experience, and their explanation requires the disbelieving of our understanding of fields on the body, and physics. Explaining the gaps in our knowledge is about as self defeating a strategy as I can imagine. Especially since you can just whip out your cell phone and point out that by using this, you’re hitting them with 100x the radiation.

      People hear radiation and panic thinking “Nuclear stuff”. They don’t think, CONVENTIONAL OVENS, MICROWAVES, SUNLIGHT, RADIO, TELEVISION SIGNALS. These are demonstratably less effective than background radiation, and there is no indication that they do anything terribly awful (Barring of course, Thermal effects, which may precipitate burns, and melonoma in the case of UV from the Sun-Are we just to eliminate all non-laser light simply to maintain a safe monochromatic lighting?)

  14. Andrew says:

    “These kids are getting sick at school but not at home,” he said.

    What? None of these kids have Wi-Fi at home?

  15. Angela Klein (Blue Water School Board District)) says:

    Ever read “Corrupt to the Core”?
    Dr. Shiv Chopra is one of three Health Canada scientists whose testimony before a Senate Committee in 1998 triggered headlines around the world. The scientists testified that Health Canada managers had pressured them to release suspect veterinary drugs into the food chain without the evidence of safety required by the Food and Drugs Act.

    One result of these revelations was the widespread rejection of bovine growth hormone (a drug which boosts the milk production of dairy cattle) in Europe, Canada and most developed countries – even though it had been already approved in the USA.

    Dr. Shiv Chopra
    In telling the story of his career, Chopra provides a detailed account of intrigue, manipulation and deception as Health Canada managers scramble to please drug companies – at the behest of their own political masters – by approving inadequately tested drugs. He accuses management of:

    Ignoring a central requirement of the Food and Drugs Act – Health Canada’s raison d’ être – that manufacturers must provide evidence of safety before approval can be given
    Ignoring, sidelining and attacking scientists who would not bow to management pressure to approve drugs without the legally-required evidence of safety
    Arbitrarily approving by fiat veterinary drugs containing known carcinogens and hormones with known serious health impacts
    Refusing to revisit previous drug approvals when subsequent evidence emerged that these drugs were not safe
    Promoting people who showed themselves willing to comply with these deceptive practices, while sidelining scientists who adhered to the law
    Distorting, manipulating or ignoring scientists’ reports on the risks of certain drugs
    Muzzling scientists whose findings were inconvenient to the department, by forbidding them to speak to anyone about their work.
    After a promising start, Chopra’s career with Health Canada went nowhere as he repeatedly clashed with management over certain drug approvals. The end came for Chopra and his colleagues a few years after their Senate appearance, when all three were fired simultaneously. They have spent the past four years in hearings before the Public Service Labour Relations Board (PSLRB), as their union battles to have them reinstated.

    This book is a ‘must read’ for anyone who wants to understand the intersection between politics and corporate influence, science, and the law, within one of Canada’s most controversial (and litigated) government departments.

    FYI….. before spouting wrong information to parents, you should first read:
    An Expert Panel Report prepared at the request of the Royal Society of Canada for Health Canada

    This most authoritative report concludes that well below thermal effects the microwaves used by WiFi devices:

    – will compromise the integrity of the blood-brain barrier (Sect 6.6 pg 44).

    -can activate ODC salivary enzymes known to promote cancer in humans, (Sect 6.3 pg 41-42) from microwave radiation below health Canada’s Guidelines

    -microwaves at these frequencies and below Health Canada’s Guidelines can disrupt calcium regulation.

    -shows “strong evidence that microwave irradiation produces behavioural and associated biochemical changes at or below the occupational exposure limits in SC6”. (Safety Code 6)(Sect 6.7 pg 46)

    The Royal Society of Canada, in an expert panel report to Health Canada is an irrefutable source in this country.

    These comments are literature review based comments which consider the “weight of literature” and not individual studies.

    Their conclusions strongly suggest that blanketing an entire school system with constant exposure is an application that will predictably pose a public health “risk”.

    ALSO, commercial (school) wifi is MUCH stronger than that used in homes.
    Microwaves currently used for carrier frequencies are commonly 600 MHz – 2,400 MHz (aka 2.4 GHz). The regulation is not on the length of the wave, but on it’s intensity. ie, how many watts are blasting, or how high the volume is.
    In the Collingwood schools the WiFi is the same as in your home. but in your home it might be 4-6 watts. in the kindergarten class in Collingwood its 800-1000 watts.

  16. Angela Klein (Blue Water School Board District)) says:

    The “Corrupt to the Core” Book review was by
    David Hutton
    Executive Director, Federal Accountability Initiative for Reform (FAIR)
    12th November 2008