Will Wi-Fi really fry student brains?
CBC News Online | February 28, 2006 | More Reality Check

 Robert Sheppard began his career at the Montreal Star (may it rest in peace), spent 22 years at the Globe and Mail and was recently senior editor at Maclean's magazine. He has co-authored a book on the Canadian Constitution and writes on a variety of subjects.

Lakehead president Fred Gilbert certainly didn?t mean to send shockwaves around the world with his recent directive not to allow campus-wide wireless internet at the Thunder Bay university. But his admittedly personal decision, to err on the side of caution when so little is known about the cumulative health effects of electromagnetic waves on the human body, rocketed through cyberspace with all the force of internet heresy.

Clearly he struck a nerve.

Adding to the occasion, Gilbert?s position emerged at the same time as Via Rail was rolling out one of the first Wi-Fi networks for train travellers on its Windsor to Quebec City route. It emerged as giants Google and Earthlink were working on a bid to blanket San Francisco in a cone of complete wireless accessibility for the convenience of the laptop and BlackBerry toting crowd. Also as London was gearing up to equip its entire financial district with Wi-Fi antennas and transmitters.

Fearful only that they might be beaten out by a handful of American cities racing to be total wireless ?hotspots,? the Brits have launched an ambitious plan to bathe as many as 13 large communities, including Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Leeds and Oxford, in the electromagnetic field of Wi-Fi transmission. They clearly don?t fear any health consequences from constant connectivity.

So what is Fred Gilbert worried about?

The big picture

For the past 100 years of so, industrialized humans have been bombarded with electromagnetic waves courtesy of the growing number of power lines, radios, household appliances, microwaves, telephones, cellphones, computers and wireless fidelity, the Wi-Fi networks that beam all manner of internet signals to satellites and other passers-on. Depending on where you sit, these electromagnetic waves have had no discernible impact on human health or are responsible for all manner of modern ailments brain cancers and childhood leukemia chiefly among them. On this big picture, scientists are broadly, often hotly, divided.

Taken in smaller research chunks, the story gets even muddier.

In the 1990s, there was huge public concern over the health effects of large power transmission lines. Immense scientific and media energies were devoted to the issue. In 1994, a large Quebec-Ontario-France study uncovered significant cancer rates among certain power workers, though the sample sizes were considered small. And many of the broad Canadian concerns seemed to be allayed in 1999, after the publication of an important Quebec-western Canada study that found no direct correlation between power lines and childhood leukemia in particular.

Other international studies seemed to back this up. But then came at least two big caveats. A British study in 2005 found children who grew up within 200 metres of power lines had a 70 per cent increased risk of leukemia. Some Japanese research was also indicating similar warnings. And a few years earlier, in 2002, the California Department of Health stunned the science world with a huge study commission by the state?s public utilities commission.

This is the report Gilbert cited in defence of his decision to ban wireless transmitters at Lakehead. It didn?t deal directly with Wi-Fi; instead it examined the much more powerful electromagnetic fields (EMFs) inherent in power lines. What?s more, while the study itself didn?t conclude there were health risks, the three authors, all senior scientists, reported they were inclined to believe EMFs are a cause of childhood leukemia, adult brain cancer, the nerve ailment we call Lou Gherig?s Disease and miscarriage.

The skinny on cellphones

Cellphones, in common use for about a decade now, were the next wave-emitting device to be studied in depth and once again the research was inconclusive. Cellphones emit about 0.6 of a watt of power through their antennas, which are often close to the brain depending on how the device is used.

But lawsuits in the U.S. on behalf of people who have contracted brain cancer have not been successful, and a 2001 Swedish study that found a correlation between cellphone use and brain cancer has been strongly challenged by other scientists. More recent studies by the Brits and Danes have found no danger in prolonged cellphone use (though the British government has issued a warning that young children, whose brain tissue is growing, should have only minimal cellphone exposure). The World Health Organization is co-ordinating a 12-nation study, to be released later this year, a study that is widely expected to show the same benign results.

Wi-Fi, a much newer technology, has not been examined nearly as closely, and never in any serious way on humans. Though there has been some suggestion that similar radiation on lab rats can cause memory loss and other brain ailments.

Wi-Fi issues an electromagnetic wave that is usually less powerful than cellphones and the transmitter in the device is not, as a rule, up against the ear. Still, as Gilbert points out, students and others using Wi-Fi hotspots for their laptops or Nintendos tend to congregate in those areas where the uplink transmitter is at its most powerful in order to get the best reception.

Tipping the hat to caution

Gilbert is not, it should be noted, banning the internet from Lakehead campus. The university is almost completely hard-wired and students can plug in virtually wherever and whenever they want. The difference is they won?t be bathed in the constant buzz of admittedly low-emission EMF Wi-Fi. But he argues that while the jury is still out on the total effect of electromagnetic waves, it is better to err on the side of caution than convenience.

The mainstream scientific view is that cellphones, microwaves and other appliances emit low frequency, non-ionizing radiation that, unlike gamma rays and X-rays, do not cause change at the body?s cellular level and are therefore unlikely to cause cancer. But as Gilbert points out, it took scientists decades to realize the health consequences of secondhand smoke. The same might be true of even low-frequency EMFs.

Health Canada has tightened its standards a couple of times on EMF-emitting devices. But they are still not as strong as are in place in some countries. And it is hard to know what is the cumulative effect of all these rays on the truly gadget-prone. In the U.K., London justified its Wi-Fi foray by acknowledging potential health risks but arguing they paled beside some of the radio networks already in place in the financial district. That was supposed to make people feel better.

As a zoologist by training, Gilbert says he is conscious of the potential risk of EMFs on young people. As an American, he may be more cognizant of the potential legal consequences as well.

Parents of students at a well off high school in a Chicago suburb have gone so far as to sue the school, trying to get it to roll back its state-of-the-art Wi-Fi network. The parents are offering no concrete scientific evidence Wi-Fi is harmful. But they want the school to offer a Wi-Fi-free zone for those who at least believe that is the case.