Wi-Fi in Schools: Should We Apply the Precautionary Principle?


Wired computer labs work fine for kids. Photo by mikecogh via Flickr.
Guest blogger Andrea Donsky is co-founder of NaturallySavvy.com.

Wi-Fi is facing a lot of opposition from parents and teachers in Ontario. Last week, Lloyd Alter was critical of parents' claims that Wi-Fi may pose a health threat to students at elementary schools, and he made some valid arguments.

But there are preliminary studies that indicate micro wave technologies may adversely effect human health, and even the World Health Organization (WHO) admits more research is needed before we can say with certainty whether or not the many electronic devices that generate electric and magnetic fields (EMFs) are safe.

This really shouldn't be a debate. Until such time as we know that these technologies are absolutely safe, Wi-Fi has no place in elementary schools, and maybe not even in high schools.Micro Waves Are Fine. We Think.
EMFs are produced by anything that carries an electric or magnetic charge -- from cell phones to televisions to Wi-Fi devices to electrical wires to your headphones. Micro wave energy falls into the 0.3 to 300 GHz range of the electromagnetic spectrum, and Wi-Fi devices run at 2.4 and 5 GHz, so they're quite low on the scale.

Governments have remained steadfast that micro wave technology is safe within established limits, but the WHO's International EMF Project, launched in 1996 to assess health and environmental effects of EMFs in the 0-300 GHz range, is a little more cautious:

All reviews conducted so far have indicated that exposures below the limits recommended in the ICNIRP (1998) EMF guidelines, covering the full frequency range from 0-300 GHz, do not produce any known adverse health effect. However, there are gaps in knowledge still needing to be filled before better health risk assessments can be made.

What's more, we know that kids are more susceptible to EMFs -- that's why so many health organizations have recommended young children should not use cell phones.

Interestingly, the cardiac symptoms identified by parents in Simcoe County who re-ignited this whole debate are similar to symptoms that have recently been observed in a study of the use of Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications (DECT) cordless phones, which emit continuous radiation as soon as they are plugged in. The study is small in scale, and by no stretch of the imagination could it be considered proof that DECT phones and/or other micro wave devices pose a cardiac health risk, but it indicates a need for further, wide-scale research.

The double-blind study of 25 people was conducted in Colorado by Magda Havas, a professor at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. Her research, which has been accepted by the European Journal of Oncology and is slated for publication later this year, consisted of plugging a DECT phone into both a live outlet and a dead outlet (used as a control), and monitoring the subject's heart rate. The phone was placed two feet from the subject's head. The heart rate results were analyzed by Dr. Jeff Marrongelle, a cardiologist who was not made aware of when the DECT phones were emitting micro waves. Eight of the 25 adults in the study experienced changes in heart rate directly related to DECT phone radiation, and four experienced tachycardia, or a rapid heart rate.

While Wi-Fi devices run on nearly the same frequency (2.4 and 5 GHz) as DECT phones, signal strength is a factor in radiation. Wi-Fi networks in large areas such as schools have a much higher signal strength than cordless phones, which are designed to work within a home.

In 2007, the BBC program Panorama explored the use of Wi-Fi in schools. They visited a school in Norwich to test levels of radiation in a classroom, and compared their findings to typical levels of the main beam of radiation of a cell phone tower. The radiation in the classroom was three times that produced by a typical tower.

Now, let's face it: many people live around cell phone towers and entire cities are Wi-Fi hotspots. So why aren't we seeing the symptoms associated with wireless schools in the population living in Wi-Fi hotspots? Just as the same non-specific symptoms that are effecting school children could be attributed to a host of other illnesses or problems, the general public could attribute their headaches, lack of concentration and increased heart rate to problems such as stress, even though the cause could be EMF sensitivity.

Should We Go Wireless in Schools?
The school my kids attend doesn't have Wi-Fi right now, but I'm sure it's being considered and I am totally against it.

When it comes to unknown risks related to potential environmental and health hazards, many scientists recommend the precautionary principle, which generally means that if we don't know how hazardous something can be, we should limit exposure until such time that we can demonstrate that it is or isn't a hazard. We've taken that approach with cell phone use among children, but we're embracing Wi-Fi.

There's no doubt Wi-Fi has the potential to allow for the most flexible use of technology in the classroom. But does a seven-year-old really need to be able to surf the net from anywhere in the school?

Our desire to de-wire may be strong, but it's not a necessity. If students at Laurentian University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, can survive without Wi-Fi until we know for certain whether there are long-term effects, surely the average third-grader can.

A well-planned wired school can provide ports in classrooms and other key areas for both students and teachers to plug in. Given that some researchers are concerned with the effect of EMFs on kids, and given that the World Health Organization says more research is needed into the issue, staying wired seems like a no-brainer. It certainly can't hurt, and hey, a wired network uses a lot less energy, too.

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