Recommendation to limit Md. School Wi-Fi based on 'junk science'

Op-ed: Md. group recommends limiting Wi-Fi at school, even though lamplight is more dangerous.

The Children's Environmental Health and Protection Advisory Council (CEHPAC), an agency within Maryland's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, has recommended that schools reduce or eliminate students' exposure to Wi-Fi because it believes wireless signals might cause cancer. This is pure, unadulterated junk science.

At least three separate, major areas of scientific knowledge can unambiguously confirm that wireless radiation is completely safe.

First, consider physics. Cell phones and Wi-Fi utilize radio waves, the same portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that is responsible for providing us with decades of radio and television broadcasts as well as GPS navigation and other satellite communication. Because our AM/FM radios haven't killed all of us, that alone should demonstrate that Wi-Fi is safe.

Unfortunately, CEHPAC fails to realize that all radiation is not created equal. That is because of the physical fact that different kinds of radiation contain different amounts of energy. (The relative strength, in decreasing order, is nuclear radiation, X-rays, UV light, visible light, infrared light (heat), microwaves and radio waves.) The energy of nuclear radiation, X-rays and UV light is high enough to damage our bodies and cause cancer. But the other forms of radiation are energetically weak by comparison. They cannot cause cancer.

Essentially, that is why the CEHPAC proposal makes little sense. Schools do not protect students from heat or light. So, why should they protect them from Wi-Fi, a weaker form of radiation?

Additionally, CEHPAC displays a fundamental ignorance of scientific terminology. "Radiation" is a scary word. It's so scary to so many people that even hospitals try to avoid using words like it, including "nuclear." For instance, the machine that we call MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) is similar to a machine used by chemists called NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) to determine molecular structure. The word "nuclear," however, scared patients, so hospitals dropped it. A similar phobia exists over the word "radiation."

Second, there is no convincing epidemiological evidence to suggest that Wi-Fi signals cause adverse health effects. The health effects of cell phones, which use similar signals as Wi-Fi, have been extensively studied. According to the NIH's National Cancer Institute, well performed studies that included over one million people showed no connection between cell phone use and cancer. Importantly, the institute explains that research that does suggest a link between cell phones and cancer suffer from flaws due to poor methodology.

Third, the only known health effects from Wi-Fi are due to psychosomatics. That is, people who believe that something will make them sick will report feeling ill, even if nothing is happening to them externally. Bizarre as that sounds, this is a well-documented phenomenon known as the nocebo effect.

The nocebo effect can be thought of as the evil twin of the placebo effect. A placebo is usually a phony pill or some other fake treatment that scientists use in clinical trials to determine how well a real medication works. Patients who receive the placebo often still report positive health outcomes. Why? Even though they are fake, placebos can raise our expectations, which triggers neurological processes that actually make us feel better.

The opposite is true of a nocebo, a harmless substance or fake treatment that can cause patients to feel sick. If people expect something bad to happen, their anxieties can manifest as physical symptoms. Almost certainly, this is what is occurring for people who report feeling bad in the presence of Wi-Fi signals.

A study in the journal Bioelectromagnetics examined the evidence for a condition called "electromagnetic hypersensitivity." People who suffer from this alleged illness do not report consistent symptoms, and importantly, are unable to tell the difference in a controlled setting whether an electromagnetic field has been switched on or off.

CEHPAC's mission is to "identify environmental hazards that may affect children's health and recommend solutions to those hazards." In this case, the hypochondriacs at CEHPAC have found an unscientific solution to a completely imagined problem.

Alex Berezow ( is a senior fellow of biomedical science at the American Council on Science and Health, where Josh Bloom ( is director of chemical and pharmaceutical sciences.

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