Students in Lindsay Freedman's split Grade 3/4 class at Red Willow Public School are working away on tablets, laptops and iPods. It's Bring Your Own Device day, a regular occurrence here, and supplementing the devices brought from home are 20 school-owned iPads. Freedman walks around the classroom, marvelling at her students' instant embrace of the online presentation app she's just introduced. "They're an instant motivator," she says, referring to the tools in their hands.
Red Willow belongs to the Peel District School Board (near Toronto), one of several across Canada that have adopted WiFi throughout its schools, an embrace of 21st-century technologies designed to "ensure that our students can thrive in a future that can't be predicted," as Peel's promotional brochure puts it.
Though most parents and educators celebrate the move, some are raising concerns about the possible health impacts of the radio-frequency (RF) radiation on which wireless technologies operate. Exposure levels to this kind of radiation, which fall in the same frequency bandwidth on the electro-magnetic spectrum as radios, televisions and mobile phones, continue to rise as wireless technologies become more prevalent.
Canada's current guidelines on RF exposure are in line with those of the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection – the largest regulatory body in this field. But many other jurisdictions have adopted considerably lower limits, either as a precautionary measure or because they view the science differently.
How is it that health agencies reach such different conclusions when faced with the same scientific evidence? Why are some Canadian schools installing WiFi while France is limiting exposure? Switzerland heavily favours wired Internet connections in schools, yet Israel is pulling it out of its lower grades altogether.
THE CAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE
While most Western bodies have deemed the scientific evidence on health effects inconclusive, many European jurisdictions are choosing to err on the side of caution until more is known. In a resolution in 2011, the Council of Europe recommended that the As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA) principle be applied to electromagnetic radiation, fearing "there could be extremely high human and economic costs if early warnings are neglected." It also condemned the "lack of reaction to known or emerging environmental or health risks and virtually systematic delays in adopting or implementing effective preventive measures."
Lichtenstein, Italy and Belgium responded by drastically lowering their exposure guidelines. In France, a bill currently before the Senate insists on a principle of moderation where RF radiation is concerned. If passed, WiFi will be banned from maternity wards and child-care facilities, communities would have to be consulted before any installations in schools, and if installed, all routers would have to be accessible to teachers who could turn them off when not in use. Laurence Abeille, the Green MP behind the bill, had originally proposed a ban in all schools around students up to the age of six. She had to water it down to gain broad support in the National Assembly, but feels public concern in France is rising. This spring, a 32-year-old man received medical benefits from the local health authority in Essonne, south of Paris, for his electro-hypersensitivity – a first in France.
Switzerland prides itself on having among the most stringent regulations on electromagnetic radiation in the world. As of 2000, it has supplemented its exposure limits (which are in keeping with Canada's) with much more restrictive limits for installations of power lines, television and radio transmitters, and mobile phone base-stations in well-frequented locations. The new regulations were accompanied by an aggressive public awareness campaign about the health risks of RF radiation. Swisscom, the national telecom company, promotes its line of low-radiation "Ecomode" phones and routers as "safer" – openly acknowledging the risks inherent in these devices. And for 10 years, Swisscom has been installing wired Internet connections in Swiss schools for free. Why not wireless? As company spokesman Carsten Roetz wrote in an e-mail, "because there's no reason to put a radiation source that isn't absolutely necessary in schools." Of Switzerland's 6,800 schools, Roetz estimates that fewer than 100 have opted for wireless connections.
In March of this year, the Jerusalem Post reported that the Israeli Education Ministry had ordered radiation testing in all Israeli schools, banned WiFi from pre-schools and kindergartens, and restricted its use to one hour a day for students up to Grade 3. The move came in response to persistent complaints from parents whose children suffer from some form of electromagnetic hypersensitivity.
Russia's exposure limits for RF radiation are 100 times lower than Canada's. While Russian schools can choose to install WiFi, they are the exceptions, says Oleg Grigoriev, chairman of the Russian National Committee on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (an expert group that reports to the Russian parliament). He says damage to children's cognitive function caused by long-term exposure to low-strength electromagnetic fields has long since been demonstrated by Russian researchers. Russia, he explains, began experimenting with the impacts of electromagnetic fields on the nervous system a century ago, and, as a result, does not consider its approach precautionary, but rather "science-based."
While faced with the same scientific evidence, these countries have adopted very different rules on exposure. It's all about managing risk. Marc Saner, a professor at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa, affirms that scientific evidence is just one element in the multi-factorial nature of risk management in public policy. "The focus on risk reflects many things – a country's history of science, its trade interests, the pet causes of its movie stars … Policy decisions are always a few steps away from data, there's always an emotional component."
Most Canadian school boards are introducing WiFi, but at a slower rate than Peel – slower not because of concern about exposure, but because installation is more complicated in older schools with thicker walls. Toronto's school board aims to have at least partial WiFi in all its schools by 2016, and is adding zones regularly. Because WiFi exposure has been deemed safe in Canada, the expansion proceeds without notification.
Paradoxically, outside the schools' walls, Toronto's Board of Health insists on a "prudent avoidance policy" with respect to cell tower locations, keeping RF radiation levels in areas of the city "where people normally spend time" 100 times lower than what federal guidelines insist on – much like in Switzerland. The Board argues that as long as radiation sources in the urban environment continue to increase, the cumulative effect is unknown and caution is warranted. The policy has been in place since 1999.
In Canada, the lack of public concern about WiFi exposure in schools seems at odds with a culture of parenting that's often called hypercautious. Here, public awareness on the issue of exposure has been mainly focused on cellphones. The science at play is beyond the reach of most citizens, and many would rather not entertain the possibility that these incredibly useful technologies may pose a risk.
"We're not just talking about WiFi in schools," Saner says. "We're asking much bigger questions, like what is education? Are these devices good for society generally? Is this speed of innovation a good thing? The stakes here are huge."