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November 2008

Wi-fi in schools: a threat to your child’s health?

Calls are growing for the use of wi-fi internet systems in schools here to be halted while more in-depth study of its possibly harmful effects can be undertaken…

Youngsters throughout Northern Ireland may be experiencing the harmful effects of microwave radiation on a daily basis, thanks to the ongoing installation of wi-fi networks in primary and secondary schools all over the country.

That’s the stark message which was driven home to a concerned group of MLAs, school principals and parents who attended a briefing at the Long Gallery in Stormont at the end of October. The gathering, organised under the auspices of Strangford MLA, Jim Shannon, heard from Professor Olle Johansson, a recognised authority on the alleged dangers of wi-fi networks who lectures at the Nobel prize-winning Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

Wi-fi networks provide users with a remote means of connecting to the internet, allowing computers anywhere within their catchment area to connect instantly to the web without the need for a physical link to a telephone socket.

But Professor Johansson told around 65 delegates to the Stormont meeting that he believed that the microwave radiation emitted by the equipment used to provide wi-fi in schools posed a significant threat to the well-being of children and teachers. He showed his audience a dramatic series of images depicting the effects which microwave radiation can have on human cells and claimed that long-term exposure to wi-fi networks represented a very real risk to health.

More than 20,000 laptops were deployed to schools in Northern Ireland in the 2007/08 academic year – 11,600 to post-primary and 8,500 to primary and special schools. These machines are used by pupils and children to facilitate learning, although more than 5,000 additional machines have been supplied to help with pupil assessment in primary schools. With the exception of one school, which declined to have wi-fi installed, these are all connected to the internet via remote systems.

The Stormont gathering was not the first time that the alleged dangers inherent in this method of internet access have been aired – BBC current affairs programme, Panorama, aired an investigation in the spring of last year in which it was claimed that the radiation given off by a wi-fi-connected laptop was three times higher than that emitted by a mobile telephone mast.

The findings of that programme were far from being universally accepted – the methodology used by the Panorama investigators was criticised as ‘unscientific’ by some leading scientists and the World Health Organisation said that there were “no adverse health effects from low-level, long-term exposure” to wi-fi systems.

Nevertheless, national interest had been piqued and all over the UK, parents, teachers and teaching unions began to demand that more research be carried out into the potential threat which wi-fi equipment might pose in schools.

Here in Northern Ireland, a group of around 25 concerned parents have been working to highlight the dangers they believe that school children are being exposed to. Their spokesperson is Walter Graham from Downpatrick, himself a parent and a college lecturer. The group was instrumental in bringing Professor Johansson to Stormont for last month’s briefing and Walter recently told ni4kids that they are determined to see the wi-fi installation programme halted until such times as more is known about the effects of the technology:

“There are health and safety laws which should prevent the introduction to schools of something like this which may not be safe”, said Walter. “If you have something which might cause personality disorders, brain tumours, sleep disorders and who knows what else, then it shouldn’t be introduced until safety testing has been carried out…Where you have a controversy like this, you must err on the side of safety. You just can’t take the chance that the numerous scientific reports which say this is dangerous might be right.”

Walter has already met with education minister, Catriona Ruane, to discuss the group’s concerns, although he later said that he felt the minister had been ‘totally closed’ to the arguments which he outlined for her during their discussions.

“If you have a professor of the standing of Olle Johansson coming here and telling you of the harm that these things can do, then I don’t think that we are over-reacting”, added Walter. “We can’t take chances with the health of our children. If we find out in 20 years time that what the professor told us was right, we won’t be able to go back and set things right.”

Very alarming

A total of seven MLAs attended the Stormont meeting, including Lagan Valleys’ Jeffrey Donaldson. Speaking after the briefing, he told ni4kids that he had found the presentation given by Professor Johansson to be ‘very alarming’ and said that he felt it raised “very serious questions” about the use of wi-fi in Ulster schools.

“When you consider that there is a viable alternative – and that is cabling – then I think we should very definitely err on the side of caution”, he went on. “If there is a potential risk to the health of children here, then it should not be ignored.”

Mr. Donaldson, who has two teenage children himself, also revealed that he has already discussed the issue with a number of schools in his constituency. And he said that he felt the Department of Education now had a duty to investigate the claims and to consider how best to move forward.

For its part, the department is keen to emphasise its concern for the welfare and safety of children and staff in the province’s schools. In a recent statement to this magazine, it said that it had been ‘consistently advised’ by the Health Promotion Agency (HPA) that it did not consider wi-fi systems a threat.

“As a result, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta), recommended the deployment of wireless networks in schools because, where used effectively, these networks directly support the use of ICT in raising standards and attainment”, continued the statement.

The department pointed out that the HPA is already engaged in systematic research which will include investigation of the levels of exposure to wi-fi networks:

“The department will monitor the progress of the HPA programme of research”, it added. “Wi-fi is used widely in homes, offices and public areas. On the basis of current evidence and expert safety advice, Becta believes that there is no need to change its advice and discourage the use of wireless networks.”

The Department of Education also indicated that, in fact, wi-fi was likely to be introduced to more schools as the use of ICT for teaching and learning expanded:

“Best advice at present indicates that the risk to health from wi-fi radiation is very low and that wi-fi equipment satisfies international guidelines”, it added.

Principals say ‘no’ to wi-fi

The principal of Ballinderry Primary School, Ian Thompson, is so concerned about the threat which may be posed by wi-fi technology that he has decided he won’t have it in his classrooms.

Although the technology has already been installed in the school, Mr. Thompson decided to leave it turned off after a parent expressed her fears that too little was known about the possible side-effects of wi-fi.

And at Maghaberry Primary School, principal David Taylor has also turned off the wi-fi connection after a parent, Susan Kyle, presented him with evidence of the dangers. Susan told ni4kids:

“As a parent and a mother, I took every precaution from the moment I became pregnant to ensure that my children were safe from any danger, whether it was proven or not. They weren’t exposed to smoking or to foods that might not be good for them. Now, in our own home, we have switched off and removed the [cordless] phones and we have taken out the wi-fi. I am also trying to limit use of my mobile phone as much as possible.”

Pointing out that some schools had already banned children from playing with conkers and skipping ropes because of the risk of injury, Susan said that she would like the wi-fi systems to remain turned off until they can be “100 per cent sure” that there is no possibility of harm.

The alternative, she says, is to wire the schools for cabled access - a process which she understands might cost around £1200 for a seven-classroom school.

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