09/04/2013 05:47 EDT | Updated 11/04/2013 05:12 EST

Are You Worried About This Danger At Your Kid's School?

Once more, Frank Clegg and the B.C.-based Citizens for Safe Technology (C4ST) have shown that they will not let science get in the way of scaring children and families. 

This past Tuesday, the start of school for most Ontario children, C4ST was positioned outside of a school in Mississauga handing out pamphlets warning children and parents of the dangers of a new policy the Peel School Board has to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), meaning web-enabled electronics, that uses wireless internet as a delivery device.  My disappointment deepened when the Peel Board, an organization committed to education, decided that instead of educating it would offer only a written statement that said in essence "Health Canada says it is safe". I could see the hapless grin and feckless shrug even through the quote onscreen.  Finally, even after contacting me through Bad Science Watch, the local CTV health reporter Pauline Chan failed to present any opposing arguments to Clegg and his minions, and was therefore complicit in telling a story based in fantasy and fear.

Clegg, in an on camera interview, made two striking and oft-refuted claims regarding the use of wireless technology: that EMF sources like WiFi have not been tested on children and that any technology should be proven not harmful before being deployed. A quick look at the pamphlet shows the bias inherent in both of these arguments. They link to the BioInitiative Report, a heavily biased and unscientific review of cherry-picked literature designed more to instill fear than inform, and they show a scary looking brain scan diagram, a sure-fire way to fool people, that claims to show the increased absorption of EMF in a child and adult.  The real picture is much different.

Contrary to Clegg's insistence that wireless tech has not been tested on children, I found 18 studies, including 3 systematic reviews that largely disagreed with this assertion. The engineers and scientists at Health Canada are no dummies: when reviewing ALL of the information, not just that which confirms our biased assumptions, the evidence shows not only that the absorption of EMF in adults and children, called the SAR, is mostly the same between children over 2 and adults but that wireless technology is safe in the doses demanded by Safety Code 6. The study from Ghandi that is cited in the paper shows only one side of the argument, and more importantly, was presented at a conference with fringe scientists like Henry Lai and Devra Davis in attendance - a very receptive audience. As well, the journal it was published in was Electromagnetic Biology and Medicine, a journal with a very low impact factor, edited by Henry Lai, and probably not very critical of studies that confirm their idea that EMF are inherently dangerous to humans.  Even more, it deals with cell phones, not the emissions from WiFi.

Cell phones we hold to the head or in some cases next to our bodies when using a headset. WiFi has an emitter tens or hundreds of feet away. The emission from a WiFi unit is a small percentage of a cell phone, with one recent study showing the absorption in children to be 1 per cent of that of a cell phone. Clegg obviously does not know how to use a computer -- one of the things he is actually qualified to comment on. Chan made a point of talking about Clegg's impressive credentials, surely the head of a software company knows about wireless tech.  Well, he may be able to sketch out a system diagram, but he has neither the training nor experience to speak authoritatively on any biological effects of WiFi and Chan should have been skeptical enough to make this distinction: we should expect nothing less from our health and science reporters.

The other galling assertion that any technology should be proven safe before deploying it seems on the surface to be a reasonable request, but it is an argument that you and I ignore on a daily basis. We make decisions about technology based on a different equation. We make decisions by weighing both the benefits AND risks of any situation. Vending machines kill people every year, and even washrooms pose a danger -- 2.3 million toilets were recalled by the manufacturer in 2012 due to a risk of explosion. Vending machines are convenient, even when they are not selling sugary drinks, and the value of toilets is obvious, despite the injuries they causeScience cannot pronounce any technology safe; it can only say we have found no evidence of harm overall. The demand that Clegg makes can no more be applied to wireless tech than to the cars or bicycles that take children to school every day. Wireless tech is convenient and useful and so far the benefits outweigh any identified risks: Clegg is being disingenuous and misrepresenting the truth.

Parents want their child to be safe, however, and this is understandable. Whenever the C4ST mentions the listing of DDT and lead as possible carcinogens in the same sentence as cell phones it gets our attention.  DDT is harmful to the environment and humans, and Lead is a serious health concern.  But also on the IARC list of possible carcinogens were coffee, pickles, and working in a wood shop?  Where are the activists asking for condemning coffee, or banning Bicks? Of course this hyperbole seems silly, and it is. The evidence for all of these items is not equal, obviously, and it is possible that the IARC would have not put cell phone radiation on the list had it just waited for new evidence a few months later that confirmed previous study findings of no increased risk of cancer from long term cell phone use. Clegg and the C4ST should be ignored: leave the science to the professionals and stop misleading the public on the dangers of WiFi.

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