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.

I understood:

That the internationally accepted guidelines (ICNIRPS) are out of date and inadequate.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.