Monday, September 27, 2010


Wifi in Schools and the Dangers of non-ionizing radiation: crazed anti-science parents, or a Cold War failure of Normal Science?
September 9, 2010 by northernsong

The CBC has run stories on parents groups who are concerned about the possible health effects of WIFI in elementary schools. Individual reports of increased heart rate and headaches, from parents and from the children themselves, are are concerning – but intuitively one wishes to trust Health Canada who dismiss the complaints as subjective. The peer reviewed literature, according to Health Canada, overwhelmingly confirms that the thermal effects of WIFI are negligible, and that no causal relation has been found between those thermal effects and any health problems.
The fact that scientists remain opposed to a scientific consensus is not a reason to distrust the consensus - if this were true, the presence of a single reputable climate denier in the peer reviewed literature would be a reason to refrain from belief in global warming. However, there are two reasons why the wifi case is different from climate denial. First: the precautionary principle runs in the opposite direction – whereas a slight doubt that human Co2 output will threaten the survival of the species is not a good reason to take action to stop Co2 emissions, a significant doubt that wifi causes health problems in children is not a good reason to take cheap and easy action to limit children’s exposure to wifi. Second, there is a structural bias behind Health Canada’s appraisal of the research into the effects of small levels of microwave radiation. This surprising claim comes from a study by Leo P. Inglis,surveyed here by Magda Havas, surveying the literature on microwave radiation’s health effects:

“In the U.S., the thermal effects are generally believed to be the only ones of significance; other contentions are usually dismissed as lacking a provable basis. In the USSR, non-thermal effects are considered the most significant and are overwhelmingly the ones most studied.”

This indicates a structural difference between scientific assumptions in US and USSR have swayed the directions of research, determined which studies got funding, what students took interest in, etc… This claim undercuts Health Canada’s statements which concern only the thermal effects of microwave radiation – if non thermal effects exist, Health Canada is not even looking for them.
Significant differences in the direction of scientific research between closed off communities are expected by constructivists like Kuhn, who believes that the basic assumptions of a scientific community are determined by the appearance of fruitfulness in future research rather than through normal scientific inquiry itself. In the past I have taken interest in Scientific research done under the Nazi regime, and research done in secrecy for the US military during the cold war. Such research programs demonstrate the power of dollars over freedom – how a research program, even when the researchers are cut off from their peers – can make tremendous strides if given a set of goals and unlimited resources. This gulf between Soviet and American research is an example of the opposite, and much less controversial hypothesis: that a lack of democracy is harmful for scientific research. The lack of proper collaboration between American and Soviet researchers into the effects of microwave radiation allowed Soviet research to ignore the importance of thermal effects, whereas the converse allowed US scientists and regulators to ignore the importance of non-thermal effects.
So, while the Bio-Initiative report is rejected by Health Canada as not being in conformity with the scientific consensus, it might not be rejected by Health Moscow. For example, whereas in 2008 and 2009 Health Canada continued to hold that there was no evidence that cell phone use could have any health effects, the Russian Naitonal Committee on non-ionizing ratiation protection made this statement about risks posed to children’s health by cell phone radiation (similar to WIFI, but much stronger)

Potential risk for the children’s health is very high:
─ the absorption of the electromagnetic energy in a child’s head is considerably higher than that in
the head of an adult (children’s brain has higher conductivity, smaller size, thin skull bones,
smaller distance from the antenna etc.);
─ children’s organism has more sensitivity to the EMF, than the adult’s;
─ children’s brain has higher sensitivity to the accumulation of the adverse effects under
conditions of chronic exposure to the EMF;
─ EMF affects the formation of the process of the higher nervous activity;
─ today’s children will spend essentially longer time using mobile phones, than today’s adults will.

Health Canada continues to hold that the risks from cell phone use do not include any of the risks advised by Russian, British, German, Belgian, Israeli, and Indian health agencies.
The basic question boils down to this: is it up to skeptics to prove that electronic devices are unsafe, or is it up to corporations trying to expand their markets by creating new needs to prove they are safe? If you ask Health Canada – the onus is on scientists to prove that a risk can be statistically proven, i.e. people must already have been hurt by the product. In other words – should the precautionary principle be applied to new electronic devices as it is to new medicine?