High-Frequency Fears About Wi-Fi

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When Sacha Ghadiri first learned about potential adverse health effects from prolonged exposure to Wi-Fi, he immediately thought about moving to the countryside.
That’s because two Montreal companies are planning to blanket his Plateau Mont Royal neighbourhood with wireless Internet access this fall.
But Ghadiri is not moving anywhere yet. Instead, he is trying to stir support for a moratorium on the Wi-Fi project until the technology’s safety is studied and residents are comfortable with the idea. The companies have said they intend to expand the project to cover 87 per cent of the population of Montreal Island by 2009.
Ghadiri is especially concerned because one of the companies involved in the project, Internet service provider Radioactif, is a stone’s throw from the playground at Louis H. Lafontaine elementary school on Berri St.

The father of two has raised the issue with other parents at the school. Some worry that exposure to the wireless signals could have long-term effects on children.
“It’s the kind of technology that’s quite similar to that of cellphones, and a large number of studies show that there are ill effects and we know that there are other studies, perhaps as numerous, that say to the contrary,” Ghadiri said. “But it does not mean that we should stop doing research and embrace the technology.” While little or no research has been done specifically on Wi-Fi, studies on other emitters of radio waves such as cell phones have stirred debate.
Federal health authorities say they consider the technologies safe. But some experts say the abundance of radio waves is starting to show its effects on humans.

Cases of electrohypersensitivity – somewhat like an allergy to magnetic fields or to radio waves such as those emitted by radio and television broadcasts, cellphones and Wi-Fi networks – are on the rise, according to Dr. Magda Havas, an environmental studies professor at Trent University in Ontario.
“We’re blanketing cities with this form of radiation,” Havas said. “It’s really very irresponsible of our governments to allow this to happen.” The spectrum on which the technology to be used by Radioactif, called Wi-Max, operates is licensed by Industry Canada, a spokesperson for the federal agency said. The licences are sold through auctions.

Health Canada, which regulates human exposure to radio frequency electromagnetic fields, says Wi-Fi and other wireless technologies such as cellphones are safe.

“The World Health Organization has recently confirmed that as well,” spokesperson RenĂ©e Bergeron said.
An article on the topic posted on the WHO website concludes: “Considering the very low exposure levels and research results collected to date, there is no convincing scientific evidence that the weak RF (radio frequency) signals from base stations and wireless networks cause adverse health effects.” But according to Havas – who teaches a course on the biological effects of electromagnetic fields – continuous exposure to Wi-Fi could, at the very least, interfere with children’s ability to learn. “There’s growing evidence that some of the symptoms we attribute to attention deficit disorder may be linked to exposure to high radio frequency radiation,” she said.

In May, Sir William Stewart, chairman of Britain’s Health Protection Agency, called for a review of the health effects of Wi-Fi in a BBC investigative television program that looked at wireless Internet in schools.
In 2000, Stewart recommended that cellphone towers “should not necessarily impact directly on areas where children were exposed, like playgrounds and that,” he recalled to the BBC.

But the BBC investigation found that radio frequency radiation levels in some schools were up to three times the level found in the main beam of intensity from cellphone towers.
Ghadiri, a Ph.D. student, wants a public debate on the issue of installing Wi-Fi masts around schools and in densely populated areas such as the Plateau.

Radioactif didn’t return calls for comment on this story.
Ghadiri was quick to say that he’s not against the technology.
“Wi-Fi is superb technology,” he said. “I’m just concerned about the health effects.

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No parent or teacher wants to be responsible for harming a child in their care, so the succession of media scare stories about the supposed dangers of Wi-Fi are bound to give people pause. Is the educational benefit of a wireless classroom really worth frying your children’s brains for?

Faced with that dilemma, it is no surprise that a handful of schools have decided to turn their Wi-Fi networks off until they are satisfied the technology is safe – despite reassurances from scientists and public health bodies.

The Health Protection Agency has always said that although Wi-Fi is relatively new, there are good scientific reasons for thinking that the levels of radio frequency waves given off by routers and computers are so low that they are not a cause for concern. It has now commissioned research to show definitively that this is the case.

The plan is for a two-year study to measure real exposure to Wi-Fi radiation in homes, schools and offices. If exposures are indeed low, this may go some way to calming public fears, but it is unlikely to satisfy those who are convinced that Wi-Fi is a menace.

The level of exposure is important because of the mechanism by which Wi-Fi radio frequency (RF) waves emitted are thought to damage cells. They are “non-ionising” – meaning that they are not powerful enough to cause havoc by knocking electrons off molecules in cells. However, if they are high enough power they could harm cells by heating them up.

The power levels of Wi-Fi routers are much lower than mobile phones or base stations and the HPA estimates that someone using a mobile phone (which uses similar frequencies) for 20 minutes receives a radiation dose equivalent to sitting in a Wi-Fi hotspot for a year (let’s not get into the argument over whether mobile phones are damaging except to say there is much more evidence and it is pretty conclusive that they are not harmful in the short to medium term at least). If mobile phones are safe, then Wi-Fi is safer still.
The World Health Organisation’s advice on this is very clear. “Considering the very low exposure levels and research results collected to date, there is no convincing scientific evidence that the weak RF signals from base stations and wireless networks cause adverse health effects.

So exposure levels appear to be low and we have no reason to think that there is anything to worry about at those levels. So why the research? The HPA wants to be sure that its assumptions about low exposure are correct. Some work has been done in this area, but not enough. When launching the study, Professor Pat Troop, chief executive of the HPA said, “There has not been extensive research into what people’s exposures actually are to this new technology and that is why we are initiating this new programme of research and analyses. We have good scientific reasons to expect the results to be reassuring and we will publish our findings.” If she is right, they will have removed one niggling doubt about Wi-Fi and off the back of the research the report will presumably come up with recommendations for how users who are concerned can reduce their exposure.

Scientists know a lot about the potential dangers of electromagnetic fields, but there is still the remote possibility that there is something strange about the particular frequency that Wi-Fi uses which can cause people harm. No scientist, hand on heart, can say that is not true, but that fear alone is not enough to base policy decisions on.

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