The Worries Of Wireless

As WiFi Networks Expand, Few Seem To Care that Their Safey is Unproven

News | Hossein Nababi, Margaret Childs | November 2007

Wireless Internet has become an indespensable part of our everyday lives, and Webster now also uses WIFI. But the rumors surrounding health risks may be cause for concern. (Photo: Sebastion Bertrand)

Contemporary universities would be unrecognizable without the laptop, lugged about in back packs and flipped open at the beginning of a class. With wireless Internet connection, the classroom is connected to the world. But how much this new and ever-growing contribution to the world’s "electro-smog" may adversely affect our health, nobody seems quite sure.

As of October, wireless Internet access has been available to Webster students and faculty, a major project of Webster Vienna’s Student Council that marks a significant change in student life.

"One or two years ago, wireless Internet was something that everyone was only talking about," said Dragan Sormaz, president of the WUV Student Council. Now it is a reality. The service makes Internet access available in the university library, the student lounge and the surrounding classrooms.

With current access in about half the building, including the Stars and Stripes coffee shop on the ground floor, the council plans to expand it over the next few years to cover the entire university area.

Thus, Webster joins the long list of Viennese universities that have wireless Internet access. At the same time, almost all libraries in Vienna have wireless Internet access, as do numerous cafés and restaurants – all in the name of practicality and modernity, with no conclusive evidence proving or disproving harmful side effects.

The EMF (electromagnetic field) produced by  wireless Internet is comparble to that of aerial television or Radio.

Since 2005 the World Health Organization and the EU have underwritten numerable studies to uncover the health hazards arising from electromagnetic fields generated by mobile phones and, now, wireless Internet. Viennese researcher Dr. Hugo Rüdiger, who had participated in an EU sponsored study concerning DNA damage from the electromagnetic fields of cellular phones, told the Vienna Review, formerly the Jugendstil in 2005 that there was visible brain deterioration in tests on mice.

Since then, studies like those Interphone and PERFORM-A have given the industry a break, as the results suggest that there are no direct cancerous or other effects promoting the development of certain kinds of tumors.

But at the same time, there is evidence that the rush to connect may carry hidden health risks, whose effects may not show for 10 to 15 years.

Exposure to mobile telecommunication signals in general, and exposure to wireless Internet in particular, involve exposure to EMFs or "electro-smog" which, like exposure to toxic chemicals, has been proven to lead to multi-system illnesses, explained Dr. Gunner Heuser, Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine, U.C.L.A. and a medical specialist in neurotoxicity, in a recent statement to the press.

The traced illnesses include brain and neck tumors, extreme fatigue, memory difficulties, hair loss and autism among many others. In communities living near cellular communications towers, entire families suffering from the effects of high frequency radiation, Heuser said, developing brain and lung damage, muscle tremors, bone pain, DNA damage, sleep problems, low immunity to infection, while more and more babies are born with autism.

The Wireless Technology Research (WTR), a six-year study mandated by the US Congress, proved the extensive genetic damage of human blood following cell phone radiation, thus posing a greater threat than either smoking or asbestos exposure.

"When we have conducted measurements in schools, typical exposures from wi-fi are around 20 millionths of the international guideline levels of exposure to radiation," Dr. Michael Clark of the UK Health Protection Agency told the Times "As a comparison, a child on a mobile phone receives up to 50 per cent of guideline levels. So a year sitting in a classroom near a wireless network is roughly equivalent to 20 minutes on a mobile."

Despite these assuring words to wireless, studies are as yet inconclusive. There simply has not been enough time. The introduction of wireless technology is relatively recent, and there are too few people who have been exposed to EMF radiation for more than 10 years, not to mention 15, the duration considered statistically reliable.

And in university communities, these concerns appear to be largely ignored. Scholars and administrators are excited about the increased access that wireless technology allows, and describe it in glowing terms, as a way to make education more democratic and open.

"If wi-fi should be taken out of schools," Clark stressed, "then the mobile phone network should be shut down, too — and FM radio and TV, as the strength of their signals is similar to that from wi-fi in classrooms."

"Wireless Internet is essential," said graduate teaching assistant Sam Schubert. "It enhances the overall quality of research. People who are doing serious research take their notes and keep their files and drafts on their laptops. And they prefer to use their own systems, not the preprogrammed terminals at libraries."

"Anything that gets people into the library is good," said Webster librarian Ben Fasching-Grey. "For students who can afford a laptop, it will make access to the Internet much easier."

So academics see wireless as an essential addition to an educational establishment, and as to the risks, public officials see cell phones as the real culprit.

"There is no scientific evidence to date that WiFi and WLANs adversely affect the health of the general population, said Pat Troop, Chief Executive of the British Health Protection Agency. "Given this, there is no particular reason why schools and others should not continue to use WiFi or other wireless networks."

Steps have been taken in some EU countries to address these issues. Teachers in Great Britain, a country where wireless Internet has been installed in more than 50% of primary schools and 80% of secondary schools, have reported a dramatic increase in migraine headaches and fatigue among students since the new systems were installed.

The British Health Protection Agency has called for further studies on the effects of wireless Internet on students. Lakehead University, Canada, committed not to install wireless Internet until conclusive evidence will prove it has no health impact.

The French Agency for Environmental and Occupational Health Safety is also concerned and is conducting a review of available scientific information about the effects of exposure to EMF radiation.

In Germany, the Federal Office for Radiation Protection has advised limiting use of mobile phones and wireless networks following pressure from the Green Party.

In Austria, the Green Party has filed a lawsuit in the Constitutional Court against thousands of uncertified cell phone communication towers, erected without community involvement or approval.

The Environment Minister Joseph Pröll, the National Health Council and the Austrian Medical Association are requiring the transmitter power to be minimized and the network fabric optimized, as citizens living in close proximity to the towers demand rights as affected parties. The scientific research on the tower’s danger is often financed by the cellular phone industry, itself.

Vienna is not yet involved in this movement. None of us have been exposed to these EMFs for 10, much less 15 years, thus are making no demands to limit the rapidly increasing number of "hot spots" around the city. The development is welcomed with enthusiasm, at the University of Vienna as well as at Webster.

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