Safety of Wi-Fi questioned

Students claim they have symptoms — are employees next?
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/01/2010

For nearly one year, a group of Ontario parents has claimed their children are suffering adverse reactions because of Wi-Fi transmitters installed at Simcoe County District Schools. Their apparent symptoms are consistent with microwave exposure — dizziness, nausea, visual and auditory distortion, a racing heart rate, memory loss, skin rashes, night sweats and insomnia.

The Safe School Committee, made up of about a dozen members, is urging school boards to use hard wires to connect computers, claiming Wi-Fi comes with a long list of potential health risks.

“Microwave exposure is associated with infertility, neurological disorders, leukemia and cancer, especially in children,” said the committee.

But if the concerns have weight, what are the implications for workplaces across Canada that increasingly rely on Wi-Fi technology?

According to Health Canada, there is no cause for alarm: “Based on scientific evidence, Health Canada has determined that exposure to low-level radiofrequency energy, such as that from Wi-Fi equipment, is not dangerous to the public.”

Radiofrequency energy levels from Wi-Fi equipment in areas accessible to the general public are required to meet Health Canada’s safety guidelines — Safety Code 6. The code was evaluated and deemed “an adequate representation of science currently available” by an expert panel of the Royal Society of Canada.

“As long as exposure is below these established limits, there is no convincing scientific evidence that this equipment is dangerous to schoolchildren or to Canadians in general,” said Health Canada in a statement.

But Health Canada is playing a semantics game, said Rodney Palmer, communications advisor on the Safe School Committee in Collingwood, Ont.

“When they say ‘safe,’ there’s a little asterisk beside that they’re not explaining to you. Safe means it won’t cook your body. We do have evidence that biological changes take place, we do have evidence children are the most vulnerable of society and in fact we have zero studies declaring it safe.”

Wi-Fi has the same frequency as an oven but, because it pulses, the human body has difficulty dealing with that, said Palmer. There is increased permeability of blood-brain barriers and the body’s ability to regulate calcium is disturbed at levels below Health Canada’s safety threshold, he said.

“(The school board is) on really shaky ground and it would be advisable for employers everywhere who have Wi-Fi to say, ‘Listen, there are biological changes that are known to take place because of this, we caution you.’”

The committee won’t stop its push until the Wi-Fi is turned off and the schools will have to respond because they’ll be sued, said Palmer.

“And if a kid dies, we’ll put them in jail. Somebody has to be responsible for this.”

It’s a controversial issue and some groups take positions that are at odds with the bulk of scientific data, said Daniel Krewski, chair in risk science at the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. Isolated studies might show radiofrequency fields have certain effects, but those might not be replicated in other studies or be consistent with most of the related literature.

“You don’t want to just point to one study in 100 that’s suggested a fact when the other 99 are not showing such an effect,” he said. “It’s a weighted evidence approach that’s needed: ‘What does the overall scientific evidence tell us?’ By and large, it’s not indicating we have a major public health concern at this point.”

As to why some students claim to be experiencing symptoms similar to high radiofrequency exposure, it’s an interesting question, he said.

“When you hear a cluster of cases like that, field epidemiologists will go in and investigate and often find that it’s more imagined than real,” he said. “In this case, I would expect exposures to Wi-Fi in that school are low, just like anywhere else, and if one is really concerned, you can measure them to confirm that.”

The World Health Organization has assessed some 25,000 articles on the topic and deemed Wi-Fi safe, said Krewski.

“To the extent that the exposure guidelines set out by regulatory agencies such as Health Canada are accurate, we can be comfortable if exposures are below those guidelines, there should not be health concerns,” he said.

On the other hand, nothing is black and white, said Krewski, who is also a professor and director at the R. Samuel McLaughlin Centre for Population Health Risk Assessment at the University of Ottawa.

“Radiofrequency fields can cause certain biological affects that, at this point in time, we’re not sure they’re of any clinical significance but they do require further investigation,” said Krewski, particularly with children.

Professor warns staff

In August, a Brock University professor sent out a press release warning staff they should be cautious about microwave exposure from Wi-Fi when they returned to the St. Catharines, Ont.-based school in September.

“There have been press reports in the last two weeks with false and misleading statements from government officials that there is no public health risk,” said David Fancy, who is also a former member of the school’s joint health and safety committee. (To read a guest commentary from Fancy on this issue, see page 35.)

Those concerns are backed by Magda Havas, an associate professor of environmental and resource studies at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., citing several studies.

“We can’t say for certain (Wi-Fi’s) going to cause cancer in your tissues but that’s what the evidence is suggesting when you have something fairly close to the same frequency,” she said. “Obviously, I’m more concerned for children, because they’re more sensitive to most contaminants, but I’m also concerned for adults because if they’re exposed for a long period of time, it’s quiet likely, ultimately, it will begin to affect their body as well.”

Health Canada’s guidelines were developed decades ago to protect military personnel and people occupationally exposed to microwave radiation, said Havas. And many scientists assumed the only problem with microwave was if it heated the body. But research in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union came up with a whole series of reactions to this radiation that occur well below the heating threshold, she said.

“We know heating causes problems, there’s no issue about that. We have to focus on the more subtle changes and, therefore, we have to have second guidelines that protect against non-thermal, biological effects,” said Havas.

As further proof, Havas cited a decision made a few years back by Fred Gilbert, past president of Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., to only allow Wi-Fi technology if hard wire wasn’t possible.

“He looked at the research and he wasn’t convinced it was safe,” she said.

Policy is decades behind research, said Havas, citing hazards such as asbestos, PCBs, DDTs and cigarette smoke.

“Just as we ripped out asbestos from schools, we’re going to be ripping out the wireless stuff, within the next five years,” she said. “They’re putting it in so quickly, we’re going to have a rash of people getting sick and they will have to reconsider this.”

More research needed

The impact of the environment on human health is an area that most definitely could use more research for Canada, said John McLaughlin, vice-president of population studies and surveillance at Cancer Care Ontario.

“In some situations, a lot has been learned from previous research and, in other areas, there are new sources of exposure that are not well-understood,” said McLaughlin, who is also involved with Ontario Health Study, a province-wide initiative to learn more about why people get serious, chronic illnesses including cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

While radiofrequency studies done to date are very reassuring, the fact exposures in the population are ever-changing warrants some aspect of monitoring and working with surveillance groups, he said.

But the levels of exposure have gone down as the newer devices require less power, said McLaughlin. And studies that have looked at workers or other individuals generally found cancers were only associated with very high exposures, in rare workplace experiences, said McLaughlin, who is also a professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.

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