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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