Jury still out on Wi-Fi safety (Guest commentary)

Mounting evidence of health risks means employers should act with diligence and compassion when presented with complaints
By David Fancy
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/01/2010

One of the most significant debates emerging in Canada concerns the the health risks of radiation from wireless technology, also known as Wi-Fi. Exposure to devices emitting these types of radiation — including laptops, cellphones, cell towers, portable phones and Bluetooth — has become ubiquitous. The question of how to manage the risks of this technology are significant for HR professionals in high-tech workplaces.

What do we know of the biological effects of this type of radiation? Health Canada’s own studies, such as the Royal Commission of 1999 (updated in 2003) — which look at studies in this area from around the world — detail certain biological effects of exposure to these types of radiation — at varying frequencies — including increased permeability of the blood brain barrier, the release of heat shock proteins and the promotion of enzymes related to cancer growth.

In late April 2010, the Parliamentary Health Oversight Committee in Ottawa heard two days of testimony involving international experts who drew attention to an extensive body of research that mentioned DNA disruption, contribution to Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, cancer induction and diabetes.

Meanwhile, Health Canada’s Safety Code 6, which regulates exposure to this type of radiation, asserts all these biological effects are of no concern to Canadians because of “a lack of evidence of causality, biological plausability and reproductibility.” Health Canada officials regularly maintain in the press that only “thermal” effects, such as when a microwave oven cooks a pot roast, cause harm.

Safety Code 6, initially developed to protect radiofrequency and microwave engineers from six-minute exposures, is entirely inadequate for dealing with the realities of full-day exposure in the workplace to wireless networks and the devices they service. (It was most recently updated in 2009.)

No doubt industry or military apologists will find some way of contesting these kinds of assertions but, just for a second, imagine our awareness about wireless is the same as that around the risks of smoking, asbestos, DDT or thalidomide in the 1940s or 1950s. Consider that the first epidemiological study linking smoking to cancer was published in 1939 and, after years of documented industry intervention in the science around the matter, smoking was finally recognized as the risk it is almost six decades later. Evidence suggests the same level of interference at the moment, all the way to the World Health Organization, the group that maintains archaic safety levels under the pressure of industry plants. (Read a recently published doctoral study on the history of military and industrial interference and corruption in the setting of safety levels by Don Maisch, titled The Procrustean Approach: Setting Exposure Standards for Telecommunications Frequency Electromagnetic Radiation.)

Other constituencies are further ahead of Canada on this issue. The German government advised against wireless installation in 2007 and wireless has been removed from the National Library in France as well as an increasing number of schools in England, after pressure from parents. A full 18 appeals since 1999 by major international scientific bodies, national governments and medical organizations have called for the drastic revision of current safety standards.

Very few institutions have been proactive in Canada beyond Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., which banned wireless entirely under the leadership of its past president Fred Gilbert, a biologist who didn’t like what he saw in the research.

And yet, above and beyond the long-term risks of wireless radiation outlined above, the 2007 Canadian Human Rights Commission report The Medical Perspective on Environmental Sensitivities recognizes many people experience immediate effects from wireless exposure: “Approximately three per cent of Canadians have been diagnosed with environmental sensitivities and many more are somewhat sensitive to traces of chemicals and/or electromagnetic phenomena in the environment.”

Another commission report on how to accommodate individuals with such complaints, Accommodation for Environmental Sensitivities: Legal Perspective, asserts electrical sensitivity experienced when using wireless devices — a condition that includes symptoms such as dizziness, headaches, tinnitus, heartbeat irregularities, “brain fog” and many other symptoms — is a recognized disability like any other.

HR’s role in accommodation

So what do HR professionals do if someone says she is experiencing health complaints from this kind of emission? How does accommodation take place? What kinds of precautionary planning can be undertaken with such an emerging issue when two branches of the federal government (Health Canada and the Canadian Human Rights Commission) are releasing such conflicting information?

As the head of an academic department responsible for the safety of the faculty and staff working in my area, I moved staff members away from wireless nodes near their offices because they reported headaches, tingling, a lack of focus, tiredness and other effects when new wireless nodes were installed. These disappeared when I assigned new offices.

As a member of the university’s joint health and safety committee, I also pushed for a subcommittee on electromagnetics and health. Eventually, the committee voted unanimously to advise the university administration to warn all staff and faculty the science on wireless radiation was “inconclusive” and people should take initiative to inform and protect themselves accordingly.

This was a weak warning but a warning nonetheless, issued under the aegis of the Ontario Health and Safety Act regulations. In the first instance, this warning may help to protect the institution from legal action when inevitable court cases come to pass. One expert described the campus as “one of the most electromagnetically polluted civilian institutions in Canada,” citing a variety of overlapping wireless networks compounded by more than 50 cellphone and other antennas on the university’s main tower.

When it comes to accommodating an employee with such a health complaint, the Canadian Human Rights Commission suggests: “Where an individual with a poorly understood disability is unable to provide expert medical evidence, the employer, service provider or other decision-maker should seek an informed expert opinion on the effects of the condition and the resulting accommodation needs,” although the report also specifies lack of evidence should not be held against the individual as a result of the shifting terrain of the research around these matters.

Clinics such as the Environmental Health Clinic at the Women’s College Hospital in Toronto provide diagnoses of electrical sensitivity and other Canadian physicians are becoming increasingly familiar with this phenomenon. Nonetheless, it would not be difficult for a less than ethical employer to dig up a “specialist” who will assert, because of the evidence of Canada’s Safety Code 6, it is impossible for the staff member to make such claims.

However, the Canadian Human Rights Commission report reminds employers: “As for any other disability, the accommodation process for persons with environmental sensitivities must be conducted in an individualized, respectful and inclusive manner. Employers and service providers are well-advised to accommodate in a respectful manner that protects the individual’s self-respect, privacy, comfort and autonomy.”

It also asserts accommodations should be individual in nature and not one-size-fits-all.

What is also abundantly clear, in the face of this significant emerging public and occupational health crisis, is employers and managers need to proceed with compassion and diligence and be guided by an ethical compass rather than the dictates of those who present a false set of “safety” standards.

David Fancy is chair of the department of dramatic arts at Brock University’s Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts in St. Catharines, Ont.

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