May 07 2015

Fight Over WiFi In Public Schools

A Los Angeles middle school has turned WiFi off in a classroom to accommodate a teacher, Anura Lawson, who believes she has electromagnetic sensitivity. Now Lawson is petitioning to have WiFi turned off in every classroom in California. That’s what you get for catering to pseudoscience – more pseudoscience.

Electromagnetic (EM) sensitivity is a controversial disorder; well, controversial in that the scientific community has investigated it and concluded that it does not exist, but some individuals still believe they have it. Like many spurious disorders, the symptoms are mostly non-specific. Lawson claims she experienced, “dizziness, migraines, and heart palpitations,” while her daughter claims that her “brain was running slower.”

Such non-specific symptoms can be the result of anything stressing out the system: poor sleep, lack of physical activity, an unrecognized chronic illness, anxiety or depression. They may also be purely psychological. There are no specific symptoms or objective signs to indicate that there is any pathology present. Once treatable pathology has been ruled out, it’s best to focus on treating symptoms and improving quality of life.

However, there are many fake or dubious diagnoses out there to place a label on patients with such non-specific symptoms. These labels have changed over the generations, but apparently have always existed. Today there are several popular fad diagnoses for non-specific symptoms, including candida hypersensitivity, multiple chemical sensitivity, chronic Lyme disease, adrenal fatigue and EM sensitivity.

Giving someone a dubious diagnosis can be harmful. It may lead to unnecessary treatment, may delay or prevent making a correct diagnosis of an underlying disease, may delay or prevent optimal treatment, is often expensive, perpetuates false ideas about health and disease, and fosters mistrust of medical professionals, often to the point of conspiracy theories.

There have been a number of provocative studies of what is now called idiopathic environmental intolerance with attribution to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF). A 2010 systematic review concluded:

No robust evidence could be found to support this theory. However, the studies included in the review did support the role of the nocebo effect in triggering acute symptoms in IEI-EMF sufferers. Despite the conviction of IEI-EMF sufferers that their symptoms are triggered by exposure to electromagnetic fields, repeated experiments have been unable to replicate this phenomenon under controlled conditions. A narrow focus by clinicians or policy makers on bioelectromagnetic mechanisms is therefore, unlikely to help IEI-EMF patients in the long-term.

A 2011 systematic review agreed:

At present, there is no reliable evidence to suggest that people with IEI-EMF experience unusual physiological reactions as a result of exposure to EMF. This supports suggestions that EMF is not the main cause of their ill health.

A 2015 study since these reviews collected data from two prior studies comparing open to double-blind exposure to EMF and found:

Results showed that IEI-EMF participants reported lower levels of well-being during real compared to sham exposure during open provocation, but not during double-blind trials. Additionally, participants reported lower levels of well-being during high compared to low load trials and this did not interact with radiofrequency-EMF exposure. These findings are consistent with a growing body of literature indicating there is no causal relationship between short-term exposure to EMFs and subjective well-being in members of the public whether or not they report perceived sensitivity to EMFs.

The evidence is very consistent and shows that people who self-identify as having IEI-EMF will get symptoms when they think they are being exposed to EMF, but when blinded cannot tell if they are or are not being exposed. This fits my general rule of thumb – if a phenomenon disappears under proper blinding, then it likely does not exist.

The scientific community has performed due diligence here and adequately studied the question with a clear result and solid consensus: true electromagnetic sensitivity does not exist. People who believe they have EMF sensitivity should be counseled that this is the case.  Journalists reporting on this phenomenon should also clearly convey this fact.

The RawStory report I linked to above, however, did not. The reporter apparently confused IEI-EMF with the question of whether or not radiation from cell-phones and similar devices have any health risk, such as increasing the risk of cancer. They then made the further mistake (it seems) of relying upon an interview with one expert. They write:

Robert Nagourney, a Long Beach oncologist and a professor at the University of California-Irvine, said wireless devices such as cell phones and wi-fi routers transmit nonionizing radiation — which he said can carry risk of DNA damage, mutation, and cancer.

“We’re bathed in this type of radiation,” Nagourney said. “Does it cause medical illnesses? Great question, difficult to answer.”

I don’t know if Nagourney was misquoted, taken out of context, or simply is wrong, but that is not a fair representation of the current scientific understanding. Non-ionizing radiation does not have sufficient energy to directly break chemical bonds. It can, however, activate chemical reactions and, when you get close to ionizing energy, such as in the near ultraviolet range, alter DNA. However, cell phones use radio frequency non-ionizing electromagnetic waves, which are far too low energy to do anything but slightly heat tissue.*

There is a slightly open question, however, whether chronic close exposure to nonionizing radiation, such as from cell phones, increases the risk of any type of cancer. This is a completely separate question that of from symptoms developing from short term exposure.

So far the data does not support the conclusion that there is any increased risk of cancer from cell phone use. It is most reassuring that the incidence of brain cancer has not increased in the last 20 years despite skyrocketing use of cell phones. It is impossible to prove zero risk, however. Often scientists will reflect this when talking to journalists, who then quote them out of context.

Worse than the bad reporting, is the bad decision-making on the part of the Los Angeles public school system. They have a rock-solid scientific basis on which to conclude, as a matter of policy, that EMF sensitivity is not a genuine disorder (which is not the same thing as saying individuals with IEI-EMF are not sick) and that turning off WiFi is not necessary or even helpful. Further, it deprives students of a potentially useful educational technology.

The Johnnie Cochran Middle School has now deprived their students of Wi-Fi technology in the classroom based upon bad science, or simply ignoring the science. Further, they have emboldened Lawson who is now trying to deprive all California students of this technology.

Those tasked with making decisions for the public – regulator, officials, and politicians – owe it to the public they serve to have at least a civic level of scientific literacy. Just as important, they need to know how to avail themselves of the current consensus of scientific opinion on any topic that comes before them.

Perhaps this case will provoke the state of California to set a policy state-wide regarding EMF, so that each board of every local school does not have to investigate the science for themselves. Perhaps parents of students deprived of the latest technology because of pseudoscience will take action.

* (5/9/20115) This paragraph was corrected and expanded based upon feedback in the comments and further research.

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