An Ontario teachers' union has thrust the debate over the safety of wireless Internet into the mainstream by calling on schools to stop installing WiFi over fears it causes cancer.
A committee formed by the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association spent nearly a year reviewing research and health concerns raised by some parents, before taking the position that schools should err on the side of caution and stop turning schools into WiFi zones.
Though one school district in British Columbia and a handful of private schools across the country have placed restrictions on wireless Internet, in Ontario, only a small but vocal group of parents had previously rallied behind the issue.
The association's stand, outlined in a position paper released Monday, flies in the face of what health and education officials in Canada have said: that levels of electromagnetic radiation emitted by wireless Internet routers are not dangerous.
"We're not saying rip them out of the building," said OECTA president Kevin O'Dwyer. "My sense is that there's enough doubt out there that we should hold off until there's more research."
The union, and a growing number of concerned parents, point to the World Health Organization's decision last May to classify radio-frequency electromagnetic fields as "a possible carcinogen," alongside lead and coffee.
The decision was based on research into the biological effects of cellphone use in adults, and on a dearth of studies investigating long-term effects.
"WiFi has been rolled out too fast for science to keep up," said Una St. Clair, a parent from the Vancouver area who moved her children into private schools in order to avoid exposure.
She has started a group, Citizens for Safe Technology, and says WiFi exposure in schools is the biggest concern she hears from parents.
Annamaria Stolea, a computer engineer from Oakridge, Ont., says her son's headaches stopped this fall after she moved the seven-year-old to a new wireless-free school.
"He's feeling better," she said. "I can't say for sure that there's a link, but his headaches are gone."
Avoiding wireless Internet is next to impossible. It's currently offered in public libraries, some parks, most major hotels and Starbucks coffee shops everywhere.
Health Canada and Ontario's Agency for Health Protection and Promotion have said it's safe, and when it was brought to a vote, another union, the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario, rejected a ban on WiFi.
In a statement, Ontario's Minister of Education, Laurel Broten, deferred to the expertise of health agencies that have ruled wireless safe.
"That said, my ministry has contacted Health Canada to inform them of the concerns brought to our attention around WiFi use in schools," she said.