What we said to the school district about WiFi

This evening, SD61 parent’s David Leach, Dr. Valerie Irvine from the Faculty of Education at UVic and myself were given 15 minutes to present to the trustees on the topic of WiFi.

We divided the 15 minutes into 3, 5 minutes blocks. I spoke first, talking about the important role of public health officials in the debate.

Val followed with a great presentation on the evolution of learning design that showed what a 21st century WiFi enabled classroom looks like and how it can support individualized learning. She also compiled a great list of links (pdf) showing what other schools are doing & how education is moving from teacher-centric to student-centric. Here are the slides from her presentation.

David batted clean up and spoke eloquently about how the precautionary principle is already being applied by health officials when they make decisions. He also spoke about the Nocebo Effect.

I think the presentations went well, although I don’t think we swayed any opinions of trustees on the issue. But it was an important presentation as I don’t think that the board has had many parents on this side of the argument show up, and it is important for them to know that there are others who have a stake in this.

Here are the transcripts of what I said & what David said, and here are Val’s speaking notes & slides.

Clint Lalonde Presentation

Thank you for the opportunity to speak. I know that you have heard many perspectives on this issue and it has occupied a great deal of your time so I appreciate your willingness to have yet another WiFi conversation. I’ll keep this brief.

I know you are still in the consultation phase of your WiFi deliberations, but I am seeing actions being taken in our district based on the belief that WiFi is unsafe which concern me. Actions like application procedures for schools who wish to install WiFi, as was the case with Victor school and moratoriums on router installations. I believe that actions such as these are barriers for our educators.

Earlier this year I set up a website called wifi in schools to not only balance out the discussion around the possible health implications of WiFi, but also point out that removing access to WiFi in our schools has pedagogical implications, which Dr. Irvine will speak about in a moment. Indeed, wired internet connections have health risks of their own as they enforce sedentary behaviour as children are forced to remain in one spot to use computers. Sedentary behaviour is actually something that has been proven to be a health risks.

But just as importantly, I believe decisions to limit the use of WiFi in schools based on health risks undermines the credibility of public health organizations as it runs counter to the recommendations of countless public health organization in this country that have looked at, and continue to monitor, the health and safety of WiFi.

Health Canada, the Vancouver Island Health Authority, the BC Ministry of Health, the Alberta Ministry of Health, the Ontario Ministry of Health – everywhere I look to find information about the health risks of WiFi from organizations tasked with protecting the public’s health, I find the same specific and unequivocal message that WiFi is safe.

  • Dr. Richard Stanwick, the chief medical health office of VIHA, stated in his July 11 letter to this board that: “Given the current scientific evidence, the consensus of public health practitioners is that at the current exposure levels these electromagnetic fields do not constitute a threat to the health of the public.”
  • The BC Ministry of Health states on their website that: “There is no convincing evidence that wi-fi exposures constitute a threat to the health of B.C. residents.” and Dr. Perry Kendall, the Chief Health Officer of this province says there is “a lack of evidence of any adverse health effects related to Wi-Fi and … Wi-Fi exposure constitutes only a small fraction of total radiofrequency exposure.”
  • In their August 2012 fact sheet WiFi in Schools, the Office of the Chief Medical Officer for the Province of Alberta states that, “WiFi in schools does not pose a health risk to staff or students.”
  • Public Health Ontario notes that “…to date there is no plausible evidence that would indicate current public exposures to Wi-Fi are causing adverse effects on health.”
  • Health Canada says that “no precautionary measures are needed, since RF energy exposure levels from Wi-Fi are typically well below Canadian and international safety limits”.

And the list goes on.

In order for me to believe that WiFi is unsafe, I need to discredit the opinions of not one, but a whole host of very credible public health agencies. I am not ready to do that. Indeed, I think the complexity of this issue – both the science and the political complexity – is exactly when and why we need to pay attention to public health officials to help us understand what is and is not valid information.

Last week I sat in on the presentations of Dr. Blank, Dr. Gustav and others and, at the end, heard one of the trustees remark that, “…the research is hard to understand because I am not a physicist.” I agree. I do not think that analyzing the validity of science in this matter is the role of school district trustees. Analyzing science to find “the truth” is a rabbit hole we should not go down, yet it is one that I see us – all of us – parents, trustees, PAC’s – getting dragged down into.

The arguments about the science of wifi and the safety of wifi are for scientists and health officials to debate. This is their role, not ours. And the fact of the matter is, those who believe that wifi is unsafe have yet to convince our public health officials of that fact, and continue to undermine the credibility of those health officials with straw man arguments like “remember tobacco”.

All scientific studies are not created equal and should not be judged equally. Health officials weight the entire body of evidence and make health decisions. According to the World Health Organization, the body of evidence with respect to biological effects of non-ionizing radiation numbers over 25,000 studies going back 30 years. The evidence that is circulated by anti-wifi activists is not unknown to public health officials – it makes up that large body of evidence. Which is why meta-analysis – a systematic review of the entire body of scientific evidence – and not single studies are so important. This is what public health agencies do. It is their role in our society to make informed decisions from complicated bodies of work and provide consultation to other public bodies like you.

I would like to recommend to the board that whenever debates about the safety of WiFi are conducted, you take a very proactive approach and engage more deeply with our public health officials to help you determine the validity of the claims you are hearing. While I appreciate that you did reach out to Dr. Stanwick, I don’t think that is enough. For example, there has been much criticism of Canada’s Safety Code 6, yet when I review the WiFi committee meeting minutes I see no mention that the committee has asked Health Canada to respond to those criticisms. Ask our public health officials for their opinion about Dr. Blank’s Bioinitiative Report and whether the conclusions of that report are consistent with the other 32 international expert groups who have examined the health effects of RF exposure. When you receive a new position paper from the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, seek guidance from public health officials as to whether or not this is a credible source of information. Ask our public health officials why IARC classified RF as a class 2b possible carcinogen and whether that classification has anything to do with WiFi. I urge you to reach out and consult closely with our public health officials to help you understand the validity of the information you are being presented.

In conclusion, I have a difficult time reconciling the fact that decisions about the health and safety of my children may be made that go against the opinion of our public health officials. As a parent, there is nothing more important than the safety of my kids and it evokes a strong emotional reaction when groups attempt to exploit the feeling we all have as parents to protect our kids. Parents live in a world that constantly tells us that our children are in danger; that they are unsafe, that unless we follow a certain path, we put our children at risk. I usually hear this message from marketers who spell out how my child is in danger, and then are ready to sell me the solution to that problem. I see similar mechanisms at work here where a great deal of fear, uncertainty, and doubt is being raised by anti-wifi advocates that is simply not supported by our public health officials.

David Leach Presentation

Hi, my name is David Leach.

I’m the Director of the Technology and Society program at UVic.

I learned about this issue in March when I saw a poster near school from the group Citizens for Safe Technology, that read: “Wifi in Schools: Is it Safe?” My son asked: “Why does wifi make you sick?”

My question is: “Why are people telling my kids that Wifi will make them sick?”

You’ve heard from Clint about the scientific and public-health consensus on the safety of Wireless Internet.

You’ve heard from Valerie about the educational benefits of mobile Internet over fixed access.

I want to address concerns holding back your decision.

THE PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE

One of the main arguments from opponents of wireless is the Precautionary Principle. Because we can rarely know or reduce by 100% the potential risks associated with new technologies, we establish and enforce research-based limits for public safety as more evidence is gathered. That makes perfect sense.

The fact is, the Precautionary Principle is already implemented in the Wifi guidelines and exposure limits set by the World Health Organization, Health Canada, and other public-health bodies.

Wouldn’t it be better, then, to set even lower limits or avoid Wifi entirely? The answer is no. Instead of supporting the Precautionary Principle, you undermine it. You call into question the legitimacy of the scientists, doctors and public health officials who have distilled a deep body of research into our safety protocols. You say: “We know better than you do.”

A World Health Organization report specifically warns that QUOTE “scientific assessments of risk and science-based exposure limits should not be undermined by the adoption of arbitrary cautionary approaches.”

Yes, you can always find dissenting research to worry non-experts. Give me 15 minutes & a Wifi connection, and I can dig up studies or experts to scare you about almost every technology in classrooms—or in this room. From chairs to crayons to vehicles for school trips.

That doesn’t mean we should we should ban these technologies. As with Wifi, the Precautionary Principle is already in effect. We accept the minimized risks in exchange for the MANY rewards.

EMF SENSITIVITY & NOCEBO EFFECT

Okay, if Wifi is safe in general, what about individuals prone to so-called “Electromagnetic Hyper-Sensitivity” or EHS?

Obviously, we need to support the health concerns of all staff and students.

However, repeated studies show no evidence of a cause-and-effect link between reported symptoms and exposure to electromagnetic fields from Wifi. So withholding an educational tool (let alone investing in “Wifi-free” schools) due to EHS makes no sense—from a scientific, medical, or precautionary perspective.

What HAS been demonstrated is how symptoms of EHS can be caused, not by Wifi, but by exposure to media reports about the dangers of Wifi.

This phenomenon is called the Nocebo Effect — the reverse of the Placebo Effect. With placebos, a sugar pill instead of medicine can have a positive health outcome, through psychosomatic influence of mind over body.

With the Nocebo Effect, simply believing something can have a negative health effect can trigger symptoms—even if the imagined cause isn’t actually present.

British & German researchers had test subjects watch a notoriously inaccurate documentary about the health dangers of Wifi. Afterwards, the subjects were told they were exposed to Wifi (even though they weren’t. Many reported EHS symptoms. Two dropped out of the experiment because they felt so sick.

The Nocebo Effect is a reminder that Wireless internet is an issue in which inaction IS an action. It can have unintended consequences, if you allow the unfounded myth to spread through our schools that invisible waves are making our kids sick.

If you let that happen, you WILL have sick kids and sick staff. But it will have nothing to do with Wifi. And everything to do with a failure to act.

But don’t take my word for that.

And don’t take the word of a vocal minority invested in promoting the dangers of wifi.

Take the word of the world’s public-health officials and the vast majority of independent scientific researchers who have established both the safety of — and the safe guidelines for — the use of wireless Internet.

And then make a decision.

Because the next time my son sees a poster at his school and asks me if Wifi is safe, I want to be able to tell him: “Yes, the World Health Organization says it’s safe. The American Cancer Society says it’s safe. Health Canada says it’s safe. BC’s provincial health officer says it’s safe. The Vancouver Island Health Authority says it’s safe…

“And now your own School Board says it’s safe.”

Until that happens — and here I need to be blunt — until you listen to our health experts and make a decision based on science not lobbying, you will have abandoned your elected responsibility to us as parents, to the students you oversee, and to the community whose health officials and policies you’re undermining.

Thank you.