WLAN Sickness: Rubbish or Reasonable?

By Gerry Blackwell

March 13, 2006

A decision not to install Wi-Fi at a Canadian college has reopened the question of just what long-term exposure to RF radiation could mean to our health.

Dr. Frederick Gilbert, President of Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, says he first made the decision to avoid using wireless technology on his campus seven years ago. He was and remains concerned about possible health effects from exposure to even the low levels of RF radiation emitted by Wi-Fi equipment. Data security was a much lesser concern.

The ongoing research on which Gilbert based his decision claims to show health effects from exposure to RF radiation (RFR) ranging from sleep disruption to genetic damage – though effects from Wi-Fi system emissions are probably at the relatively benign end of the range. None of this research, it’s worth noting, is going on at Lakehead.

The president’s decision – and it appears to be his personal decision – came to light recently when the school’s administration issued a bulletin in response to student inquiries about why Lakehead wasn’t implementing a campus-wide Wi-Fi access network like other North American universities. Media in Canada and the U.S. picked up on it, and the radio waves, as it were, hit the fan.

Gilbert does not appear to be a crank. A biologist by training, and President of this small northern Ontario university since 1998, he sounded eminently sensible when we talked on the phone. He was slightly shell-shocked by the negative media attention, though. “We’ve been taking a little static in the media,” is how he put it. “It’s interesting that we have been portrayed as Luddites, yet this campus is one of the most progressive in terms of technology use.”

Lakehead, Gilbert points out, has an extensive fiber network that provides high-speed Internet access almost everywhere. It supplements Ethernet connections with cyber cafes where students can use computers connected to the network. The only thing they can’t do is fire up their laptops at a cafeteria table or outside on the lawn.

It’s not even that Lakehead has an outright ban on wireless. In places where the fiber network doesn’t extend – such as a couple of research facilities on the edge of campus – the school has in fact deployed Wi-Fi nets. And while dorm rooms all have high-speed wired connections, there is nothing stopping students setting up their own Wi-Fi nodes. “What students do within the dorms is up to them,” Gilbert says.

So if he isn’t a Luddite or a crank, why has Gilbert made this seemingly contrarian decision?

According to him, there is a mounting body of scientific evidence to suggest – but not conclusive proof, he is the first to admit – that there are “bioeffects” from even low-level RF radiation. “If you look at the literature that has been published,” he says, “there are demonstrable effects of exposure. Once we get to the point where we can definitively say that there are or are not harmful effects, that’s when we make a decision to deploy, I think.”

The current state of understanding about the health effects of low-level RF radiation (RFR) may be analogous to the understanding of the effects of asbestos exposure or cigarette smoking 25 or 40 years ago, he suggests. So in the meantime, he’d rather play it safe. “The issue I have is that we’re looking here at a technology of convenience [i.e. Wi-Fi] on a campus that is already very technologically advanced,” Gilbert says. “Under the circumstances, I don’t see any reason to take anything other than a precautionary position.”

Gilbert’s interest in the effects of radiation goes back to his undergraduate days when he studied ionizing radiation. RFR is not ionizing radiation, he is quick to point out, but his interest continued. “When I got into the literature on electromagnetic radiation [EMF, of which RFR is one type], there were indications to a biologist that there could be something here, at least to look at as a potential.”

The effects of highly concentrated EMF radiation from long-term, heavy use of cell phones have of course been debated in the scientific community for several years. There is a growing concern, especially in the European community, that heavy users of mobile phones are, indeed, at increased risk of brain cancer – among other health problems.

But these effects are supposedly the result of the thermal energy generated by RFR, part of a continuum of known effects that includes birds sitting on very high-power antennas being fried instantly when transmission begins. Ambient RF radiation – the kind that is in the air all around us, emitted by wireless communications systems, including Wi-Fi – is at much lower levels, generating insignificant amounts of thermal energy.

The research on the effects of ambient RFR is at a much earlier stage. Current U.S. and Canadian health standards allow RFR exposure in the thousands of microwatts, notes environmental consultant Cindy Sage, a principal in Sage EMF Design of Santa Barbara, California. But research in the past five years has begun to show effects from emissions measured in the nanowatts, Sage says. (A microwatt is 10-6 watt; a nanowatt is 10-9 watt.)

“Once you get into the nanowatts range, you’re getting into Wi-Fi territory,” she says. “And at least sleep disruption can be an effect of exposure and maybe a constellation of other health issues.”

Gilbert refers to Sage as a key source of information on the subject, although he has not actually used her as a consultant. Sage has consulted with other colleges, universities and school districts on exactly these issues, she says, but is not at liberty to reveal their deliberations or decisions. She implies that other schools have made or are in the process of making similar decisions to Gilbert’s for similar reasons.

Sage describes herself as a synthesizer and interpreter of the scientific evidence. Her firm’s Web site and some of its publications include continually updated bibliographies of scientific studies on the effects of ambient RFR. She was also a respondent to the City of San Francisco’s request for comments on its proposed citywide Wi-Fi network. Her firm’s response was in opposition to the deployment.

Its argument boils down to this. There is some evidence, albeit inconclusive and puzzling to scientists, of bioeffects from low-intensity RFR. We need more research. In the meantime, the correct approach is to use the “precautionary principle” – i.e. avoid an action if the consequences are unknown but judged to have some potential for major or irreversible negative consequences. Exactly the position Gilbert is taking, in other words.

Some of the reasons for not deploying Wi-Fi and WiMax are purely economic and practical, she suggests. If it turns out these technologies are a health hazard, companies and institutions would presumably have to rip out their wireless networks and replace them at considerable expense with something else. There is also the prospect of victims suing network operators. Sage says children are probably most vulnerable.

The list of observed health effects in the research Sage has studied – which we have no way of being able to evaluate, of course – includes memory loss, sleep disorders and insomnia, slowed motor skills and reaction time in schoolchildren, immune system changes, spatial disorientation and dizziness, headaches, loss of concentration and “fuzzy thinking,” lower sperm count, increased blood pressure, DNA damage and more. A scary litany.

What should we think about the position Gilbert and Sage have taken? If it was widely adopted, the Wi-Fi industry would be badly hurt, which can’t be a good thing. But consider history. As Gilbert notes, 40 years ago, almost nobody believed cigarette smoking caused long-term health problems – although scientists were already sounding the alarm.



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