Health Dangers From Wireless Laptops

Siegfried Schwarzmüller, Union for Education and Science

(Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissen GEW)

Danger from high frequency fields

Under the motto of ‘increasing efficiency’, things are happening in many schools in an almost unnoticed and uncritical manner, which would have lead to animated discussions and actions in the past. Without informing or consulting staff, the federal state of Hessen has equipped around 100 schools with laptops in the name of ‘increased media competence’, ’new learning culture’ and ‘better education’. On the surface, the use of these mobile computers certainly offers advantages such as maximising space and flexibility.

Better education through WLAN?

By installing these new student workstations, the government and education authorities are introducing a new technology, against which there are strong concerns about potential health effects. According to the initiative ‘Schools and Future’, in which the government and local education authorities co-operate, ‘only WLAN is to be considered’, when it comes to laptops in schools. This WLAN technology (Wireless Local Area Networks) currently pushed by the authorities, consists of a transmitter installed in the classroom or school via which the students communicate with each other, with the periphery hardware and with the internet. In this case, each laptop is a sender and a receiver. In order to function as such, each workstation emits high frequency electromagnetic fields, which are generally acknowledged to have harmful effects on health. As early as 2001, the independent environment office of the Protestant Church of Hessen-Nassau concluded that the ‘large number of studies lead to the conclusion that living organisms react to this radiation’. Precautionary health protection is therefore urgently recommended, especially if we consider the experiences from the past, when the careless use of substances like wood preservatives, asbestos and CFCs lead to devastating health hazards and financial losses, also in schools.

High frequency radiation

With a network within one room it is still mostly an individual decision whether the students are linked with each other via cable or wireless. If the network extends through the entire school, the staff has no possibility to decide whether they agree to be exposed to the additional radiation or not. Similar to the situation in the waiting areas in airports and large train stations, they are exposed all working day long to the electromagnetic fields from the WLAN transmitters. Exposures within a building can vary to a large degree. Overlaps and reflections can create radiation hotspots which go completely unnoticed.

The magazine Eco-Test [Translator’s note: an ecological equivalent of the UK Which magazine] tested workstations in the juristic library in Göttingen and found a peak value of 23,000 µWatt/m2. The current official guideline in Germany [and in the UK] is 10 W/m2. Without cable connections, a WLAN-installation must also be switched on at night and linked via radio link to the network, since it is then that the remote maintenance of the school transmitter with the docked-on laptops is done. In November 2002, Eco-Test magazine found in a large study that particularly laptops which are sending information and their WLAN cards emit considerable amounts of radiation. This radiation is often considerable higher than the recommended precautionary values and in hotspots even exceeds the official guidelines. Likewise, the Nova-Institute had previously found in its study regarding the installation of a WLAN network at the University of Bremen that persons working on notebook workstations had to ‘count on the precautionary values being exceeded’.

In addition to the already existing massive interference from unnatural electromagnetic fields from sources such as mobile phones, DECT (cordless) phones, microwave ovens and computer screens, children, adolescents and staff are now exposed to additional health hazards which would be easily avoidable. It is possible without any quantitative or qualitative sacrifice, to use any laptop with a cable and hence to avoid the additional radiation load created by a WLAN installation. Only a cable is needed to link the laptop with the network, and the peripheral hardware such as a central printer can be connected via plug-ins as well.

Almost all arguments go against WLAN!

In addition to the precautionary aspect, it would be cheaper for schools and local education authorities to equip schools with wired networks, since they do not incur cost for the radio (wireless). Further arguments against WLAN technology are its susceptibility to exterior influences on data transmission, its slower operational speed when compared to wired networks, its lower capacity, its limited suitability for the use in exams and its higher rate of disruption in everyday use. Exterior pressures and industry interest however, seem to outweigh all the health, technical, financial and pedagogical objections. Doubts and objections are probably not least ignored in order to further the quick implementation and testing of this new technology which promises much profit in a large-scale experiment. In some school districts, the technology is even ‘trialled’ in primary schools. Children are degraded to become test subjects

There are hardly any ways to legally raise objections: ‘WLAN equipment works within the legal guidelines’ is the official justification. However, the legal basis for this, the Electromagnetic Fields Ordinance of 1996 (!) set the guidelines only based on the thermal effects of this radiation. Yet, pulsed high frequency fields are proven to have effects at power flux densities much lower than the thermal threshold. They cause headaches, high blood pressure and lack of concentration and can lead to permanent health damage. The ECOLOG Institute in Hanover has produced a science review of more than 220 peer reviewed and published studies of the various health effects of electromagnetic fields [Translator’s note: commissioned by T-Mobile, Germany] and confirmed them on a scientific basis.

To protect public health it is therefore no longer sufficient to apply the old, inadequate guidelines, but to introduce a new precautionary guideline, which will take all influences on health known so far into account, and which would need to be categorically adhered to with regards to the assessment of all radiation exposure. Switzerland has already implemented this. There, the precautionary upper limit for power flux density is 0.1 W/m².This is 1/100 of the current guideline value in Germany [Translator’s note: and 1/100 of the current guideline value of the UK].

Based on their comprehensive science review, the ECOLOG-Institute recommends

0.01 W//m² as the precautionary upper limit. Even at this value, studies found negative influences on brain function – EEC, capacity to react, blood-brain-barrier permeability.

Eco-Test found exposures higher than these precautionary values in the vicinity of several laptops during their on-site studies.

Almost criminal assault

The uncritical IT equipment of schools with transmitters and radiation emitting laptops does not take into account that the main users are children and adolescents who will be exposed for many hours every day.

In the UK, the Independent Expert Group commissioned by the government in 2000 came to the conclusion that children – due to their not yet fully developed nervous system and a circa 60% higher susceptibility to energetic radiation – were far more vulnerable than adults.

Hence, there should be even stricter precautionary guidelines for children. To expose children knowingly to this danger is bordering criminal assault.

Also often ignored is the fact that it is not just one device emitting the pulsed high frequency radiation, but that there are usually 20 or more workstations per classroom. And this in an environment which is already riddled with further sources of unnatural radiation such as fluorescent lighting halogen lamps, mobile phones and transformers. It can therefore not be excluded that an overlap of these fields will cause the electromagnetic exposure at individual workstations to greatly exceed the precautionary guidelines.

Admittedly, the electromagnetic radiation of a single laptop is below that of a mobile phone. The effect of electromagnetic radiation being accumulative, it will however, increase the intensity of ‘electro-smog’. The duration of use also plays an important role: it can be many hours per day, especially for IT teachers and students. Particular protection must be provided for electrosensitive people, for whom electromagnetic radiation triggers allergic reactions. They account for 3 – 5 % of the population.

No transmitters in schools!

The summary of the arguments presented in this article should be sufficient to object to the WLAN project of the federal state government and the education authorities with a loud and clear ‘NO, no transmitters in schools and other public institutions!’ In addition to WLAN, this also includes wireless Bluetooth equipment, DECT and mobile phones. Cabled equipment results in higher data speeds and better results. Protection and precaution against health damage should be more important than the slightly ore convenient use of wireless equipment.

The Union for Education and Science and all the Union representatives on the federal state, town, council and school level must exert their influence to have policies in favour of wireless equipment revised and ensure that children and staff in schools are not knowingly exposed to additional health hazards from electromagnetic fields.

Admittedly, there is still a scientific debate about the assessment of the risk, however, in the meantime, the precautionary principle should prevail and human health should be in the centre of interest. Further research results can be expected from the REFLEX study, which was commissioned by the EU and is currently being conducted in participating countries across Europe. It examines amongst other things the effect of electromagnetic radiation on human tissue. Also the INTERPHONE mobile phone study of the WHO (Translator’s note: sponsored by the mobile operators) might yield further results. At least until the final reports of these further studies are published, any decisions about installing WLAN networks should be deferred

From the Union Magazine „GEW Hessen“, Nr I2/2003

Translated by Andrea Klein


Health risks of Wi-Fi and WLAN on our health

WLAN Sickness: Rubbish or Reasonable?

WLAN, DECT in Schools and Kindergardens


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März 2006

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