Health concerns limit wireless Internet at Lakehead University

There are many benefits to studying at Lakehead University. Ubiquitous wireless Internet access, however, isn’t one of them.

That’s because president Fred Gilbert won’t allow it until he’s satisfied EMF (electric and magnetic fields) exposure doesn’t pose a health risk, particularly to young people.

Gilbert, who was interviewed last week on the CBC about the university’s policy as stated in a town hall meeting last fall, told he based his decision on scientific literature that indicates the potential for “some fairly significant” health consequences.

“These are particularly relevant in younger people (who have) fast-growing tissues, and most of our student body are late teenagers and still growing, so it’s just a matter of taking precautions and providing an environment that doesn’t have a potential risk associated risk,” he said.

Gilbert cited studies done by scientists for the California Public Utilities Commission, whose findings boil down to the fact that while there is no proven link between EMFs exposure and diseases such as leukemia and brain tumours, the possible risk warrants further investigation.

He also said Canadian regulation allows for a higher minimum degree of exposure to EMFs than do some other countries.

“All I’m saying is while the jury’s out on this one, I’m not going to put in place what is potential chronic exposure for our students,” he said. “Admittedly that’s highest around the locations of the antenna sites and the wireless hotspots, but those are the places people tend to gravitate to because they get the best reception.”

Gilbert added he believes there are many environmental impacts that are not manifest for 30 to 40 years after exposure. “Second-hand tobacco exposure is a case in point,” he said. “We’re just finding out now what some of those impacts are. Asbestos is another example.”

Lakehead, which is located at the head of Lake Superior in Thunder Bay, Ont., has some wireless access, but only where the university’s fibre optic network doesn’t reach. There are plenty of computers around campus where students can access the Internet 24 hours a day, so it’s not like they’re cut off, Gilbert said.

And it doesn’t necessarily mean there will never be ubiquitous wireless at Lakehead, he said.

“When we get to the stage where the evidence is conclusive there is no health impact I have no problem putting wireless in place,” said Gilbert. “Even the World Health Organization in its international review says it doesn’t have a great deal of concern but it admits the information is not 100 per cent.”

That will probably change by sometime this year, however, said Robert Bradley, director of consumer and clinical radiation protection at Health Canada.

Bradley said Canada has been working for a number of years with WHO on the International EMF Project, which looks at the research done to date, current research and gaps in studies.

Bradley said he expects documents to be published sometime this year that say there are no identified health risks given the exposure levels that are being set as a regulatory limit.

“There have been extensive reviews of the science and I’m pretty confident that’s the way it’s going,” he said.

Bradley said Health Canada is in the third or fourth revision of the standard that has been adopted by Industry Canada as the regulator for telecommunications equipment. The standard looks at the amount of radio-frequency energy across various frequencies that would have to be absorbed by the human body before it starts to increase its internal temperature by more than one degree.

The limit for the public or the consumer is one-fiftieth that of the level deemed safe for a work environment. 

“So it’s quite a reasonable level and it’s consistent with what most other governments have done,” said Bradley.

Other countries that go beyond these standards “basically go beyond what the science says is required,” he added.

But while Gilbert is probably the only university president in Canada to take this position, he’s not alone in thinking safety should come before convenience.

Jorg-Rudiger Sack, a computer science professor at Carleton University, says he agrees there is not enough information on potential long-term effects to say unequivocally that wireless is safe.

“In fact, the long-term effects of such technologies, when combined with other sources, have not been studied,” he said in an e-mail interview. Furthermore, he said, in his personal opinion, while wireless is useful in some situations, such as at airports or in cafes, it’s not really needed in a university campus environment – although that’s not how most students see it.

“If faculty/staff/students are at fixed locations, like their offices and labs, wireless connectivity is not necessary and, I believe, could be avoided,” he said. “We do not move our PCs or even laptops around once we are in our offices.” 

Sack said people who work in wireless environments might see a similarity to the second-hand smoke issue and demand employers ensure they aren’t exposed to EMFs until there is solid proof it has no negative health impacts.

For Andrew McAusland, executive director of instructional and information technology services at Concordia University in Montreal, the issue of EMFs exposure was also a factor in deciding whether or not to implement wireless networks on campus. Ultimately, McAusland was satisfied the risk was low enough to proceed, and made sure the wireless LANs conform to Health Canada safety codes.

“We reviewed the literature, we researched the topic, we provide ongoing documentation on our Web sites on the topic and we stay on top of it,” said McAusland. “It’s not an issue you should ignore at all, but wireless local area networks use a very low level of frequency.” 

Concordia currently has about 80 per cent wireless coverage, and usage growth has been by the hundreds of percentage points a year. “It’s a necessary part of our infrastructure now,” he said.

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