Philip Parkin speaks:
Extract on Wifi in schools. Concerns voiced at Voice Annual Conference 2007. The following extract is from a speech to VOICE Annual Conference, by Philip Parkin, the General Secretary of VOICE Teachers’ Union, on Wednesday, 1 August 2007:
I now want to turn to our second health and safety matter and I do so with some trepidation. This is the issue of Wi-Fi in schools. The reason for my trepidation is that I have never before been involved in a debate which provokes such polarisation of opinion and such venom in some participants.
There are no shades of grey in this one. You either believe that there are health and safety concerns resulting from the great increase in the installation of Wi-Fi networks in schools and other locations, or you are quite dismissive of anyone who holds such views.
There is a view out there that you have no right to express concerns on such issues; and that if you do, you are scaremongering or promoting so-called bad science.
In dealing with this issue the Association has deliberately kept to what middle ground we have been able to carve out.
I have no intention of rehearsing the scientific arguments in this speech. I’m not qualified to do so and wouldn’t have time anyway. I would just like to make clear to you, members of PAT, the position we took, the reasons we took it and the responses that we have had.
In writing to the Secretary of State, I said that I had become increasingly concerned about the possible health and safety implications of the installation of wireless networks in schools.
I continue to assert that I am not a scientist and only have a layman’s grasp of the issues here. I understand that there are arguments from scientists on both sides of the question. If the scientists can’t agree – what chance have we got? And I think it very
much depends on what type of scientist you are as to how you see the question. Physicists seem to see it very differently to biologists and neurologists and perhaps that’s why we need an enquiry – to examine opposing views.
But I have heard and read enough to make me concerned and I had been made aware of an accumulation of evidence which suggests that the non-thermal, pulsing effects of electromagnetic radiation could have a damaging effect upon the developing nervous systems of children. The frequently-quoted current safety limits in operation refer to the thermal effects of such radiation and not the non-thermal effects.
I pointed out to the Secretary of State that the issue was being taken more seriously in some other European countries than here. I expressed the view that the BECTA advice which states that “Given our current knowledge it is reasonable to assume that WLAN technology offers no appreciable risk to children or others in schools” should be revisited and that a full scientific enquiry be commissioned in order to better understand the issues. I also proposed that schools should be discouraged from installing further networks until the results of such an inquiry are known.
The great number of responses that I have received has been overwhelmingly positive towards the position we have taken. As you would expect, I have been contacted by lobby groups who are campaigning against such technology. But I have also been contacted by PAT members, individual parents and grandparents, and by independent research scientists, who all have concerns about the possible effects of the technology.
I have also been contacted by those who consider that there is no issue here; at least one of whom, quite properly, declared his involvement in the communications technology industry.
We have tried to reflect all shades of opinion by adding links to the page on our Website dealing with this issue.
I have not said that there are health and safety implications from this technology – just that there may be. I make no apologies for having said this.
Unfortunately, the Secretary of State, Alan Johnson, did not agree with me. In his reply to me he directs my attention to the latest advice from the Health Protection Agency, which is that the agency does not consider that there is a problem with the safety of Wi-Fi.
This, of course, is in contrast to the publicly expressed view of the Chairman of the HPA, Sir William Stewart, a former Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government, who believes that such a review should take place. I’m confused and I guess you are. The Agency says there’s no problem but the Chairman of the Agency thinks there should be an inquiry!
Mr Johnson did not agree that BECTA should change its advice or that a precautionary approach should be taken to the further roll-out of the technology until more was known. He said that BECTA would make sure that schools and local authorities had access to the results of ongoing research.
My real concern is that until there is a full inquiry based on both existing evidence and on newly-commissioned research work, the nation’s children are being treated as guinea pigs in a large-scale experiment.
Subsequently I am interested to note that 3 weeks ago, councillors in Haringey, ignoring advice given in the Council’s own Wi-Fi in Schools document – which was based on the Health Protection Agency advice – have decided to make schools aware of their health and safety concerns and recommend suspension of the installation of Wi-Fi networks until full consultation with parents, schools and health specialists has taken place.
For those of you who may have a further interest in this issue, we will make available at the back of the hall a paper giving advice to schools prepared by a PAT member, Michael Bevington of Stowe School. This paper is not a PAT document, it is Michael’s own, and it summarises the concerns on this issue and the reasons for those concerns.
Wi-fi: continuing concerns
SecEd, 21 May 2009 (page 14)
By Philip Parkin, General Secretary, VOICE: the union for education professionals
I was pleased that, at their conference, ATL members were raising concerns about the installation of Wi-Fi networks in schools. This has been concerning Voice for a number of years so it’s good to know that others are taking the issue seriously. I wish that I could say the same, with some confidence, about the government and those agencies responsible for our health, safety and welfare.
I wrote to Education Secretary Alan Johnson (now Health Secretary) in 2007, expressing my concerns about the accumulation of evidence which suggested to me that the installation of wireless networks in schools might have detrimental health consequences for those working in those buildings.
He replied, telling me that the microwave radiation signals (EMR) emitted by wi-fi are very low power and well within internationally accepted guidelines and there was no reason why schools and others should not use wi-fi equipment.
I just don’t believe it. In the last two years there has been a greater weight of evidence from around the world which suggests that this is something which should cause concern.
Having attended the Radiation Research Trust’s conference, “EMF and Health – a global issue”, in September 2008, at which scientists on both sides of the debate expressed their views, I continue to have those concerns.
I am not a scientist and cannot claim to understand all the science, but when world-renowned experts in their fields are unable to agree, I understand enough for it to raise concerns with me.
That the internationally accepted guidelines (ICNIRPS) are out of date and inadequate. Some scientists at the conference made it quite clear that they had little faith in them. Exposure levels are only half the story; length of exposure being the other half. Long exposures at lower intensity levels may be as damaging as high exposure levels for short periods. Hence my concern about wireless networks in schools and nurseries.
That cell changes caused by EMR are not regarded as health effects – despite them having potentially long-term genetic consequences. David Carpenter (USA) said that there was an overwhelming body of biological evidence which suggested a need to protect children. This was supported by Professor Yury Grigoriev (Russia) who said that the potential risk to children’s health was very high and a new problem, and it was necessary to develop special standards for the protection of children.
That the use of mobile phones by children increases the risk of cancer; and that there is disregard and ignorance of the current HPA guidelines on this – that children should only use mobile phones in emergencies.
Evidence continues to accumulate
The evidence continues to accumulate and while there may be little effective action in this country there is certainly concern being expressed in other parts of the world.
In France, the mayor of Herouville-Saint-Clair announced that he was going to remove wi-fi from schools by the end of the year. He said: “We are going to apply the precautionary principle. Our job is to protect people’s health”. In May 2009, children arrived at Les Chesnaux nursery and primary schools to find the doors closed. The town council is in a trial of strength with Orange, the mobile phone operator, about the location of a mobile phone mast less than 87 metres from the school. The mayor said: “I won’t be the mayor who lets our children be put at risk.”
Palm Beach, Florida; Los Angeles, California and New Zealand have all prohibited the location of mobile phone base stations near schools.
In the European Parliament, MEPs are being urged to support a written declaration on the risks of exposure to electromagnetic fields resulting from the use of wireless technology.
In an open letter on Wi-Fi in Canadian schools, Dr Magda Havas of Trent University, Ontario, warns of increasing numbers of adverse health and biological effects below national safety code guidelines. She notes that the lowest EMR guidelines in the world are in Lichtenstein and Salzburg, Austria; and questions why guidelines in Canada are so high. She says that, “even those who do not accept the science showing adverse biological effects should recognise the need to be careful with the health of children”.
When will the authorities in the UK accept that a precautionary approach is the right way to go until the scientists can come to some form of consensus?
VOICE is advocating that new Wi-Fi systems should not be installed in schools, that existing systems should be turned off when not required and that schools should consider whether they really need to use Wi-Fi, which was developed to facilitate Internet access on the move rather than to be used as a convenient alternative to cables in dedicated IT facilities. With such strong opinions on both sides of the argument, serious and sustained scientific research is needed to establish conclusive facts.