Postmedia News Dec 18, 2011 – 3:43 PM ET | Last Updated: Dec 18, 2011 3:48 PM ET
TORONTO — Although wireless Internet can be found everywhere from your corner coffee shop to your local dog park, a growing group of concerned parents across the country are urging health officials to keep it out of one place: schools.
And if this year was any indication, the chorus of opposition to the popular technology and its potential health effects is gaining momentum.
In September, at least 12 elementary and middle schools in Ontario and B.C. imposed sweeping bans on wireless Internet by not installing it or removing it completely from their classrooms.
In May, the World Health Organization reclassified the radio frequency (RF) energy emitted through wireless devices such as cellphones and WiFi connections as possibly carcinogenic.
Health Canada maintains that strong scientific evidence shows current exposure rates to these low-level frequencies is “not dangerous” and that there is no need for the public to take any precautions.
Still, those opposed to the technology urge for a more cautious approach to be taken with WiFi, claiming the risks of long-term exposure in children are still unknown.
“This is not a question mark,” said Rodney Palmer with the Safe School Committee, a parents’ advocate group north of Toronto. “The idea is that we shouldn’t kill them to be online.”
Last year, Palmer’s two children aged six and 10, often came home from school feeling feverish. He says that the illnesses stopped when they were transferred this September to Pretty River Academy, a private school in Collingwood, Ont., which only uses wired Internet connections.
Palmer and other parents believe that WiFi exposure can lead to an array of health symptoms including headaches, nausea and heart conditions.
“It’s very difficult to avoid WiFi and it’s a huge problem in the classrooms, where the kids are for six hours a day,” said Magda Havas, a Trent University professor who has studied electronic-magnetic pollution since the mid 1990s.
“Then they go home and get exposed to another signal. It means their little bodies just can’t get rid of it basically.”
Havas cites past studies, which show that radio frequency exposure in rats led to an increase in tumours. A study she completed in 2010 also found a possible link between the frequencies and heart problems.
“I just can’t fathom how they can say that it’s safe,” she said.
But Dave Michelson, an associate professor of electrical engineering at the University of British Columbia disagrees.
Not only is wireless Internet safe; its opponents are doing the public more harm by spreading panic and misinformation, he says.
“This is the problem. These activists are good at intimidating,” said Michelson, who measures and researches radio-frequency energy.
“They have a deep-seated belief that it must be true. It becomes a matter of faith, not fact.”
Michelson called current levels emitted by wireless transmitters “weak” and “virtually undetectable.”
The symptoms that some may feel are more likely psychologically driven rather than physical, he explains.
“It’s a very cartoonish view of the world,” said Michelson. “They don’t let things like math, energy, time, place get in the way. But this is real life and an assumption (of symptoms) they have experienced shouldn’t be a basis for public policy.”
He likened the protest to other scientifically contested issues including the fluoridation of water.
Elementary schools in Saanich, B.C., on Vancouver Island aren’t taking any chances.
A board-wide policy was put into place last spring to ban wireless Internet and only use wired connections in its eight schools. The move was based on a “genuine concern,” says board superintendent Keven Elder.
“The jury is well out on this issue. We examined the evidence and feel there is a legitimate case in terms of people’s concerns to this being a health issue,” he said. “It’s not entirely, in our view, dismissible.”
At Wayside Academy in Peterborough, Ont., the decision to shut off the school’s WiFi was an easy one.
“Whether it’s safe or not safe, there are people on both sides. We didn’t want to get in the middle of that argument,” said Adam Parker, the principal of the small Catholic middle school.
“What we do believe is that the social and psychological effects of using computers and video games are distracting students away from having a love of learning, a love of reading and distracting the educational process away from the school.”
Parker says it’s important to keep a “proper balance” of the real world and the virtual world and encourages parents to minimize computer use at home.