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A Catholic teachers association looks to ban WiFi. What's next? Coffee?

The Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association has called for schools to stop installing WiFi because it poses a "potential health and safety risk" to staff and students.

Let's hope that the science being taught in our schools is a lot better than the "scientific" reports that teachers are producing for each other.

That's because the OECTA WiFi study, entitled "A position regarding the use of Non-Ionizing Electromagnetic Radiation, including WiFi, in the workplace," is a disturbing mix of fear-mongering, false assumptions and twisted logic.

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Where to begin?

"We think there is enough evidence to bring concerns and raise the question," said OECTA president Kevin O'Dwyer.

Okay, let's examine the evidence. Last year the International Agency for Research on Cancer (part of the World Health Organization) said the radio-frequency electromagnetic fields emitted by cell phones were "possibly carcinogenic."

WiFi routers also emit RF waves, though they are fraction of the low-level radiation produced by cellphones. Based on this leap of logic, teachers want schools to be hardwired for Ethernet, rather than equipped with much cheaper WiFi.

By one estimate, a year's worth of exposure to WiFi is the equivalent of talking 20 minutes on a cellphone.

So, we take what is at best a theoretical risk, reduce it considerably and we have ... a potential "workplace hazard"? Hardly.

Not to mention that FM radio, television, microwave ovens, the ground (in the form of radon) and the sun that shines down from the sky produce low-level radiation as well.

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Are Ontario's 45,000 Catholic teachers equally concerned with these potentially carcinogenic threats lurking in schools and schoolyards?

Radiation exposure from WiFi is about 100,000 times less than waves emitted from a microwave. Have the microwaves been removed from school cafeterias and teachers' lunchrooms?

What about coffee? The IARC also considers that a level 2b carcinogen, meaning it's about as 'dangerous' as cellphones. (Which, let's remember, are many magnitudes more "dangerous" than WiFi.) One can imagine that the teachers' lounge would be a considerably less pleasant place if the potential health and safety threat called java was removed from schools.

The OECTA paper says that in addition to being a risk for cancer, WiFi can cause "headaches, nausea, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, weakness, pressure in the head, and a racing or fluttering heart (tachycardia)."

But the evidence for these claims is the same as the "evidence" that vaccines cause autism – it is pure balderdash.

The teachers' union says, WiFi should be banned from schools for the same reason that peanuts are banned, because it poses a danger to some.

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Again, that is a truly dubious comparison. Exposure to peanuts can trigger anaphylaxis, a life-threatening condition. Exposure to WiFi, on the other hand, can, well, ummmm, allow you to access the Internet.

The OECTA paper claims that about 3 per cent of students and staff suffer from an "environmental sensitivity called electro-hypersensitivity, which is an increased sensitivity to non-ionizing radiation, and may become ill when WiFi is initialized."

There are many Canadians with environmental sensitivities – most related to exposure to chemicals – but there is absolutely no evidence that these are in any way linked to electromagnetic waves.

Somebody spent a little too much time doing "research" on the Internet – presumably using an Ethernet connection, or dressed in a lead suit. (Oops, lead is carcinogen too.) The most troubling part of the OECTA position paper, however, is its reliance on Orwellian language, with ominous pseudoscientific claims that there are "growing concerns" and "possible risks" from WiFi.

Growing concerns?

Last year, about a dozen private schools in Ontario and B.C. banned WiFi, based on the same dubious "evidence." It's a circular argument, not a growing concern.

Thankfully, other unions like the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario rejected a ban on WiFi, opting instead to embrace science, both in and out of the classroom.

If anything, the more study there is of WiFi, the more reassuring the findings. Health Canada, the Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion, the UK's Health Protection Agency and numerous other credible groups have all declared that WiFi poses no health risk But the OECTA sidesteps these small details by conveniently invoking the "precautionary principle," the precept that an action should not be taken if the consequences are uncertain and potentially dangerous.

However, the precautionary principle is not an absolute. There's no risk-free activity in life. You have to balance benefits and risks. There are many benefits to having WiFi, and even the benefits of WiFi over Ethernet – such as convenience and lower cost – are pretty clear. At the same time, the potential dangers of WiFi – no matter how much you gussy them up – are virtually non-existent.

It is hard to imagine why the OECTA would produce such an intellectually dubious report, essentially aligning itself with fringe groups. No matter how well-intentioned, surely there are a lot more pressing and real health concerns in its schools like childhood obesity and ensuring kids have safe routes to school.

The exercise merits a big, fat red-marker F.

To read the full OECTA report visit:

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About the Author
Public health reporter

André Picard is a health reporter and columnist at The Globe and Mail, where he has been a staff writer since 1987. He is also the author of three bestselling books.André has received much acclaim for his writing. More

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