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.

My comments to VCPAC on the upcoming parent survey on WiFi

The VCPAC (Victoria Confederation of Parent Advisory Groups) is moving ahead with a plan to survey parents in SD 61 regarding whether or not they feel WiFi is safe and should be installed in the schools. The SD 61 trustees will be using the results of this survey as one piece of the criteria they will use when making WiFi related decisions in this district.

I have some concerns about VCPAC conducting a survey. Primarily, my concerns are:

  1. Ensuring the validity of a survey. What safeguards will be in place to make sure that each person is only allowed one vote, and those votes are only coming from people within our geographical area?
  2. Ensuring the questions focus on the health aspects of WiFi in schools. There are many other issues that get clouded in with this issue (parents perceptions of more “screen time”, the corporate agenda, so on). But if VCPAC moves ahead with a survey, it must focus on the issue of health and make that clear in the survey that this issue is being driven by health concerns of WiFi, not how the technology is used.

This weekend I passed my concerns on to VCPAC President John Bird. Here is a copy of the email.

John,

First, I am opposed to doing the survey as I believe this is a decision that needs to be made based in the opinion of public health officials, not the school district. I am also concerned about the validity of an open survey as I believe the results will be disputed by either side.

However, if the survey does go ahead, I would urge the VCPAC to hire an external company to conduct the survey. This way, adequate arms length safeguards can be put in place that ensures the results will be credible and valid.

Second, I would suggest not doing a bulk survey, but instead have this company do a representative sample consisting of phone calls to randomly selected parents. This is a perfectly legitimate way to gather the thoughts of parents in our district about this issue, and protects the survey from being heavily influenced by those outside our district who may have a vested interest in the results either way.Finally, if VCPAC moves ahead with the survey, there should be a strong preamble to the survey that provides context for parents and shows that the weight of expert opinion by public health and safety officials supports that WiFi is safe. Something like:

“Public health officials, including Health Canada, the BC Ministry of Health and the Vancouver Island Health Authority, have all concluded that WiFi is safe. However, there remains a concern among some parents in the district that WiFi poses a health risk to children. The VCPAC is asking parents for their opinion on this matter. The results of this survey will be submitted to the SD 61 WiFi committee.

1) Do you believe that WiFi poses a health risk to students in our school district?
2) If you think that WiFi poses a health risk to students, do you believe that WiFi should not be allowed in schools in school district 61?”

Thanks,
Clint

The date for the survey has yet to be determined by VCPAC.

My letter to School District 61 school trustees

School District 61 in Victoria has a standing WiFi committee. If you are a parent in SD 61 looking for information on the safety of WiFi in schools and visit the committee website, you might be surprised to see how heavily one-sided the information about the safety of WiFi is. While there is a single (important) letter from Dr. Richard Stanwick of the Vancouver Island Health Authority with his opinion on the matter (WiFi poses no health risk), at the bottom of the page is a list of links submitted to the committee by Janis Hoffman which is clearly weighted to show that WiFi is a health risk.

To balance out that information, I sent an alternative list of links to the school district trustees last night and asked them to post this list alongside the list submitted by Ms. Hoffman. Here is the email I sent to the board.

My name is Clint Lalonde and I am the parent of 2 children in SD 61. I am also the founder of the website wifiinschools.ca.
For the past year, I have been following the issue of the safety of WiFi in schools, and have been increasingly dismayed at the strong level of influence a small group of anti-WiFi activists armed with questionable scientific evidence appears to be having on educational policy in our area.
In the coming weeks, parents in SD 61 will be asked by VCPAC to vote on the issue on whether they believe that WiFi is safe. When parents are asked to vote on this controversial issue, they will be looking for information to help them decide.

Recently, I went to the SD 61 WiFi committee website and was, quite frankly, appalled at the lack of credible information located there. Aside from a single, important letter from Dr. Richard Stanwick of VIHA that clearly states that WiFi poses no health risk, the information is heavily one sided and skewed to make it appear that there is an abundance of “research” that WiFi is unsafe. In fact, much of what is presented as “credible” information in the list of links presented by Janice Hoffman are opinion pieces and the views of a minority of the scientific community. Therefore, I would like to request that the School District please add a second set of links to the page that presents the mainstream view of the majority of public health officials on this matter. I have created a list and attached it to this email. I would like to request this list be added to SD 61 WiFi committee website as soon as possible.

I would also urge you, the trustees, to take a similar stance when it comes to the health of WiFi as other school districts around the province have. That is, take your lead on the health risks of WiFi from our public health bodies, the people who have the mandate and the expertise to critically evaluate the large body of scientific evidence on this matter, and not activists.

Thank you.

Ferocity (or what this site is really about)

I ‘ve added a blog to the site. I need to have some space to post my thoughts about this issue because a lot has happened since I set this site up less than 2 weeks ago that needs to be addressed.

The past week has been terribly difficult for me as I truly underestimated the ferocity of attack that has been hurled at me and (worse) at my employer. I have spent countless hours responding, defending, reading, thinking, etc.

I have truly seen the best and the worst of the internet this past week. Thank you to those who have responded to me with emails and tweets of support from parents and educators (and who have publicly fought back on Twitter and on this blog) encouraging me and supporting me. You are the best of the internet.

Onto the other side.

Who I am

First, there have been many accusations that I am an “industry insider” and thinly veiled attempts to insinuate that this site has been set up with a corporate agenda. This is patently untrue. I work in the public sector, and have for close to 20 years. I updated the About Me page to reflect more details about who I am and why I have set up this site, but I will reiterate it here because the point seems to be lost on people – I am a parent with 2 kids in the public school system in Victoria who believes they are not getting the education they will need to live in their world. That is why I have set up this site. That is my agenda.

I understand why people want to know who I am, where I work and so on to find out who I “really” am, so I attached my name to this site. I am not anonymous. I have nothing to hide. I only want what I think is best for my children. Perhaps that was naive. Perhaps,  I should have made my site anonymous and not allowed comments and open discussion. It would have saved me a helluva lot of trouble and I would have slept better this week. But I did not. I put my name on this site. Openess and transparency are important values for me.

Who I think should be deciding this issue and why

Second, I cannot keep up with the barrage of information people are throwing at me. It is becoming quite clear to me that obfuscation through volume is a tactic being used by those who believe WiFi is not safe. Throw a thousand studies in someone’s face and tell them it’s “irrefutable evidence” is a sure recipe to information overload. Throw a thousand studies in someone who is untrained to decipher scientific research hides “the truth” even more. Which is why I am advocating that the people who should be making decision about health issues are our public health officials. They are trained to understand, to decipher, to sift. They are the critical thinkers in our society best equipped with the knowledge to decide health issues. Not me, certainly not the activists on the other side of the issue, and not our public school board. Our public school board needs to be basing educational policy decisions on public policy, not the strong,  very vocal (and seemingly boundless energy) of a small number of people.

What this website is really about (aka my agenda)

Finally, this is not about devices in schools, or selling iPads. What this site is about is enabling a fundamentally different model of teaching and learning – a model that is built on the principle that ubiquitous, instant, anytime anywhere internet access is a given in our society, and will be for our kids forever. Our children need to be able to know how to deal with that, live with it, understand how to use it.

This fight is, fundamentally, about a different vision of the education system that I think is at risk. It is based on the premise that the internet is here and always will be. How do our kids learn to selectively shut it off? How do we teach kids to deal with mountains of information? How does teaching fundamentally change when teachers are not the source of information (no, they do not go away, as some have suggested I am advocating – teachers are needed more than ever in this classroom. But their role is changing.) These are critical issues in education. THESE are the issues I want our policy makers working on. This is where their expertise and time is needed. Not fighting WiFi battles.

To do this, the internet has to become part of our kids lives, in deep and meaningful ways. They need to be able to access whenever and however they need to because that is how they will use it in life. They need to learn how to control it, use it. And they cannot do that by limiting where they access the internet from because in my kids life, there will be no limits to when or how they access the internet. Everyday our classrooms are looking less and less like the rest of the world they live in. Do we want an education system that prepares them to live in THEIR world, or a world that faded from existence?

My corporate agenda

There are some educators (in positions of power and influence in the education system) who have stated that my position is one that supports the increased corporatization of education. That educational technology is being pushed by corporate agendas.

On their point about the increased corporatization of education, I agree with them. Fully agree. There are strong and powerful corporate agendas pushing ed-tech solutionism in education. Education has become ripe for the picking in Silicon Valley. Those of us who work in education and education related fields are seeing the educational technology sector become increasingly corporate. I fear the same thing as they do, which is why I have spent my career in education promoting and fighting for open scholarship, open educational resources, and free access to educational resources.

This is a struggle we all must fight. But supporting policies that restrict access to the internet is not the way to fight this battle.

The fear

To parents like me. It is easy to fall into the fear. We are all parents. We want our kids to be safe. Me, too. Fear is all around us. The world wants us to live in fear. Fear our neighbour is going to assault us, fear that stranger in the park is going to take my kid, fear that my car seat is not safe enough. Fear my kid is going to get picked on at school. Fear. Fear. When you are a parent, it surrounds us constantly (mostly driven by intense marketing hype that we fail as parents). It is easy for the other side to make their argument because it plays into our most basic fear – the safety of our children. What if….what if….

If you are an educator reading this, you might recognize some of what I am saying. Perhaps you agree, perhaps you don’t. I know there are many that do. If you do, please help with this fight. Defend the internet. Tell parents how you are using it in your class. Tell them how you are seeing others use it. Show them examples from your peers who are using the web in ways that enable 21st Century pedagogy.

Thanks.

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