Should We Pull the Plug on Wireless Computer Networks?

By Roy, Ken | Science Scope, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Should We Pull the Plug on Wireless Computer Networks?


Roy, Ken, Science Scope


Wi-Fi, or wireless fidelity, is a type of wireless local area network (WLAN). No direct physical cable line for the computer is needed to plug into a phone network. Two or more computers form the network using radio frequency (RF) signals. The safety of these networks, however, has come under scrutiny in recent years. Consider the following headlines:

"Parents file class action suit claiming that wireless network is harmful to their children" (National School Boards Association, October 2003, www.nsba.org/site/doc_cosa.asp?TRACKID=&DID=32453&CID=491)

"Health fears lead schools to dismantle wireless networks" (The Times, November 20, 2006, www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,591-2461748,00.html)

"UK government to investigate Wi-Fi fears" (VNU Net.Com, October 15, 2007, www.vnunet.com/vnunet/news/2201191/government-investigate-wi? vnu_lt=vnu_art_related_articles)

"Expert: Wi-Fi laptops 'pose health risk to children" (Fox News.com, May 4, 2007, www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,270138,00.html)

Some parents have become so concerned about the health risks associated with Wi-Fi networks that they have pressured school districts to remove them. In the United Kingdom, a moratorium on school Wi-Fi networks was proposed by the Professional Association of Teachers and other groups. A "Code of Practice" for Wi-Fi use is being developed by the Carmarthenshire County Council in Wales, and the nation's Health Protection Agency is going to begin a systematic research program on how Wi-Fi is used. The Austrian Medical Association is advocating a ban on the deployment of Wi-Fi in schools. In many instances, the concern is that children's bodies are developing quickly and may be much more sensitive to these energy sources. With all this in mind, should middle school science teachers be concerned about using wireless computer networks in labs?

Two sides to every issue

Teachers and students seem to be complaining about symptoms that develop during use of Wi-Fi networks in some schools. Health effects such as headaches and skin rashes are common complaints. One lawsuit initiated in Illinois claims that the school district's Wi-Fi networks potentially could cause damage resulting in memory loss and other neurological damage. This claim is based on hundreds of research literature citations suggesting physical or neurological damage from microwave and other radio emissions.

Sir William Stewart, chairman of Britain's Health Protection Agency, has stated concern about what he sees as the similarity of radiation emission of cell phones and Wi-Fi systems. The difference, he contends, is the cell phones affect only the individual using them. Wi-Fi systems affect everyone in the general vicinity. Then again, 20 minutes On a cell phone is equivalent to a year of exposure in that classroom. And, unlike cell phones, Wi-Fi networks involve nonionizing radio waves. They're not x-rays, or gamma rays, or ultraviolet, which are millions of times stronger than radio energies.

Yet, in other school districts with Wi-Fi systems, there have been no recorded symptoms on the part of users or others. …

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