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Teacher Newsmagazine   Volume 25, Number 2, October 2012  

Wi-Fi technology in schools: Is it time to reconsider? 

By Dan Baljak 

I am a teacher, and because of health concerns, I question whether I want to be exposed to Wi-Fi every day. I wonder if there are others who also feel that there is simply not enough dialogue taking place about this untested technology?  

The debate 

In a previous Teacher, the potential health risks of Wi-Fi technology in schools has been explored. I intend to inform my colleagues of recent developments after discussing the recent history of the debate in this publication. Lynn Quiring’s two-part article (published September and October 2011) advising caution was attacked (by Greg Payne and Kevin Amboe in the “Readers Write” section of the November/ December 2010 edition, and their subsequent articles in the January/ February 2011 edition) for being “erroneous” as well as “bursting with misinformation, distortions, and pseudo-science.” Quiring’s credentials, as well as his use of supposed lack of references, were vehemently targeted but in their respective rebuttals I found that both Payne and Amboe offered nothing extraordinary to suggest that Quiring’s concerns or references were invalid. There is a whole body of peer-reviewed science showing that cells are damaged indirectly from non-ionizing radiation and their superfluous denial of this significantly weakened their positions.

Most importantly, I found that the condescending nature of their commentaries only served to represent a worrisome level of complacency on the subject; most notably, the regular use of facetious language in Payne’s submissions. I do agree with Kevin Amboe, that not being an expert can lead to mistaken information. Amboe’s article stated that the type of radiation emitted from Wi-Fi is “quite different” from cell phones because of their power levels and range. That, by definition and with all due respect, is both erroneous and misleading because the power level and range of a manufactured device has nothing to do with the classification, or type, of electromagnetic energy it releases, as he implied. Whether Amboe was referring to Wi-Fi as a general technological device or a wireless internet router, he is mistaken, because they both emit microwave radiation and this fact will be important to consider later. As far as Greg Payne’s editorial is concerned, I found his critical stance and implication that Quiring’s resources are leagues away from the “best science in the field” deeply contradictory to his recommendations after googling one of his aforementioned “science-based resource(s).” Payne suggested that BCTF executives and school district administrators begin their research on the subject by googling, among others, David Dunning, a “computer scientist” with no medical training who hosts a program called Skeptoid, “a weekly science podcast dedicated to furthering knowledge by blasting away the widespread pseudosciences that infect popular culture, and replacing them with way cooler reality.”

Governments play a critical role 

We all mean well in our attempts to inform others, and it goes without saying that until there is conclusive evidence, there will be debate. What cannot be debated is that the federal government plays a critical role in shaping policy in our country. The Wi-Fi devices placed in our schools must meet Industry Canada standards as specified by Health Canada’s Safety Code 6. But what happens when new research begins to surface that casts doubt on even their standards? At what point, between a trickle of evidence and a downpour, do we begin to take action at the provincial and local level? Many people believe that in light of recent developments, we are precisely at that point. In May 2011, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer, classified radiofrequency electromagnetic energy as “possibly carcinogenic to humans (group 2B)” alongside lead, DDT, methylmercury, Type 2 HIV, and chloroform. This serious warning, albeit inconclusive, includes all wireless devices which emit radiofrequency electromagnetic fields. Health Canada subsequently released a statement in October 2011 that “encourages parents to reduce their children’s RF exposure from cell phones since children are typically more sensitive to a variety of environmental agents. As well, there is currently a lack of scientific information regarding the potential health impacts of cell phones on children.” Although not specifically mentioned, I would argue that encouraging a reduction in children’s RF (radiofrequency) exposure due to health risks, which are magnified by their heightened vulnerability, can and should be interpreted by school authorities to include wireless internet routers. Others would agree. Following the WHO release, a resolution was passed by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe encouraging governments to hardwire schools instead of increasing children’s RF exposure with unproven Wi-Fi.

Are we creating a public health nightmare? 

One of the most glaring concerns of Health Canada’s landmark recommendation on cell phones and children is that it comes after approximately 20 years of regular cell-phone use and prevalent research worldwide, yet our government states that there is still a lack of scientific information.

Imagine that since the mid-1990s children all over BC had been supplied with cell phones by the school district and instructed to use them continuously while at school from Kindergarten to Grade 12. The political and judicial aftermath would have been chaotic, following these recent health advisories, if parents realized that the school boards were putting their children in a harmful environment. It begs the question: Can anyone prove with complete certainty that we are not creating a public health nightmare in schools by replacing safe, hardwired connections with Wi-Fi? Children are forced to be radiated in schools all over the province without consent, in a way that has never happened in history. That is not alarmist—it is a fact. It is irrelevant to suggest, as many do, that because there is Wi-Fi at Starbucks, White Spot, and the mall, we should unquestionably have it in schools. People are getting sick from wireless technology. They are pulling their children from school to protect them. Granted, not everyone will experience symptoms and for now, this is a crucial part of the debate. But regardless of where you side, this new information must be recognized and discussed. It is totally irresponsible for school boards to ignore these health warnings and carry on without a serious reassessment that recognizes informed parental rights to choose whether or not they want their children exposed to a known health risk.

The evidence is mounting to suggest that the global use of wireless technology as a whole could be the new tobacco or asbestos disaster where children were unknowingly exposed to seriously harmful substances before health authorities could determine their positions. Certain parties have already been hedging their bets for years. A number of insurance companies have refused personal injury liability insurance for the employees of wireless providers since the year 2000, because they have calculated the risk and chosen extreme caution. The reason is, that in recent court cases, where employees have been harmed by wireless exposure, the employers have been found liable for health damages. Now is the time for people to become informed and start a dialogue. Considering the information that has been presented here, are we expected to wait 20 years for an official warning from Health Canada that is specific to Wi-Fi in schools and only then take action? I am not willing to do that and believe that as of now, caution is the necessity.

Wi-Fi in schools 

The actions taken by the WHO, Health Canada, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and the insurance industry are an admission of grave concern and uncertainty. In the case of Health Canada, it is a clear call for citizens to take action and protect children as they see fit. Let’s put the pieces together ourselves and not be under any illusions. Wi-Fi in schools is an unprecedented and unethical experiment involving the continuous radiation of children with microwave level frequencies, a possible cancer risk according to the WHO, that is considered by our government to be harmful to children, and it is happening without the consent of children, parents and school staff, including pregnant women who are more vulnerable.

There are many potential health effects other than the possible threat of cancer that have been linked to RF exposure. Though not fully understood, it is unacceptable to dismiss those who are suffering from symptoms and the many reputable scientists whose peer-reviewed and published studies have been recognized by the WHO and Health Canada. There is now enough reason for all school districts to reassess this technology and exercise caution.

Reassess and use caution  

In my elementary school, the health and safety committee has agreed to have the Wi-Fi router turned off when not in use. This is a very simple practice that reduces children’s RF exposure but does not affect learning in any way. If you have a hard-wired computer lab that can be used instead of a laptop and a wireless router, take turns using both. Every school’s situation is different and it is important that staff and parents are made aware of these health releases and given the chance to provide input and be provided with choice.

There is a complex network of dedicated individuals who legislate for and provide education to children in British Columbia and now is the time for proactive dialogue because at some point, indifference to people’s concerns becomes negligence.

Recent history has shown that similar public health debates can last for decades until a decisive conclusion is reached. Following that, the litigation process involving citizens, governments and corporations, as seen with the tobacco industry, strains victims further and burdens our health care system. This is just the beginning and as more research is reviewed, (as Health Canada has committed itself to doing), it will continue to be pushed to the forefront of public debate not only in the education sphere, and yes, it is going to be a bumpy and uncomfortable road. It is also a necessary one because the warning signs are evident and being recognized at the top levels of governments. If the evidence one day proves that radiofrequency exposure, specifically microwave radiation from Wi-Fi routers, is not a health risk I will have no regrets that I advocated for caution at this point in the timeline.

If the concerns are scientifically validated at the government level, it will be a much uglier story. Do we as teachers and school boards have the right to expose children, hoping that the health risks are inconsequential? There will be no way to reverse the damage and I see absolutely no reason why anyone should be willing to bet on children’s health. Let us do our part and exercise caution wherever possible. 

Dan Baljak, W.E. Kinvig Elementary School, Surrey