Networking

Wireless networking: Is it really safe?

The Times reported last week that several schools in the UK are dismantling their wireless networks due to health concerns and complaints of parents. Both parents and some scientists fear that the radiation given out by wireless transmitters may be causing loss of concentration, headaches, fatigue, memory and behavioural problems, and possibly cancer in the long term. Tim Cannell, headmaster of Prebendal School in West Sussex said, “The authorities say it’s safe, but there have been no long-term studies to prove this.”

Hywel Pugh, the head teacher of Ysgol Pantycelyn in Carmarthenshire had the school's wireless network switched off telling The Times, “The county council and central government told us that wireless networks are perfectly safe, but as there were concerns we listened to them and decided that the concerns of the parents were of greater importance than our need to have a wireless network.”

Stowe School in Buckinghamshire removed part of their wireless network after one teacher became violently ill in reaction to the network. Michael Bevington explained, “First came a thick headache, then pains throughout the body, sudden flushes, pressure behind the eyes, sudden skin pains and burning sensations, along with bouts of nausea. Over the weekend, away from the classroom, I felt completely normal.”

It’s interesting to see how concerns as to the safety of wireless technology are growing.

Back in 2003 at Comdex in Las Vegas concerns over the heath implications of wireless networking were dismissed. Panellist Sheung Li—then product-marketing director with California-based Atheros Communications Inc.—said, "The fact is, all wireless LANs operate at a fraction of the power of cellular phones, and you don't hold your laptop up to your head.” Frank Hanzlik managing director of the WIFI Alliance industry group said that there was no evidence that wireless LANs posed a threat to health.

More recently general opinion seems to be going in the other direction. In January of this year Kathleen Sibley reported that Lakehead University President Fred Gilbert refused to sign off on plans for a campus-wide Wi-Fi deployment due to the potential of health risks. The decision was based on scientific documents that indicate “fairly significant” health concerns. Studies carried out by scientists on behalf of the California Public Utilities Commission concluded that while there is no proven link between EMF exposure and various types of cancer, the risk warrants further investigation. Gilbert cited the examples of passive smoking and asbestos, noting that we are only just finding out what the consequences are 30 - 40 years down the line.

In April James Mortleman reported that there is an increasing array of evidence to suggest that Wi-Fi networks and other EM devices can cause headaches, irritability, fatigue, and lack of concentration in some people. Alasdair Philips a member of the Government's Stakeholder Advisory Group on extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields gave an example: “I’ve seen several doctors and dentists who have put wireless LANs into their surgeries and then had complaints from staff who can feel something in their head or can’t concentrate properly. But when they’ve taken out Wi-Fi and put cable in, the problem has disappeared.” While more rigorous studies are required, it is suggested that as many as 30 percent of people could be affected in some way. Phillips cautioned against the use of wireless networks saying, “My advice would be not to put a wireless network into your offices. If you’ve already got one, be aware of the symptoms some of your staff may be suffering – things like headaches, fatigue, irritability and lack of concentration.

Professor Sir William Stewart, Chairman of the Health Protection Agency (UK) says that evidence of the potentially harmful effects of microwave radiation has become more persuasive over the past five years and a precautionary approach should be taken. Despite rising concerns, it’s thought unlikely that formal regulations will be introduced within the next five years.

I would be very interested to hear reader’s opinions on the possible effects of EM radiation produced by wireless networks and other wireless devices. Are we putting our health at risk? Does the convenience offered by such devices warrant the risk?

I find myself wondering how many people may be suffering from some of the previously mentioned side effects of EM radiation without realising, perhaps putting them down to the increasingly stressful modern lifestyle that we lead. 

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