The wi-fi debate

Written by: HTU | Published:

Experts are split on the safety of exposing children to wi-fi in schools, with some concerned about evidence of health risks. Dorothy Lepkowska looks at the issue

It has become so much a natural part of learning in the 21st century that it is hard to imagine a classroom without it. Teachers marvel at the learning opportunities afforded by internet connectivity in the classroom, while using handheld and remote devices is second nature to today’s children.

But there may be risks attached. Teachers are becoming increasingly concerned about the weight of scientific evidence stacking up against the use of wi-fi in schools.

Is it possible that the technology being used so effectively in teaching and learning could in fact be causing long-term damage to young people’s health?

In recent years there has been a huge increase in the number of schools installing wireless networks, wireless whiteboards and other similar devices and the use of “smart” and mobile technologies is now widespread.

These offer teachers and pupils the freedom to move around the school and beyond with laptops and similar devices, and are often cheaper to install than wired networks.

However, there are increasing fears that these technologies emit microwave radiation in sufficient quantities to pose a health risk, especially to children.

According to a report published in 2000, children absorb more electromagnetic radiation than adults. A five-year-old for example, will absorb around 60 per cent more than an adult because their skulls are thinner and brains more conductive.

The effects could be considerable. Scientists fear that prolonged exposure may lead to problems like epilepsy or issues with fertility among boys and male teachers, as well as cancers and tumours. There may also be negative effects when combined with the use of some medicines.

The report suggested that where parents were concerned about the effects on their children, schools should provide wired connectivity where possible until such time as more is known about the impact of wireless networks.

A study by the Council of Europe Committee on the Environment, Agriculture and Local and Regional Affairs, published last year, suggested that mobile phones should be banned from schools and called for a “dramatic reduction” in the use of other wireless devises including baby monitors and cordless phones in the home.

The committee reported that electromagnetic fields were the most common and fastest-growing environmental influence on the population, and that levels of exposure would continue to increase as technology advances. It found that the effects of these were not yet fully understood but that precautions should be put in place until they were.

These included reducing exposure to electromagnetic fields among children and young people; making people more aware of the risks to human health, particularly young people; and to increase research into new types of antennae and all cordless devices and seek the development of other technologies that had less negative risks.

On the issue of protecting children, the committee wanted to see targeted information campaigns across Europe’s education and health ministries to make teachers, parents and young people more aware of the risks; and prohibiting the use of mobile phones, as well as wi-fi and WLAN (wireless local area network) systems from schools.

In the United States, David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment, at the University of Albany’s School of Public Health, said: “Many public health experts believe it is possible we will face an epidemic of cancers in the future resulting from uncontrolled use of cell phones and increased population exposure to wi-fi and other wireless devices.

“Thus it is important that all of us, and especially children, restrict our use of cell phones, limit exposure to background levels of wi-fi, and that government and industry discover ways in which to allow use of wireless devices without such elevated risk of serious disease.

“We need to educate decision-makers that “business as usual” is unacceptable. The importance of this public health issue cannot be underestimated.”

Some experts have also been sceptical of the warnings. Professor Les Barclay, vice-chairman of the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme, said: “There is very little evidence at the moment for harmful effects. The powers that mobile phones emit are getting less and less, and they are well below the limits set by the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection.

“Banning mobile phones and wireless networks in schools is a step too far in my eyes.”

The Department of Health said: “We keep all available scientific evidence under review. Children should use mobile phones only for essential purposes and keep all calls short.”

Other international agencies have also been cautious. The World Health Organisation stated that “despite extensive research, to date there is no evidence to conclude that exposure to low level electromagnetic fields is harmful to human health” though it agreed there were “gaps in knowledge” that required further investigation.

The education union Voice has been among the most vocal within the UK education system on its concerns about the use of wireless and remote systems in schools.

Philip Parkin, the general secretary, said: “We are installing wi-fi systems in schools and yet we have no evidence that they are safe.

“My concern is that until they are declared to be safe and proven to be, we should not be installing them in schools.

“The difficulty is that once installed, they are switched on constantly whether the children are using them or not.

“With such strong opinions on both sides of the argument, serious and sustained scientific research is needed to establish conclusive facts about the potential long-term effects on children.”

• Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education journalist.

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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