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Monday 18th June 2018

WiFi: a warning signal

21st May 2007

Are WiFi networks really harmless? The government is adamant that the technology is safe, but some scientists are concerned that WiFi could pose serious health hazards. As the UK’s schools and offices embrace wireless networks, a Panorama investigation - broadcast on BBC1 on 21 May - has shown levels of radiation from Wi-Fi networks are three times higher than levels from mobile phone masts.


Over the last year-and-a-half, two million people in the UK have started to use WiFi. Wireless networks are used in 70% of secondary schools and 50% of primary schools. Some cities have also been labeled wireless “hotspots.? These hotspots are places that offer WiFi where the public can access the internet.

WiFi safety

Many studies have been conducted regarding the impact on health arising from mobile phone masts and equipment. WiFi produces a comparable type of radiation to mobile phone masts.

In 2000, Sir William Stewart, now chairman of the Health Protection Agency, led a government inquiry concerned with investigating the impact of mobile phone masts on health. He decided scientific findings meant that precaution should be taken when locating mast sites near schools.

Sir William told the BBC: "We recommended, because we were sensitive about children... that masts should not necessarily impact directly on areas where children were exposed, like playgrounds and that."

During 2000, the government offered the 3G licences for sale. The licences were bought for £22.5bn.

Investigating radiation

Panorama spent time at a school in Norwich which contained over 1,000 pupils. The programme measured and compared radiation levels from a standard mobile phone mast with WiFi levels in the classroom.

The readings demonstrated that the peak of signal strength was three times higher in the classroom using WiFi than the main beam of radiation emitted by a mobile phone mast. This classroom research is particularly important because tests have proven children can absorb more radiation than adults, due to the thinness of their developing skulls.

Philip Parkin, general secretary of the Professional Association of Teachers commented: "I am asking schools to consider very seriously whether they should be installing WiFi networks now.? He said the programme’s research would make schools think very carefully about installing the technology.

He told the BBC: "It's a bit like King Canute. We can't stop the tide and I am afraid if schools are told that there is a serious health implication for having these networks in schools, it is going to be a very serious matter to say to schools, you have to switch them off."

Safety limits

Panorama’s measurements of WiFi radiation were considerably lower than the government's safety limits. Some readings were found to be 600 times below the recommended radiation limits. However, some scientists have questioned whether the government’s limits are correct.

Professor Olle Johansson of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden told the BBC there were studies which demonstrated the various effects of radiation: “like chromosome damage…impact on the concentration capacity and decrease in short term memory, increases in the number of cancer incidences."

At Washington State University, Professor Henry Lai told the programme that he had discovered comparable effects to health by using similar levels of radiation to WiFi. Professor Lai estimates that the thousands of studies carried out are divided into two camps. 50% show that radiation has an effect, while the other 50% do not find that it has an effect on health.

No risks

The government has said that there is no danger from WiFi networks. The Health Protection Agency argues that WiFi devices operate at extremely low strength – considerably less than that of mobile phones.

The government’s argument is supported by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which firmly states that there are "no adverse health effects from low level, long-term exposure."

Dr Mike Repacholi was head of the WHO's research investigating radio frequency radiation. He also organised the International Committee on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP). He argued the WHO's assertion of "no adverse health effects" was founded by the “weight of evidence.?

He told the BBC that to prove something had an impact on health meant it would have been submitted to intensive research and undergone repeated experiments using excellent study procedures. Any results would then be carefully considered before any conclusions were drawn.

He told Panorama: "It is called a weight of evidence approach - and if that weight of evidence is not for there being an effect or not being an effect that is the only way you can tell whether there really is an adverse health effect."

Radiation questions

The Panorama investigation raises some important questions and puts pressure on the government to consider their current stance regarding WiFi radiation.

Sir William Stewart’s recommendation to the government concerning mobile phone masts was clear. He said that the beam of greatest intensity from a mast should not fall anywhere on school property, unless parents and staff had agreed that it could.

As the programme shows, WiFi levels of radiation are significantly higher than mobile phone masts’ beams. This opens up the issue of why similar safety legislation should not be enforced for Wi-Fi technology.

Philip Parkin, general secretary of the Professional Association of Teachers said: "I think schools and parents will be very worried about it.?

Panorama also called 50 schools at random to find out if they had been warned or informed about possible WiFi safety concerns. The programme found that none of the schools they contacted had been alerted.

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