Is wifi in schools a bad idea?
October 21, 2010 9:18 AM   Subscribe

I've been doing some talking and thinking about WiFi in my community, and someone recently brought up the issue of wifi in schools. Apparently, parents want wifi to be banned in schools because after the introduction of wireless networks, their children are showing strange symptoms. Does anyone know of any evidence or studies done on this?

Any conclusive results? How is a wireless network different from radio or tv signals? What about cordless phones or other wireless devices?
posted by tomcochrane to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Dr Ben Goldacre has written a couple of Bad Science columns about it, here and here.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 9:22 AM on October 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

in general, RF becomes more dangerous as it:
- increases in frequency (ex. microwaves are more dangerous than VHF, which is more dangerous than "shortwave" (which is actually about the longest waves still being used in radio communications)
- increases in power
- gets closer in proximity (actually, this is really just the flip side of power, but a radio signal's power decreases very rapidly the farther you are from the antenna)

Cell phones have much more theoretical chance of giving you problems on those factors, and there is still no conclusive evidence that they cause problems (although the same crowd that would worry about that probably keeps their cell phones wrapped in tin foil).

So - nah.
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:39 AM on October 21, 2010

All of the data which supports Wi-Fi being harmful is - well, honestly, it's not even really data, and to call it "anecdotal" is to raise it to a level it does not deserve.

If parents in your community want it to be banned as a result of symptoms their children are showing, then the burden of proof is on them to demonstrate that there can be no cause besides Wi-Fi for these symptoms, and in the process demonstrate that our current understanding of the way RF works is wrong.

If they can do that, then sure.

But I really rather doubt they will.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 10:14 AM on October 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

Look, I don't know that WiFi causes brain rot or whatever, but I would like to say that putting the burden of proof on the naysayers might be a bit backwards.

Remember the whole "bad air" theory of malaria? That's ridiculous, right? We know that now -- but back when it was just a supposition, it probably saved lives, because the same perhaps misguided caution that led to windows being kept firmly shut at night probably kept out the mosquitoes that we now believe _do_ cause malaria.

But if you'd said "we're not going to close windows until you _prove_ that bad air causes malaria," well, you hardly knew what caused malaria at that time and I would call any parent that opposed that policy an (accidental, maybe under-educated, but in the end protecting his child successfully in the face of your scorn) hero.

For the record, I hope that everyone gets vaccinated, and I think the benefits clearly outweigh the risks on that one. It may be that the benefits outweigh the risks with WiFi -- but I think the burden of proof is on the pro-WiFi camp.
posted by amtho at 10:25 AM on October 21, 2010

Also, for what it's worth, it may very well shut up some of these parents if you explain to them that the James Randi Educational Foundation (although I don't know that this offer will stand for much longer) is offering a million dollars to anyone who can prove that they're allergic to wifi. If they start claiming that they just know they're right and science is wrong, that may be one avenue to take.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 10:26 AM on October 21, 2010 [2 favorites]

On a related note, there was a broadcast tower in South Africa that had the local community up in arms.

...Tracey-Lee Dorny, describes the affected community’s symptoms: “several rash cases were presented in person and by photos from people who could not attend [a meeting with iBurst]. Headaches, nausea, tinnitus, dry burning itchy skins, gastric imbalances and totally disrupted sleep patterns, especially with some of the children, were some of the issues presented by the residents.”

Dorny told The Star that she and her son are spending alternate nights at her mother’s house to get some relief. “When I’m off the property, the symptoms subside,” she said.

Then it turned out the tower had already been switched off for a while.

At the meeting Van Zyl agreed to turn off the tower with immediate effect to assess whether the health problems described by some of the residents subsided. What Craigavon residents were unaware of is that the tower had already been switched off in early October – six weeks before the November meeting where residents confirmed the continued ailments they experienced.

MyBroadband was furnished with technical reports which confirmed that the Fourways Memorial Park iBurst tower was turned off in early October and that it did not provide any services over the next few weeks.

posted by truex at 10:27 AM on October 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

amtho: That's not nearly the same situation. In that case, you had a bad result (malaria) with only guesses at a cause. In this case, you have a cause (WiFi) but no clear bad result. "Strange symptoms", by itself, is absolutely nothing to work with.
posted by xil at 10:30 AM on October 21, 2010 [3 favorites]

The problem with the malaria example is that malaria is an actual, verifiable physical ailment. To my knowledge cases of people with Wi-Fi and cellular sensitivity have ended up either psychosomatic in nature or a case of misassigned blame. This isn't to say that there may be some unknown effects, but it appears they'd be nowhere near as dramatic as mystery symptoms.

This doesn't address the fact that we're being bombarded with electromagnetic waves all the time, in particular earnest since the dawn of radio and television.
posted by truex at 10:36 AM on October 21, 2010

Whilst there may be no evidence of wifi as a direct cause of any problems the "nocebo effect" can be. In order words if children (and their parents) believe that they are being harmed by the presence of the signals then they can exhibit symptoms which are as real as if they actually were being harmed. The effects mentioned in truex's posting above can be a part of this.

Easy solution: disconnect the "on" LED on the router.
posted by rongorongo at 10:40 AM on October 21, 2010

but I think the burden of proof is on the pro-WiFi camp.

The two aren't really similar in this case - but more to the point, it's sort of a standard in scientific discussions that the burden of proof tends to lie on a party which is making a claim very far from the general consensus. I don't mean it as a rhetorical technique but as part of proving an extraordinary claim.

In other words, in this case, it is not incumbent upon the pro-wifi camp to prove that wifi isn't making children sick. This is true for a few reasons: One, that outside of a handful of crackpots and the general sort of ignorance that you get among some folks, nobody believes it's even possible. Two, that the arguments made by the anti-wifi camp are not internally consistent and don't stand up to scrutiny and generally hinge on a lack of understanding how the world works and as such don't really carry the same weight that existing counter-arguments do. And three, it's already thorny enough to prove a negative.

Malaria has observable and consistent characteristics. Wi-fi allergy does not. "Bad air" was basically an educated guess to explain an undisputed phenomenon.

It's one thing to take precautions, even wrong-headed ones, against a condition you know to exist. This is more like asking the school to stop admitting new students in case some of them are zombies. It's a precaution the school should be willing to take, but first someone's going to have to demonstrate that zombies exist and are harmful. You know?

Anyway. I'm not saying any of this to be argumentative or to derail, though maybe it might look that way. The above is another way of thinking about the problem and I'd like to think it may also be helpful to the OP in terms of what to say to parents or supporters of the notion to remove wifi, if and when it comes up. I very much understand a parent's desire to take care of their children, but it has always really rubbed me the wrong way when ceding ground to ignorance involves removing something genuinely useful and demonstrably harmless.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 10:48 AM on October 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you or somebody you know has an Android-based phone, there's a free WiFi scanning app called Wifi Analyzer that lets you see the number and relative strengths of nearby networks. That can give you an idea of just what's in the neighborhood and if there's anything overlapping the campus already.
posted by truex at 10:51 AM on October 21, 2010

This has been studied and reviewed many times over, but there are still people scared of the unseen. Do the parents get sick while sitting in Starbucks? If that's too short of a period for validation, how about university students who work on campus with wireless laptops? Surely, they'd be sick by now.

The LA Times has a write-up on this from February 15, 2010, with comments from both sides of the EMF "debate" (there are few, loud voices speaking against the dangers of EMF from WiFi and cell phones, and many who dismiss their concerns). I don't understand the science behind the concerns and rebuttals, but a few lines that made sense to me:

* A light wave coming from a desk lamp has more energy than a microwave coming from a cellphone.
* Lab studies have shown that rats and other animals can live quite happily in EMFs much stronger than any plugged-in, BlackBerry-toting human would ever experience.
* similar studies regarding large power lines are riddled with inconsistencies, pointing out that there are more "dangerous emitters" in the house than these external concerns, the type that are found in all homes, not just homes near major power lines.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:54 AM on October 21, 2010

Correlation is not causation. And exactly what are these "strange symptoms", anyway?

And could there be, perhaps, another possible (much more likely, imo) reason? Has the school changed cleaning or cooking products or copier/printer toner or pesticides, did they change food suppliers, do they need to/have they just cleaned the air handling system, etc? Has there been any utility or road work near the school? Any one of those is much more likely to cause "strange symptoms" than WiFi. And it's highly unlikely that the only wifi signal in the school building/on the premises is from the school's system.
posted by jlkr at 2:12 PM on October 21, 2010

Response by poster: Here's what someone mentioned:

"Parent wants WiFi out of schools. WiFi technology, used to connect computers to the Internet without wires, must be immediately banned from schools because it emits radiation that can cause headaches, dizziness, mood dis-orders and a racing heart — especially in children."
posted by tomcochrane at 2:37 PM on October 21, 2010

You seem to be bending backwards to treat this like a legitimate complaint. More power to you, and I know that dealing with schools in any capacity requires that kind of diplomacy.

But rest assured, this is a completely irrational fear from the Tinfoil Hat Brigade.

Scientific American recently published a pretty awesome article about how cell phones absolutely do not - cannot - cause cancer.

That's not going to stop the THB from being askeerd of them, though. (Since when did facts stand in the way of an irrational panic?)
posted by ErikaB at 5:21 PM on October 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

tomcochrane: How is a wireless network different from radio or tv signals? What about cordless phones or other wireless devices?

"Light, colors, AM and FM radio, and electronic devices make use of the electromagnetic spectrum." -- Part of the Wikipedia description of the electromagnetic spectrum.

"One of the main characteristics which defines an electromagnetic field (EMF) is its frequency or its corresponding wavelength. Fields of different frequencies interact with the body in different ways. One can imagine electromagnetic waves as series of very regular waves that travel at an enormous speed, the speed of light. The frequency simply describes the number of oscillations or cycles per second, while the term wavelength describes the distance between one wave and the next. Hence wavelength and frequency are inseparably intertwined: the higher the frequency the shorter the wavelength.

Wavelength and frequency determine another important characteristic of electromagnetic fields: Electromagnetic waves are carried by particles called quanta. Quanta of higher frequency (shorter wavelength) waves carry more energy than lower frequency (longer wavelength) fields. Some electromagnetic waves carry so much energy per quantum that they have the ability to break bonds between molecules. In the electromagnetic spectrum, gamma rays given off by radioactive materials, cosmic rays and X-rays carry this property and are called 'ionizing radiation'. Fields whose quanta are insufficient to break molecular bonds are called 'non-ionizing radiation'. Man-made sources of electromagnetic fields that form a major part of industrialized life - electricity, microwaves and radiofrequency fields – are found at the relatively long wavelength and low frequency end of the electromagnetic spectrum and their quanta are unable to break chemical bonds." -- Emphasis mine. From the World Health Organization, page 1 of a 7 page website titled "What are electromagnetic fields?"

Jump to page 2, and there's a section on research by The International EMF Project.
Conclusions from scientific research
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. Despite the feeling of some people that more research needs to be done, scientific knowledge in this area is now more extensive than for most chemicals. 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. However, some gaps in knowledge about biological effects exist and need further research.
The fact that WHO has been studying EMF has been spun to mean "Electromagnetic fields are finally being acknowledged as a potential biological hazard by the World Health Organization." Maybe there are still some unrecognized impacts from increased EMF in people's day-to-day lives, but given that there have been mobile phones (of sorts) in use since 1960, you'd think the damning evidence would be plain for all to see, but that doesn't seem to be the case. There's always more to know, but what is known so far seems to say this is not a significant concern, compared to the broad range of other dangers in daily modern life.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:55 AM on October 22, 2010

« Older Best use of 3 days in Vancouver in the rain?   |   I'm picking up bad vibrations... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.