Not any more

Board rejects concern wireless Internet makes kids sick

In Canada on August 16, 2010 at 18:54

TORONTO — A school board north of Toronto has no plans to remove wireless Internet from its elementary and high schools based on concerns from a small group of parents that the microwave exposure may be making students sick.

"We’re cautious," John Dance, superintendent of education with the Simcoe County School Board, said on Monday. "We’re in the business of education. We don’t put children at risk, but we can’t just shut it down and affect the learning of 50,000 students because someone says it might have health effects."

A campaign against the board installing wireless Internet in all its schools was launched in February by two parents who questioned the potential short- and long-term health risks of the technology.

The Simcoe County Safety School Committee, which has grown over the last few months, says parents of 30 children from 14 Ontario elementary and high schools in Barrie, Collingwood, Wasaga Beach, Orillia and Bradford have reported their children suffering such symptoms as headaches, blurred vision, rashes and dizziness.

The parents say they don’t believe the ailments can be caused by any other source because the children usually feel better when they’re at home, away from school. The group wants all wireless Internet transmitters to be removed and replaced with hardwired Internet connections before students return to school in September.

Dance said the board has met with the group on a number of occasions to listen to the concerns, but has found they are not substantiated by scientific research.

"We’re more than willing to accommodate people, but these symptoms are quite common and can be the result of anything," he said.

Dance said no school principals had received a complaint from a parent about the technology until this group came forward six months ago.

He said the group quickly dismissed research by Tony Muc, a University of Toronto physics professor who the board brought in to speak with them and who argued that wireless poses no harm.

The issue is controversial worldwide, with the debate continuing on both sides.

In 2007, a British study found that a year’s worth of Wi-Fi exposure was equal to using a cellphone for 20 minutes. According to the researchers, they found the radio waves from the networks were around 100 microwatts, which was 100,000 times less than the exposure from a microwave oven.

School boards across the country have moved to bring wireless Internet into their classrooms. The Toronto District School Board has equipped 74 of its 600 elementary and high schools with wireless Internet, some contained to only certain classrooms. It plans to turn all schools into Wi-Fi zones by 2015, pending a report this fall on potential health effects.

Students at 80 of 120 Vancouver District School Board schools have wireless access, limited by budgetary constraints with most of the access only available in school libraries.

Health Canada sets nationwide standards for microwave radiation exposure at 1,000 microwatts per centimetre square.

Magda Havas, a professor in the Centre for Health Studies at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., who has studied electromagnetism for nearly 20 years, said although the exposure in these classrooms is expected to be well below the accepted standards, the issue is that the limits are too high.

The amount of exposure can vary, depending on the power of the computer monitor, how close someone sits to it and how many computers are on in a room.

She said other forms of microwave exposure — particularly cellphone towers — have been linked to cancers, heart problems, sleeping problems, skin conditions and short-term memory loss.

Children are also more likely to be vulnerable, due to weaker immune systems and because their bodies are still growing.

"It is possible, and I think it is even probable, that this exposure will have an effect on children," said Havas.

Rodney Palmer, a member of the Simcoe County Safety School Committee, accused the board of muzzling the group from informing other parents at meetings and through mailouts of the potential safety hazards linked to wireless Internet transmitters.

"We just want to protect our kids," he said. "From the start to finish, this thing stinks. All us parents care about is that they turn it off. We don’t care why, just turn the thing off."

Gary Wheeler, a spokesman with the Ontario Ministry of Education, said it is up to individual school boards to determine whether to use this technology.

Simcoe County is about 100 kilometres north of Toronto.

linnguyen@canwest.com

© Copyright (c) Postmedia News

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