Electric and magnetic fields keep us connected to the world through wireless internet, cell phones and radio. But as these waves connect us, chronic exposure could pose long-term health hazards, according to one Northern Ontario university.
As colleges and universities across the country scramble to go wireless, Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario has placed a partial ban on wireless internet. University president Dr. Fred Gilbert is concerned exposure to EMFs has not been adequately researched, and at current levels may be hazardous to humans.
Gilbert insists he is thinking with the students' best interests in mind, but his wireless policy--in place for the last seven years--has resulted in increasingly angry students and debate amongst healthcare and information technology workers.
"We had two concerns--the first being security and the second being the EMFs associated with the hot spots required for wireless networks," said Gilbert.
The hot spots Gilbert is concerned with are the areas near transmitters where EMFs are highest. Gilbert believes that chronic exposure to high EMF areas may pose health risks, even if federal guidelines regulating acceptable levels of radiation are followed.
"I'm concerned with chronic exposure to levels at or above standards that have been set," said Gilbert. "Standards vary from country to country and there has been new research out saying maybe our standards in North America are too high."
While the Alberta Cancer Board believes wireless technology requires further study, prevention and outreach coordinator for occupational and environmental carcinogens Munira Lakji said wireless does not put students at any significant risk.
"There have been conflicting studies published, but nothing saying there should be a ban on wireless," said Lakji. "I think any action like that undertaken in Thunder Bay is a little drastic. The ban certainly shouldn't be for cancer reasons."
Gilbert said he will reconsider his decision, but only when he feels evidence conclusively states there is no risk associated with chronic, long-term exposure to EMFs.
"We're erring on the side of caution," said Gilbert. "It would be my hope that as we get more concrete evidence we can make a permanent decision."
Students at Lakehead disagree with Gilbert.
"The students are thinking it's kind of ridiculous," said Lakehead University Students' Union president Adam Krupper. "They use cell phones, wireless microphones, LCD screens. It doesn't make sense because Lakehead really prides itself on being technologically advanced."
The Lakehead campus uses a fibre-optic network and has plug-ins around campus in the library, hallways and classrooms. Computers are also available for student use in 24-hour computer labs. Wireless technology is only used at Lakehead in areas where fibre-optic cable connections cannot reach.
Despite the university's attempt to make the internet available, Krupper said student access is still limited when access points are in use or broken.
"A lot of the time they're not maintained properly," said Krupper. "It also regulates learning to areas that the administration approves of."
Krupper said the SU has fielded multiple student complaints about the wireless policy and he feels administration is not being consistent in their anti-carcinogen policies. He explained that last year students voted unanimously in a plebiscite question to have Lakehead stop using pesticides on campus and administration ignored the results.
"This is also the university that refuses to stop using cosmetic pesticides on campus," he said. "They're hypocritical on that. They think [pesticide use] improves the quality of campus, and we have kids' camps here all summer. There are all these other forms of radiation on campus and they have to be consistent."
University of Calgary chief information officer Harold Esche also questioned Gilbert's claims. He believes the very minimal risk associated with wireless internet is worth the convenience to students.
"I think it would be unfair if we didn't have technology like the [wireless]," said Esche. "You just have to look around at the number of students using it. There are up to 1,500 users at a time, which is a much larger number than initially anticipated."
Phase one of the U of C wireless project was completed in September 2005 and focused on bringing basic wireless to most areas of campus. U of C is now in phase two of the project, which focuses on expanding bandwidth in high-use areas and increasing coverage to accommodate the large number of users.
"It comes down to the density of the transmitters," said Esche. "At this point we don't have very dense access points. This is something we have to think about as we get more density of access points."
Esche said students should be more concerned with other sources of radiation in their life.
"Putting that cell phone up to your head is one of the riskiest things people do in terms of radiation," said Esche. "The risk does not seem to be very significant at all. It's dwarfed by the risk from all other radiation sources."