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July 10, 2004

Parents' Lawsuit in Illinois Comes to Close

According to messages from the plaintiffs, the Oak Park, Illinois, lawsuit over the health effects of Wi-Fi signals on children has been withdrawn: As recently as this last week, the Safe Technology for Oak Park (STOP) parents' group was planning on pushing ahead. Their suit was an effort not to win punitive damages, the group said in the past, but to force the school district to address the health concerns over microwave radiation that STOP had raised. The school district's response was consistently that with federal standards guiding safety, which the district had conformed with, there was no necessity to open the matter at the district.

The school district's statement on their Web site reads, After two years of examining this issue and hearing expert testimony, the board affirmed in a resolution last spring that it would continue to use wireless technology as appropriate, would monitor all research and literature, and would respond to any changes in governed regulations and standards, of which we are in total compliance.

STOP parents cited many cellular phone and cellular tower studies, but despite claims throughout the lawsuit of having hundreds of studies that were germane, neither I nor other reporters were able to obtain this list from court filings or from STOP. In an email to STOP supporters, these studies were described as "the hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies that show biological effects from wireless radiation (many at levels many times lower than that emitted by the in-class devises)."

Without seeing the individual studies, I have a hard time specifically refuting the contention. However, the electromagnetic radiation studies I've read and am familiar with -- from ELF/VLF studies conducted a decade ago to more recent cellular phone research -- don't show the clear results that this statement would indicate. In the studies I've read, small correlative effects in small populations of test animals or people were found in frequencies not used by Wi-Fi and at signal strengths that were at least a few orders of magnitude higher. There were no smoking guns, nor 100 percent correlations.

One study mentioned in articles quoting STOP's leaders was specifically about cell phone effects on rats. STOP's founder, Ron Baiman -- who is well known for his academic work and activism in trying to obtain living wages for workers in the U.S. -- wrote in an email to STOP members, Dr. Leif Salford is, by the way is not just "a doctor" but rather is a Professor of Neurosurgery at Lund University and specialist in this kind of research. Though his paper is available on his website -- it is published in a peer reviewed (U.S.) National Institutes of Health journal. His study was a "double blind" controlled study that used 32 laboratory rats. There is little doubt that a new drug that resulted in similar test outcomes (extensive neural damage only on exposed rats that correlated with dose levels) would be immediately withdrawn from the market pending further testing. The rats had a life time cumulative exposure of only two hours.

While the study has disturbing results -- I read it and analyzed it here -- it had a small sample size and has not, to my knowledge been repeated elsewhere, nor have similar outcomes been seen in human populations. The paper also doesn't demonstrate that tumors were formed, but rather lesions were created. It's a frightening read, but given that we're not facing the kind of short-term public health crisis that the study would predict -- massive brain lesions among millions of heavy cell phone users -- more work is needed. Finally, it uses frequencies and signal strengths that aren't involved in Part 15 devices, including Wi-Fi.

These points I raise don't mean that there is no potential health effect from the widespread use of extremely low-intensity microwave radiation used by Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, cordless phones, hospital medical equipment, and other devices. What it means is that even studies involving hundreds to thousands of times the amount of exposure show limited correlative effects and that the physical likelihood of Wi-Fi being an agent of ill health are infinitesimally low. Cell phones may be another matter, but the scientific jury is still way out on that, too.

Apple Computer petitioned the court as one of the defendants, the article cited above notes, about the company's contention that the court didn't have jurisdiction over the matter. The FCC recently reaffirmed in an unrelated decision that only the FCC can control the use of unlicensed Part 15 devices, and that landlords and other groups cannot separately regulate unlicensed airspace. While the issues are different, the basis of that decision is the same. The parents would likely have to sue the FCC over safety guidelines and win to achieve their goals.

In a mailing to a list of STOP supporters and journalists Friday morning, Baiman wrote:

On the advice of our Attorney we have withdrawn our complaint. Recent court decisions brought to our attention by the Apple filings have made it clear that we cannot win the jurisdictional argument. Needless to say we continue to believe that the substantive health risks are serious regardless of these legal arguments and continue to believe that a responsible School Board would (at a minimum) have an official policy allowing concerned parents not to expose their children to unnecessary microwave radiation.

The court document history is available here, but it doesn't include filings, so sheds little light on the matter. The original suit's text is available with students' names removed from the Oak Park School District page on the lawsuit.

At another point in the email that Baiman wrote, in a section that I believe was written several months ago and quoted, he writes: On a related matter, evidence has recently surfaced of 14 deaths, mostly of persons in their 40's and 50's, many from brain tumors, in a two block area around the "cell tower park" at Madison and Austin. Activists in Austin and Oak Park STOP members are trying to get media attention and an official investigation into this.

Epidemiological studies have to eliminate all variables that could contribute to this kinds of patterns, including statistical clustering. Given that Baiman is an economist, and one that I admire for demonstrating the clear decline in real wages in this country, his lack of scientific rigor is surprising.

When children's health is at stake, the highest standards for safety should be used. If there's a potential, unproven risk that's been demonstrated causally and requires more study, children shouldn't be exposed to the risk until it's clearly disproven. In this case, however, the preponderance of scientific evidence coupled with pure analysis of the physics of radio wave energy levels show that children's well being isn't being gambled with.