Parents divided over Wi-Fi safety in Lower Mainland schools
John Puddifoot knows there are clear divisions among parents when it comes to the issue of installing wireless Internet systems in schools.
“There are a number of parents that are very strongly of the opinion that it should be banned from all schools,” the chair of the Wi-Fi subcommittee for the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils told the Georgia Straight over the phone. “There are also a number of parents that are of the opinion that this is absolute poppycock and there is nothing wrong with it.
“If you sit in the middle, they try and convert you,” Puddifoot added. “It’s very religious, so to speak, in its approach.”
Debate over Wi-Fi safety at BCCPAC is so vigorous that, according to Puddifoot, the organization hasn’t been able to decide what its official position is on whether or not this technology should be installed in British Columbia’s classrooms.
“I am in the middle. There is certainly evidence that tells me that there may be some risk,” said Puddifoot, who is the father of two students in the Vancouver school district. “But Wi-Fi, especially in Vancouver, is literally everywhere. So, you can’t control it. And even if you were to ban it, you would still be getting it.”
The Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association believes wireless Internet should no longer be installed in schools because of health concerns. The union that represents 45,000 teachers says more research needs to be done to prove Wi-Fi exposure is safe.
The World Health Organization is still reviewing the possible dangers of Wi-Fi exposure. So far, findings by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classify radio-frequency electromagnetic fields from mobile phones, along with coffee, nickel, and Asian pickled vegetables, as “possibly carcinogenic to humans”.
“There is a lot of research over the past 30 years that has gone into cellphones and Wi-Fi and other types of electromagnetic frequencies, as we dub them, but probably a small amount of that research has gone into looking at the effects of it on children,” Claire Cohalan, a radiation scientist with the Radiation Safety Institute of Canada, told the Straight over the phone from Toronto. “Whether we are talking about kids or adults, there is no physical reason to think that things like cancer would come about from those types of radiation.
“The scientific community is a little split on it, but in western Europe and North America there has been something like 25,000 papers that have been published on this, and most of the scientific population says there is no problem,” Cohalan added.
Cohalan says she understands the concerns of some parents, and concedes that more research looking into the long-term effects of such electromagnetic radiation needs to be done.
“I don’t think we should stop Wi-Fi,” Cohalan said. “We have been around these electromagnetic fields for a very long time, and there is no reason to believe that they have adverse health effects.”
Most school districts in the Lower Mainland have already installed Wi-Fi networks in their schools. However, in New Westminster, the school board has decided to hold off on such plans until more information is available on the potential dangers associated with these low-level electromagnetic fields.
“We’ve been getting calls from parents expressing concerns,” assistant superintendent Al Balanuik told the Straight over the phone.
“It’s all about gathering information and making informed decisions,” added Balanuik, who says that by the end of the year the district will have a draft of a technology plan that will address installing Wi-Fi networks.
In Surrey, the school board has allocated funding to have wireless Internet installed at a majority of its schools over the next two years.
“We were putting in those funny dial-up lines in the ’90s, and to see where we are now is quite a transformation,” Dan Turner, the Surrey school district’s director of information management services, told the Straight by phone.
Turner says the district has taken advantage of features on Wi-Fi stations to limit the amount of radiation in schools. Access points in the schools are designed to adjust their transmission power when they are not being used.
“It pays attention to what is going on in the room,” Turner explained. “This particular system works to limit the amount of transmitting when it is not necessary.
“It’s an intelligence built into the system for power consumption,” he added, “and we communicate it that these access points are not transmitting all the time.”
Still, until the World Health Organization releases its latest study on Wi-Fi later this year, Puddifoot says parents will remain divided on whether it’s safe in the classroom.
“Until there is sound scientific evidence one way or another, you are going to still find people on both sides of the issue and [who] feel very strongly on both sides of the issue,” Puddifoot said. “It’s one of those issues that is divisive, and it is difficult to deal with because both sides believe deep down they are right.”