Wi-Fi in schools – at what cost?
Author: Anne Gastinger
Life without access to the internet has become unthinkable for most of us. Its evolving nature means exciting and innovative applications and opportunities are being constantly created. It has proved a boon too for schools, enabling immediate access to information, videos, educational games and activities from all over the world. Most schools’ chosen means for internet access is now wireless technology, or Wi-Fi. It has been installed from kindergarten through to high school level.
Wi-Fi works by transmitting pulsed microwaves at a frequency of 2.45 GHz. This form of radio frequency radiation is capable of delivering information via the internet and intranet to personal computers or laptops. The alternative is cabled connection. For busy teachers, Wi-Fi means ‘have laptop, can travel’ – between classrooms, playgrounds, staffroom and offices. Wherever students or teachers are, with the flick of a button they can log on!
But warning signals are now flashing, with many leading scientists, doctors and public health professionals claiming that Wi-Fi poses potentially serious health hazards, and that children are the most vulnerable in our community. Opponents of Wi-Fi believe that from the moment it is switched on an odourless, invisible, silent, energetic form of air pollution is introduced into our environment. Their research indicates that this microwave frequency has the potential to be neurotoxic, carcinogenic and teratogenic (causes abnormalities in the embryo).
Electromagnetic radiation (EMR)
Frequencies at the higher end of the electromagnetic spectrum (for example, gamma, x-ray, and UV) are known to have more energy and greater potential for harm. Now many scientists are acknowledging there are biological effects caused by exposure to frequencies, such as microwave and radio, on the non-ionising (lower) end of the spectrum. Barrie Trower, a former scientific advisor for the British Military Intelligence, emphasises there is ‘not a single known safety level for microwave radiation for children’,1 a view shared by the late Dr. Neil Cherry, Professor of Environmental Health at Lincoln University, who found ‘the only safe exposure level [for electromagnetic radiation] is zero.’2
“A 5-year-old child will absorb around 60 percent more radiation than an adult.”3 Children’s skulls are thinner, their bones softer, their immune systems are still immature, and their cells divide quicker, creating more potential for DNA damage. Couple these factors with the prospect of a longer exposure over their lifetime compared with today’s adults, then the recommendation of the BioInitiative Report 2007 (compiled by 14 internationally respected scientists in the field of EMR) becomes more urgent. It advises ‘that wired alternatives to Wi-Fi be implemented, particularly in schools and libraries so that children are not subjected to elevated radio frequency levels until more is understood about possible health impacts.’4
Dr. Andrew Goldsworthy, a retired cell biologist from Imperial College, London and expert in radio frequency radiation, describes how these electromagnetic frequencies affect our fragile cell membranes causing leakage of calcium ions, which is the cement holding these membranes together.5 This explains why some Wi-Fi users complain of insomnia, headaches, migraine, attention deficiency, dizziness, nausea, vertigo, visual distortion, or tinnitus.
Teachers using Wi-Fi will in future spend many hours over their working life immersed in these electromagnetic fields, subjected to an occupational hazard not yet acknowledged. American public health scientist, Dr. George Carlo, foresees a growing number of teachers becoming more irritable, impatient, anxious and affected by insomnia due to long-term Wi-Fi exposure.6 A recent study linked exposure to radio frequency radiation with behavioural problems in children and adolescents,7 indicating Wi-Fi could lead to increased tension in the classroom.
The ability of microwaves to impact on human cognitive function was documented by Professor Abraham Lilienfeld and his team from John Hopkins University in 1967. They studied the health effects on US embassy staff in Moscow, who were unwittingly exposed to low-level microwaves from 1953–1962. Alarmingly, Lilienfeld found evidence of chromosomal changes, haematological changes, reproductive effects and increased cancer.8
People vary in their susceptibility to environmental hazards, and clearly some people are more sensitive to the effects of electromagnetic radiation. Although most people cannot feel this radiation, Goldsworthy estimates three percent of the population are electrically hypersensitive (EHS),9 a condition officially recognised in Canada and also in Sweden, where 280,000 people receive government assistance to shield their living spaces from EMR.
Dr. Henry Lai, Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Washington, has demonstrated the biological effects caused by non-ionising radiation at athermal (non-heating) levels.10 His findings show that exposure to radio frequency radiation is capable of causing strand breaks in DNA. When DNA strands rejoin, mutations can occur, allowing the possibility for cancer to develop. Lai and other scientists suggest long-term exposure to low frequency radiation could have the same effect as short-term exposure to high frequency radiation. Neurological, reproductive and cardiac problems emerge before cancer, which takes longer to develop, but when it does, it typically appears as brain tumours, leukaemia and lymphoma.11
Should schools risk using Wi-Fi?
In 2005, Dr. Gerd Oberfeld, Medical Director of Public Health, sent a letter to all schools in Salzburg, Austria, warning against the danger of Wi-Fi in schools.12 In the same year, Olle Johansson, a neuroscientist at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, sent a letter to concerned parents quoting research showing the link between radio frequency radiation and negative health effects.13 Last year Dr. Magda Havas, environmental toxicologist at Toronto University, sent a letter to all school principals and boards in Canada warning against the use of Wi-Fi in schools on health grounds.14
Many overseas institutions have already removed Wi-Fi due to health concerns, including the National Library of France; Sorbonne University, Paris; and schools and/or universities in Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland and Wales.
In New Zealand the decision to install Wi-Fi rests with the individual school principal and school board. The Ministry of Education does not provide guidelines for Wi-Fi installation, however, the Ministry’s National Administration Guidelines (NAG 5) state that Boards of Trustees are required to ‘provide a safe physical and emotional environment for students’.
A New Zealand case
Dave and Julia Hunter, of Balclutha, challenged their daughter’s school board and principal to turn the school’s Wi-Fi system off on these grounds, as they considered it unsafe. Mr. Hunter, an electrician, detected a strong Wi-Fi signal from the school transmitter while working 380 metres away. After protracted discussions, the school had the National Radiation Laboratory (NRL) test its Wi-Fi installation. However, the NRL only tested for thermal (heating) effects, reporting ‘no long-term health effects are anticipated’.
The Hunters were not placated. Based on the recommendations of the BioInitiative Report, Mr. Hunter found ‘the level of electromagnetic radiation was 4.5 times over the level of safe exposure recommended to protect children. Outside the classroom at a distance of two metres from the access point it was nearly eight times over that level. At one metre it was nearly 16 times over the 0.614 V/m level recommended’. (The V/m is a measure of magnetic field strength).
The Hunters approached various representatives from the Ministry of Education, the Educational Review Office, the Labour Department’s Occupational Health and Safety, the Office of the Ombudsmen, who all ignored their concerns.
Many scientists have called for the current international guidelines set by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation (ICNIRP) to be replaced by those set in the BioInitiative Report 2012. The ICNIRP standards are set at thermal (heat) affect, but many scientists and medical doctors claim these standards are obsolete, due to research finding biological affects at athermal levels. Have schools jumped too soon onto the Wi-Fi wave, not realising the wave could crash?
The safer option for schools is to provide wired rather than wireless access to internet. Where there is a responsibility for public welfare the precautionary principle must be applied.
Anne Gastinger is a freelance writer living in Christchurch with a particular interest in health and environmental issues. This article was originally written by Anne for Organic NZ magazine Nov/Dec 2010. The BioIniative Report has since been up-dated and the revised year in this article reflects this.
- The Stewart Report, 2000, 6.63–6.68, Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones, www.iegmp.org.uk
- Audio interview, www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5Lag_I96IA
- Thomas, S et al, ‘Exposure to radio-frequency electromagnetic fields and behavioural problems in Bavarian children and adolescents’, Eu. J. Epidemiology, 2010, 25(2)
- Cited in Maisch, D, ‘The ICNIRP guidelines: RF built on a house of cards’, www.emfacts.com/papers/icnirp_critique.pdf
- Audio interview, www.electromagnetichealth.org/audio.archives-and-more