Last Dec. 10, the Troy City School District Board of Education approved an $8.4 million technology initiative that includes installing wireless Internet in 250 classrooms. The move echoed a $10 million initiative at Shenendehowa School District in 2012. With the new Common Core State Standards Initiative being implemented in at least 35 states (including New York) this year, it could be inevitable that all schools, including those here in the Capital Region, will eventually implement Wi-Fi.
An excerpt from a districtadministration.com story on Common Core technology standards by Andrew Hermeling reads, “To meet these minimum requirements [of Common Core], district leaders are going to have to assess their bandwidth capabilities, their operating systems, the speed and number of machines required for testing, the quality and coverage of their wireless network, and both student and faculty familiarity with software and the digital testing environment.”
And it does seem like New York state is moving forward with the Wi-Fi in public schools. Here is an excerpt from a Power Point presentation at the April 8 Stillwater Board of Education meeting regarding Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Smart Schools bond referendum.
“The state will hold a public vote in November for permission to borrow $2 billion for school technology infrastructure, broadband or wireless connectivity, pre-kindergarten instructional space, and/or replacement of classroom trailers. Stillwater would receive approximately $856,000 from the bond. To receive these funds, the district would have to develop a detailed improvement plan and then put the proposal up for a local vote.”
Stillwater School District, which has been using Wi-Fi for years now, is getting new I-pads and/or Chromebooks (which require Wi-Fi for any online use). In March, Stillwater technology director Christopher Lynch spoke with The Express Newspaper of Mechanicville about the benefits of the technology in the classroom.
“Being able to capture text, music and pictures, the student becomes an authentic published visionary and creator of work. Moving stories inspire a deeper thought, and commitment to the work at hand. For example one minute of published movie a student may have over ten hours or more invested in research, creative thought, planning, and design. For many students this time invested is completely internally motivated.”
For the Stillwater board, Lynch demonstrated “augmented reality” by moving an I-pad screen around like a “virtual window” to examine a 3D model of the Mars rover Curiosity from different angles. It was a unique demonstration that must be seen to be appreciated, and it clearly requires Wi-Fi to work efficiently.
The push to embrace technology and implement Wi-Fi throughout our schools has gained such momentum that districts resisting the rush, such as the Waterford-Halfmoon Union Free School District, are barely noticed.
And that, according UAlbany Professor David Carpenter, director of the university’s Institute for Health and the Environment, is cause for concern.
“I’ve been sort of a spokesperson for this issue [of Wi-Fi health implications],” Carpenter says. “I can’t seem to escape it. I testified to the President’s [Obama’s] cancer panel three years ago, and I testified to the House of Representatives.” The professor also is outspoken on the subjects of fracking, electromagnetic fields from appliances and waste sites, wind turbines, and other environmental health topics.
He’s been studying radiation effects on children since the 1980s. “We confirmed the previous observations that children who live in homes that are very close to power lines are more likely to have leukemia,” he says. “There are now appearing studies of leukemia around cell phone towers and around radio transmission towers.”
Carpenter thinks that cell phone and Wi-Fi radiation are similar. “The exposure that you get from using Wi-Fi is exactly the same. I have Wi-Fi in my home; it’s not like I am vehemently opposed to Wi-Fi in all circumstances. But the issue with schools is that in an electronic computer room in a school where every kid has a wireless laptop, you are going to have a hotbed of radio frequency radiation. Every child in that room is going to get radio frequency radiation that at some level probably will be approaching that which they would get if they were on a cell phone.”
He does not think that tablets or Chromebooks are a good idea for Stillwater’s classrooms. “If they are going to be spending this kind of money on tablets, and five years from now it becomes very clear that there is a danger to the health of people using tablets instead of wired laptops, then they are going to have to spend all that money all over again.”
Carpenter believes that school administrators are in the dark on this topic. “They want to be contemporary with technology, and I don’t disagree with that at all,” he says. “I think it’s just not responsible for school administrators to implement a program that may put students at risk both of developing diseases like cancer and impairing their ability to learn, when there are alternatives [namely wired Internet] that don’t do that.”
Ray Pealer, a community health advocate living in Vermont who runs wifiiinschools.com, notes that while Wi-Fi advocates reference that school Wi-Fi routers function within FCC (Federal Communications Commission) safety standards, he thinks that those standards are inadequate. “They do not recognize any biological effects other than heat, despite thousands of peer-reviewed studies showing a myriad of other effects,” he says.
Former U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) has criticized the FCC on what he sees as a revolving door between the industry and regulators. For example, the current FCC head, Tom Wheeler, is a former cell-phone industry lobbyist.
In 2012, Kucinich endorsed a bill requiring cell phones to have warnings similar to those on cigarette packs. “It’s not going to be easy to make the legislative process work in this case because of the enormous financial resources the industry has at its disposal,” he said in September 2012.
Radiation studies go back to at least 1932, when “microwave or radio sickness” was reported by the British NAVY as fatigue, insomnia, headaches, high susceptibility to infection and general anxiety. Carpenter adds that these concerns are amplified for kids. “There are reports of reduced ability for kids to learn, there appear to be some people that are particularly sensitive to radiation and respond by having headaches, fatigue, ringing in their ears.”
The World Health Organization has been studying the radiation effects on children since 2009; however it has no official recommended safety level for any age group. Pealer adds, “There is evidence, it’s growing that if you are younger then the risk is even greater than if you are older. That is a concern because these days every kid has a cell phone.”
Pealer references a Yale School of Medicine study indicating that wireless exposure causes ADD (attention deficit disorder) in mice. According to YaleNews, “Their conclusion was that exposure to radiation from cell phones during pregnancy effects the brain development of offspring, potentially leading to hyperactivity.” Another 2008 study at the University of California-Los Angeles, titled “Prenatal and Postnatal Exposure,” linked cell phone exposure with hyperactivity.
Not every study draws the conclusion that wireless is potentially dangerous to humans, including a recently released study in New Zealand indicating that Wi-Fi exposure to children is relatively harmless.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization officially classifies Wi-Fi radiation as a “possible carcinogen.” Carpenter explains that means Wi-Fi gets a three on a one-to-five scale. “Known is the strongest, then probable, then possible, then not, and finally unclassifiable.” Other IARC possible carcinogens include asbestos, lead, paint, and DDT.
“It means that the evidence is suggestive but not absolutely definitive,” says Carpenter. “There is evidence that people exposed to high radio frequency fields are more likely to develop cancer. But they can’t quite say that the cancer was caused by those fields because that evidence is still being looked at. And that evidence is primarily from studying cell phones.”
The professor further compares cell phone studies to Wi-Fi. “The difference is that most people don’t stay on a cell phone more than 10 minutes, maybe. Sitting in a classroom, you can be there all day. What we are concerned about is both the intensity and the duration.” He notes that school Wi-Fi routers are advertised as “industrial strength,” stronger than home routers because they service more computers.
A report in 1971 by the U.S. Naval Medical Research Institute, obtained through the Freedom of Information Law, suggests that the wireless industry may be withholding information about potential danger. An excerpt reads, “If the more advanced nations of the West are strict in enforcement of stringent exposure standards, there could be unfavorable effects an industrial output and military functions.” The NMRI documented more than 2,300 research articles citing more than 120 illnesses associated with non-ionizing (non-heating) microwave radiation.
Carpenter says that the most practical solution is to use cables. “No one is going to deny that kids should be using technology and the Internet. A wired computer lab gives you no exposure whatsoever to radio frequency radiation. From my judgment, there is just no reason to go to a wireless school computer lab.”
Pealer says that we can use hands-free devices for our cell phones, and use line phones instead of DECT (digital enhanced cordless telecommunications) cordless phones, which emit radiation even when not in use. He also recommends that people who are regularly exposed to these technologies take supplements such as vitamin C, ginseng and antioxidants to counter radiation effects.
More government regulation might be a hard sell in the United States, but some European nations have taken steps to ban or limit cell phone use among children, and the Council of Europe has recommended that Wi-Fi be banned from all schools in Europe. San Francisco is considering putting warning labels (like those proposed by Kucinich) on cell phones.
Carpenter warns against becoming too paranoid. “I think that one has to have some perspective, as one cannot avoid all the different things that could be dangerous. If you can do things that decrease your exposure that are not expensive, that are not terribly difficult, even if the evidence for how dangerous it is still somewhat debatable. It’s still stupid not to do that.”
Pealer counters that some of us aren’t paranoid enough. “A lot of people, when they hear the term ‘research,’ they disqualify themselves. Also because wireless technology is so popular, people are so addicted to it, that they don’t really want to look at the issue.”
“My public responsibility is to protect people from getting sick even if we don’t have all of the answers of what the mechanism is,” concludes Carpenter, “In this situation, I think it is extremely unsafe to go to Wi-Fi in schools. Of all places, schools should be the last.”