Is Wi-Fi Bad for Your Health?
October 20, 2003
Concerned parents in Oak Park, Ill., have filed suit against their school district on the grounds that 802.11 wireless networks can cause memory loss or other neurological damage. Is this a blip in Wi-Fi history, or the beginning of a trend?
With the convenience and growing acceptance of Wi-Fi, one can easily forget about the days of stringing cables and being tied to a workstation. But what if Wi-Fi itself were making you forget?
According to a lawsuit filed in a suburb of Chicago, continued exposure to 802.11 signals might be causing damage that could result in memory loss or other neurological harm, at least in relation to children. The suit, filed against the Oak Park school district by some concerned parents, may well be the first ever to contend Wi-Fi could be a physical danger.
"It's clear to us that there are a lot of experts who say there are potential risks," said Ron Baiman, a parent of two of the student plaintiffs and part of Safe Technology for Oak Park (STOP), the citizens group behind the lawsuit. "When the scientific community is so hotly divided, why should [the school] jump in?"
Baiman references a study at the University of Washington in which rats lost long-term memory after exposure to radiation and to another study in Sweden that appeared to show brain damage in "teenage" rats still growing and developing. Critics of the lawsuit argue that these studies and other research the lawsuit leans on have to do with technologies other than Wi-Fi and were performed under somewhat suspect circumstances.
"There is no compelling body of data," said Dr. David McCormick, a toxicologist at the IIT Research Institute in Chicago and a resident of Oak Park. "Anybody can speculate about anything they want but there is no body of scientific evidence to support them.
"The lawsuit has no merit to it."
The suit, filed Sept. 26, does not contend the school system's wireless local area network (WLAN) has done damage and seeks no cash awards, Baiman said. Filing suit was the culmination of a process that lasted many months, during which Baiman's and two other families sought to have the schools remove their Wi-Fi or at least adopt a formal policy recognizing conflicting opinions and giving parents the option to have their kids stay away from the system. After two different school boards refused the parents' request, Baiman and the others filed suit. A hearing is scheduled in February.
"We're not trying to burden the schools with a lawsuit," Baiman said. "We just want them to let the parents decide."
School district representatives say parents have the option to keep their kids away from the WLAN but that none but Baiman's group has shown any interest in doing so. The school district in the upscale community sent a notice this fall to all parents indicating that the schools use Wi-Fi and soliciting questions but received only one call from a parent seeking clarification.
The district has had a WLAN in use in several schools since 1995, said Steve Chowanski, the director of information services. In 1999, they upgraded to a more robust system and broadened the reach of the network. Still, the network is not pervasive, Chowanski said, and is mainly wheeled into and switched on in most classrooms on an as-needed basis. Schools' media centers have an always-on network. Only in 2001 when STOP raised the issue did any parents question the use of Wi-Fi.
Gail Crantz, the school district's community relations liaison, says Oak Park is a very progressive community full of activist people. She also said Wi-Fi is prevalent in town, and is used in many businesses, municipal facilities and even hospitals. She said the widespread use of the technology and the research the schools have done should be enough to satisfy concerned parents. The schools continue to monitor the network and students' use of it as a precaution even though experts contend there is no need for undue concern.
"We can't say there is no effect because it really hasn't been studied on humans," said Dr. Faith Davis, an epidemiologist at the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "We can say that, based on what we know, there is no reason for alarm."
Davis, also an Oak Park resident whose own son has been in the school system longer that the WLAN has been in operation, said there are no human studies related to 802.11 and that those related to cell phones or similar devices cannot readily indicate a danger from Wi-Fi. She said cell-phone studies are far from conclusive and that animal studies are difficult to apply accurately to human conditions.
"There's a tremendous amount of noise in the biological system," said Davis, who, like McCormick, had publicly addressed the school board on the Wi-Fi issue. "Just because you see a cellular change in an animal or in a petri dish, you can't conclude that you will see one in humans."
Industry representatives point out that whatever research hints at danger from cell phones or other devices cannot apply to Wi-Fi because the technologies are not identical. Not only is Wi-Fi a "bursting" technology, said Dennis Eaton, the chairman of the Wi-Fi Alliance, but it operates at much lower power [levels?] than cell phones. Furthermore, the distance from the transmitter reduces geometrically the amount of radiation that reaches the user: cell phones are often right up against heads while Wi-Fi access points are often many feet or yards away.
"I guess it's natural that people are concerned about radio frequency emissions," Eaton said. "We can certainly understand that. But you don't see warnings about pacemakers on Wi-Fi equipment the way you did on microwave ovens."
Eaton noted that this is the first such lawsuit the industry is aware of. He said there's been no concern among manufacturers or their insurers that any liability could exist from use of their products. He said government certification ought to be enough to convince people that the technology is safe. But that is not enough reassurance for everyone.
"When the school board says, 'Trust us,' I'm reluctant," said Terry Buehler, the attorney filing the lawsuit and also a parent of an Oak Park student, though not a plaintiff. Baiman likewise indicates such traditional sources of security are not always reliable.
"Most of the research there is funded by the industry," he said, "and whenever anyone turns up anything negative, they get fired or blocked so the industry can claim the research cannot be replicated."
Baiman said he doesn't consider the situation as conspiratorial as alleged in tobacco lawsuits but he is curious why there is little media attention paid to what questions do arise from such technology.
"There are a lot of vested interests," he said. "You always wonder."
Baiman said the lawsuit is an effort to question and be cautious because children are so vulnerable. Asking for a moratorium on Wi-Fi usage is a means to avoid a risk that may not appear for decades if no one steps up now.
"People say, 'Everyone's doing it so it must be safe,'" he said. "I don't find that convincing."