Wi-Fi Woo-Woo

Pseudo-science strikes again in a parent's lawsuit against Portland Public Schools.

The parent of a student at Mount Tabor Middle School has sued Portland Public Schools, claiming that its use of Wi-Fi is "genotoxic, carcinogenic, neurotoxic and otherwise…harmful" to his daughter.

Yes, this is the same kind of Wi-Fi that provides wireless Internet connections in public buildings, coffee shops and homes across America.

There's virtually no scientific basis for the belief that Wi-Fi is a health threat. But the federal civil suit against PPS is the latest expression of anxiety by a growing community of Wi-Fi-phobic and self-diagnosed "electrosensitive" individuals who believe a laundry list of physical ailments can be traced to the proliferation of consumer electronics.

Last year in Santa Fe, N.M., a man sued his neighbor over her use of an iPhone, claiming it interfered with his digestion. Earlier this year in Portland, a group of neighborhood activists monkey-wrenched Clearwire's plans to install new towers to expand its 4G wireless Internet service, citing health concerns. Wi-Fi fears have spawned a cottage industry around the sale of protective amulets and field-disruptors.

Can't Escape The Signal
FCC Registered Antenna Structures in the Portland Area

Source: FCC View FCC Registered Antenna Structures in a full screen map

To many physicists, radio engineers and psychiatrists, all this is quackery. "Nobody has ever claimed, as far as I can see—a legitimate organization with legitimate credentials—that Wi-Fi was dangerous," says Sam Churchill, a Pearl District resident whose blog, dailywireless.org, tracks the wireless industry.

In his suit filed June 17 against the Portland schools, David Morrison doesn't want money. He just wants to publicize what he says is the threat Wi-Fi, cellphones and cell towers pose to us all. "The telecom companies know this," Morrison says. "They will someday be sued like the tobacco companies."

Morrison, a bookseller with no science background, says he went down the "rabbit hole" of online research after the private school where he used to send his daughter allowed a cell tower to be installed on its grounds. He later enrolled his daughter at Mount Tabor only to learn the school used Wi-Fi; he filed his suit after the school district declined to rewire its computer systems.

On June 30, U.S. District Judge Michael W. Mosman denied Morrison's request for an injunction barring the district's use of Wi-Fi. PPS has yet to file a response.

A district spokesman says Morrison is the first parent to complain about the Wi-Fi.  “The majority of the evidence says there’s not adverse health impacts,” Robb Cowie says.

There's no proof Wi-Fi makes people sick. Advocates like Morrison cite many studies that experts say are flawed by design and often are not peer-reviewed. But neither can scientists say with absolute certainty that exposure to low-level radio-frequency electromagnetic field, or RF EMF, radiation has no long-term health effects. The key, experts say, is proximity, intensity and duration of exposure. Federal Communications Commission guidelines put RF EMF exposure from cell towers and Wi-Fi routers well within the safety zone.

Still, the anti-wireless activists have been emboldened by a June decision from the World Health Organization. After reviewing a large body of research, WHO classified EMF radiation, such as that emitted by cell phones and wireless routers, as a "possible carcinogen," like welding fumes or coffee.

But Wi-Fi signals are a long way from being a proven carcinogen as identified by the WHO—such as cigarette smoke, plutonium-239, the X-rays used at dentists' offices and airport security checkpoints, and solar radiation (i.e., sunlight). 

WWeek 2015

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