Canadian cities warned: Watch for Wi-Fi health risks

TORONTO — Instead of trumpeting free Wi-Fi zones, municipalities should post signs advising citizens of the locations of Wi-Fi-free zones, said the president of Lakehead University at this week’s Wireless Cities Summit.

“People should be given a choice,” said Fred Gilbert. “We’re talking about ubiquitous deployment of wireless. We’re talking about exposure whether you want it or not.”

Gilbert spoke on the panel with a Trent University professor, a Health Canada director and a supervisor from Toronto Public Health on a topic that differed radically from other presentations at the summit, most of which focused on how to build and fund municipal wireless networks, how to maximize political support for them and how to ensure a return on investment.

He warned there are other considerations beyond convenience and cost to take into account when contemplating implementing a municipal wireless network.

“There is the potential for future class action suits against the municipalities that have made the decision to deploy a technology that may in the future be determined to have detrimental biological consequences,” said Gilbert. “All we need to do is look at the analogues (such as smoking and asbestos exposure) and you understand what that means both to the politicians that have made those decisions and to the (companies) with which they have made those decisions.

“My advice is the cities that are deploying Wi-Fi should at a minimum acknowledge that there is a reference base related to potential health effects and provide Wi-Fi-free zones. Such areas should be posted and the hotspots identified. This is the only way to give freedom of choice.”

Gilbert’s name made the news across Canada and around the world last year when he responded to a student’s queries as to why Lakehead would not offer wireless on campus. His answer then was the same as it is now: because it’s not necessary, and exposure to electrical and magnetic fields could pose a health risk to students and staff. And until there’s conclusive evidence stating otherwise – or mitigating technologies emerge – that’s the way it will stay.

Lakehead, he said, is a highly advanced institution when it comes to technology. It was among the first to deploy voice over IP and still serves as an alpha site for Nortel, he said. It’s home to an enhanced learning environment with a virtual reality lab, and is connected to Ontario’s high-speed research networks via fibre optics.

“Our students have over 8,000 access points that allow them to connect to that pipe,” he said. “There are issues with security, speed and cost with going to a wireless network, but we felt the overriding component of this was because there are potential health impacts we felt we should be employing a precautionary principle with respect to this technology on our campus. We view the technology as a convenience, not a necessity on our campus.”

His viewpoint was backed up by Magda Havas, an associate professor in Trent‘s environmental and resource sciences, who outlined a host of studies conducted over the years that point to at the very least increased electrical sensitivity among people exposed to electrical emissions, particularly those generated by cell phones and cell towers, and brain tumours and birth defects at the other end of the impact spectrum.

Referring to Al Gore’s recent documentary on global warming titled An Inconvenient Truth, Havas said research points to “another inconvenient truth and it’s about our exposure to radiation. I think if there’s any myth, it’s that this technology is completely safe.”

Humans have been exposed to radio frequency emissions since the early 1900s, she said. “When radar was first invented in World War ll we found many radar workers came down with radar sickness, which is what we would now classify as electrosensitivity.”

Havas also argued Canadian standards determining safe levels of exposure to electrical and magnetic fields are too lax.

But Robert Bradley, director of consumer and clinical radiation protection at Health Canada, disagreed.

“The documents we’ve produced are well founded,” he said. “They deal with the full body of research that goes back quite a number of years.

“The bottom line is at this point in time, the body of science does not support the issue of health effects related to wireless communication devices, and as long as the networks and the devices respect the standards of Industry Canada, there should be no negative effects.”

At the same time, though, he said, “Where there are suspicions or ongoing research it is prudent to keep an eye on them. You don’t want to put anyone at undue risk, so where you have choices, apply them.”

That’s the City of Toronto‘s policy, said Ronald Macfarlane, supervisor, environmental health assessment and policy in Toronto Public Health. Macfarlane said the city has had a policy of prudent avoidance with respect to cell phone towers since 1999.

TPH was asked when Toronto Hydro announced its plans to build a Wi-Fi network in downtown Toronto whether or not the public health body would have a concern, he said. Its research indicated that would not be an issue.

“We feel it is not necessary to take additional measures to limit exposures,” said Macfarlane. “I hoped to have a report finished that could have addressed Wi-Fi specifically because we have been asked to do that and also to report back on the community impact. We are in the process of reviewing the health evidence since 1999 when we developed the policy of prudent avoidance, and we have also been asked to consider the increased exposure due to the proliferation of wireless devices.

“It is true when we look at overall exposures radio and TV are still the biggest exposures in our community, but the others are becoming more and more important.”

Despite Havas’ litany of research pointing to the evils of electrical fields exposure, audience members weren’t so easily convinced. Given that all the research was related to exposure to cell phones, rather than wireless networks, asked one audience member, shouldn’t the concerns be focused on the health impacts of cell phone use?

“I don’t think anyone’s going to deny the difference in the strength of radiation, but the critical thing is not that there’s 100 times difference between the two,” said Gilbert. “The critical thing is the biological effects – that doesn’t mean there isn’t a biological effect with Wi-Fi.”

Havas agreed. “There has been very little research on the effects of Wi-Fi because it hasn’t been around long enough, so we have to look at technology that is similar to give us the answers as to how concerned we should be about the effects of this technology,” she said.

At the same, time, though, she added, she’s not advocating banning the technology – just limiting on its uses.

“When we first discovered X-rays … they were also used to discover whether a child’s shoes fit properly,” she said. “That was a very inappropriate use. What I’m suggesting is this technology is not going to go away. I’m recommending we use it for essential uses for things like police and ambulance services, but not to have young children sitting for hours on wireless computers or cell phones.”

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