Should WiFi Be Banned In Schools?

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

On November 1, 2010, Kristin Cassie, principal of Roots and Wings Montessori Place, an independent school in British Columbia, Canada, announced her decision to remove all wireless technology from the school and ban use of cell phones from the building. Stating that “it was not a major change to hardwire all computers,” Cassie indicated that practicing the precautionary principle still allowed for advanced technology in schools. “The health and safety of our children is a non-negotiable responsibility,” the principal stated. Noting the existence of evidence of harmful effects associated with wireless technology and lack of universal agreement as the relative health hazards of WiFi, Cassie defaulted on the side of safety.

Is WiFi Hazardous to Health?

WiFi is an abbreviation for “wireless fidelity,” which indicates that an Internet connection can be made without the use of wires or cables. Instead, like cell phones and mast stations, WiFi utilizes radiofrequency (RF) signals (radiation). The convenience of WiFi has led to its explosive use as a staple technology in most homes and offices, as well as in schools, airports, restaurants, and coffee houses; cities, themselves, are now wireless via “hot spots.”

The dramatic rise in WiFi popularity has led to attention about its potential adverse health effects, especially where children are concerned. Since health research on WiFi is non-existent, concerned individuals and organizations are advocating the precautionary principle, i.e. reducing exposure to RF radiation until research demonstrates actual risk. Some authorities have made conclusions about WiFi’s health risks based on related studies which have examined the health effects of cell phone and cell phone tower emissions.

While cell phones and WiFi both emit RF radiation, they do so using different frequencies. WiFi frequencies, which are transmitted in the range of 2.4 GHz to 5 GHz, are much higher than those utilized for cell phone RF transmission, at 850 MHz to 1900 MHz; WiFi transmissions can also carry more data. While RF exposure levels from WiFi are much lower than for cell phones, people tend to spend many more hours using WiFi, especially if at school or work. These differences all impact how WiFi affects health.

Lynn Quiring, an expert in electromagnetic fields and cell phone radiation, explains in “Should WiFi be Used in Classrooms?” that it is not the wireless signal, itself, that is potentially dangerous to health, but the information-carrying radio wave (ICRW), which oscillates at a much lower frequency. The ICRW, says Quiring, impacts our bodies at the cellular level. Our cells perceive the ICRW as a threat, which causes a stress response; cells go into protection mode, resulting in loss of membrane permeability and communication between cells. Over time, cells can die because they are not receiving nutrients, expelling toxins, and making ATP for energy.

Cellular stress response may be behind what health officials are calling “electrohypersensitivity” (EHS), a phenomenon where, when exposed to wireless emissions, people experience symptoms like  headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue, pain, sleep disorders, skin disorders, racing heartbeats, and tinnitus (ringing in the ears). These symptoms indicate that wireless emissions are causing non-thermal adverse health effects. Currently permitted standards account only for risk of thermal effects (heating of body tissues) and do not protect against possible non-thermal biological effects, the health risks of which may not become known until after years of exposure. Experts are thus advising people to take precautionary measures with WiFi and other wireless technologies, especially with children, until researchers can agree about actual risks.

Like electrohypersensitive people, children are especially vulnerable to wireless frequencies. Because their skull bones and nervous systems are continually developing, children are subject to greater absorption and conductivity of RF radiation. Generally, with higher frequency electromagnetic fields, children absorb much more energy than adults, and have a longer lifetime exposure period.

With WiFi in schools, children and teachers are involuntarily exposed to uninterrupted WiFi signals for 6 hours a day, 5 days a week; over a 14 year-period, that equates to almost 22,000 hours of exposure. “With regard to WiFi, we are currently conducting an experiment of global proportions and are using children and employees as involuntary test subjects,” says Dr. Magda Havas, Ph.D., an associate professor of Environmental & Resource Studies at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, and an electrosmog / electrosensitivity expert.

WiFi Precautionary Trends in Canada

Dr. Havas has been a leader in the movement against unrestrained wireless technology use. In May 2009 she published “Scientists Concerns About Wireless in Schools: Open Letter to Parents, Teachers, School Boards” which, perhaps, has been read by concerned teachers, parents, and principals in Ontario, Canada.

Principal Cassie’s decision to eliminate wireless technology in her school reflects a growing trend in Canada. In 2006, school President Fred Gilbert banned WiFi campus-wide at Lakewood University in Ontario, Canada, for health-protective reasons. Parents of elementary school students in Ontario urged the local school board to remove WiFi from the school, after their children started developing chronic headaches, dizziness, and several other neurological and cardiac problems. In the Niagara region of Ontario, teachers proposed a province-wide ban on WiFi in elementary schools (which was eventually defeated). Then, on October 18, 2010, a school in Southern Ontario became the first to ban WiFi over concern for student and teacher safety.

Health Canada, Canada’s national health department, has insisted that WiFi is not linked to health problems, despite lack of WiFi-specific research. In Ontario, the Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion (OAHPP) reviewed literature related to the health effects of WIFI (cell phone and cell phone tower studies), and released a report on Sept. 16, 2010 which recognized a link between cell phone technology and cancer, but did not find WiFi likely to cause harm due to much lower exposure levels to RF radiation than with cell phone use. Dr. Havas was quick to point out inconsistencies in the OAHPP’s blanket analysis of WiFi’s relative safety and provided evidence in support of possible health risks in a critical analysis of the OAHPP report.

WiFi Precaution in Europe

In 2000, Sir William Stewart, chair of the Health Protection Agency (HPA) and former chief scientific adviser to the government, issued the Stewart Report, a formal advisory about cell phones. Through this report, the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones (IEGMP) explained the need to take precautionary approach with cell phone use due to the possibility of “currently unrecognized adverse health effects,” especially for children, who are more vulnerable than adults.

Noting that accessing WiFi through on-the-lap use of laptop computers exposes children to as much RF radiation as cell phone use, Lawrie Challis, the U.K.’s primary advisor on cell phone safety and Stewart’s successor, issued a warning in 2007 against such on-the-lap use of WiFi, and recommended maintaining a safe distance from the WiFi antenna. Teachers in the U.K. have also demonstrated concern about the health effects of WiFi in their classrooms, calling for government research into WiFi’s thermal and non-thermal biological effects.

Two schools in the U.K. banned WiFi from their premises in 2006 to avoid health risks, prompting health officials to ask the Health Department to investigate. In 2007, after reviewing the BioInitiative Report, an international scientific review of the safety limits of radiation, the EU European Environmental Agency (EEA) called for immediate action in decreasing exposure to RF emissions from WiFi, cell phones, and mast stations.

In Austria, the Austrian Medical Association has pressed for a ban of WiFi in schools, and the public health department in Salzburg has advised schools not to use WiFi, as well as cordless phones. In 2007, the Environment Ministry / German government advised people to avoid using WiFi and cell phones, and to opt for wired connections, to avoid possible health risks associated with wireless use.

In France, the city of Herouville St. Clair has become the first municipality in the world to officially remove WiFi from primary schools and public buildings, and has opted instead to install state-of-the-art fiberoptic systems. Also, the France National Library (BNF) placed a moratorium on WiFi, switching back to wired connectivity in 2008.

Finding Clarity and Buying Time

Confusion over lack of consistent results about the health risk of cell phones, coupled with lack of WiFi health studies, has made WiFi decision-making difficult for policy makers. Those like Principal Cassie adopt the precautionary principle without question, noting the non-negotiability of children’s health and the ease of switching to wired Internet. In Canada and Europe, authorities are taking a much more proactive approach to the precautionary use of WiFi, than in the U.S. However, independent experts and organizations are working to increase global public awareness through the provision of online information about potential health risks associated with WiFi.

To help parents and schools make informed decisions about which technologies to implement in schools, Dr. Sarah Starkey, a UK neuroscientist, created Starkey’s site provides information about scientific research, health issues, and international concerns surrounding wireless technologies, as well as the precautionary approach.

Citizens for Safe Technology, a not-for profit educational society, is another useful resource for wireless technology information, as is the BioInitiative Report. Kerry Crofton, Ph.D. also lists the following web sites in her highly informative book, Wireless Radiation Rescue (Global Well Being Books 2011):

 Additional References and Resources:

© 2010 HeartMD Institute. All rights reserved.

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