WLAN Sickness: Rubbish or Reasonable?

By Gerry Blackwell

Dr. Frederick Gilbert, president of Lakehead University http://www.lakeheadu.ca in Sudbury, Canada, says he first made the decision to avoid using wireless technology on his campus seven years ago. He was and remains concerned about possible health effects from exposure to even the low levels of RF radiation emitted by Wi-Fi equipment. Data security was a much lesser concern.

The ongoing research on which Gilbert based his decision claims to show health effects from exposure to RF radiation (RFR) ranging from sleep disruption to genetic damage – though effects from Wi-Fi system emissions are probably at the relatively benign end of the range. None of this research, it’s worth noting, is going on at Lakehead.

The president’s decision – and it appears to be his personal decision – came to light recently when the school’s administration issued a bulletin in response to student inquiries about why Lakehead wasn’t implementing a campus-wide Wi-Fi access network like other North American universities. Media in Canada and the U.S. picked up on it, and the radio waves, as it were, hit the fan.

Gilbert does not appear to be a crank. A biologist by training, and president of this small northern Ontario university since 1998, he sounded eminently sensible when we talked on the phone. He was slightly shell shocked by the negative media attention, though. “We’ve been taking a little static in the media,” is how he put it. “It’s interesting that we have been portrayed as Luddites, yet this campus is one of the most progressive in terms of technology use.”

Lakehead, Gilbert points out, has an extensive fiber network that provides high-speed Internet access almost everywhere. It supplements Ethernet connections with cyber cafes where students can use computers connected to the network. The only thing they can’t do is fire up their laptops at a cafeteria table or outside on the lawn.

It’s not even that Lakehead has an outright ban on wireless. In places where the fiber network doesn’t extend – such as a couple of research facilities on the edge of campus – the school has in fact deployed Wi-Fi nets. And while dorm rooms all have high-speed wired connections, there is nothing stopping students setting up their own Wi-Fi nodes. “What students do within the dorms is up to them,” Gilbert says.

So if he isn’t a Luddite or a crank, why has Gilbert made this seemingly contrarian decision?

According to him, there is a mounting body of scientific evidence to suggest – but not conclusive proof, he is the first to admit – that there are “bioeffects” from even low-level RF radiation. “If you look at the literature that has been published,” he says, “there are demonstrable effects of exposure. Once we get to the point where we can definitively say that there are or are not harmful effects, that’s when we make a decision to deploy, I think.”

The current state of understanding about the health effects of low-level RF radiation (RFR) may be analogous to the understanding of the effects of asbestos exposure or cigarette smoking 25 or 40 years ago, he suggests. So in the meantime, he’d rather play it safe. “The issue I have is that we’re looking here at a technology of convenience [i.e. Wi-Fi] on a campus that is already very technologically advanced,” Gilbert says. “Under the circumstances, I don’t see any reason to take anything other than a precautionary position.”

Gilbert’s interest in the effects of radiation goes back to his undergraduate days when he studied ionizing radiation. RFR is not ionizing radiation, he is quick to point out, but his interest continued. “When I got into the literature on electromagnetic radiation [EMF, of which RFR is one type], there were indications to a biologist that there could be something here, at least to look at as a potential.”

The effects of highly concentrated EMF radiation from long-term, heavy use of cell phones has of course been debated in the scientific community for several years. There is a growing concern, especially in the European community, that heavy users of mobile phones are, indeed, at increased risk of brain cancer – among other health problems.

But these effects are supposedly the result of the thermal energy generated by RFR, part of a continuum of known effects that includes birds sitting on very high-power antennas being fried instantly when transmission begins. Ambient RF radiation – the kind that is in the air all around us, emitted by wireless communications systems, including Wi-Fi – is at much lower levels, generating insignificant amounts of thermal energy.

The research on the effects of ambient RFR is at a much earlier stage. Current U.S. and Canadian health standards allow RFR exposure in the thousands of microwatts, notes environmental consultant Cindy Sage, a principal in Sage EMF Design of Santa Barbara, California. But research in the past five years has begun to show effects from emissions measured in the nanowatts, Sage says. (A microwatt is 10-6 watt, a nanowatt is 10-9 watt.)


“Once you get into the nanowatts range, you’re getting into Wi-Fi territory,” she says. “And at least sleep disruption can be an effect of exposure and maybe a constellation of other health issues.”

Gilbert refers to Sage as a key source of information on the subject, although he has not actually used her as a consultant. Sage has consulted with other colleges, universities and school districts on exactly these issues, she says, but is not at liberty to reveal their deliberations or decisions. She implies that other schools have made or are in the process of making similar decisions to Gilbert’s for similar reasons.

Sage describes herself as a synthesizer and interpreter of the scientific evidence. Her firm’s Web site and some of its publications include continually updated bibliographies of scientific studies on the effects of ambient RFR. She was also a respondent to the City of San Francisco’s request for comments on its proposed city-wide Wi-Fi network. Her firm’s response was in opposition to the deployment.

Its argument boils down to this. There is some evidence, albeit inconclusive and puzzling to scientists, of bioeffects from low-intensity RFR. We need more research. In the meantime, the correct approach is to use the “precautionary principle” – i.e. avoid an action if the consequences are unknown but judged to have some potential for major or irreversible negative consequences. Exactly the position Gilbert is taking in other words.

Some of the reasons for not deploying Wi-Fi and WiMAX are purely economic and practical, she suggests. If it turns out these technologies are a health hazard, companies and institutions would presumably have to rip out their wireless networks and replace them at considerable expense with something else. There is also the prospect of victims suing network operators. Sage says children are probably most vulnerable.

The list of observed health effects in the research Sage has studied – which we have no way of being able to evaluate, of course – includes memory loss, sleep disorders and insomnia, slowed motor skills and reaction time in school children, immune system changes, spatial disorientation and dizziness, headaches, loss of concentration and “fuzzy thinking,” lower sperm count, increased blood pressure, DNA damage and more. A scary litany.

What should we think about the position Gilbert and Sage have taken? If it was widely adopted, the Wi-Fi industry would be badly hurt, which can’t be a good thing. But consider history. As Gilbert notes, 40 years ago almost nobody believed cigarette smoking caused long-term health problems – although scientists were already sounding the alarm.

Copyright Jupitermedia All rights reserved.

March 13, 2006



Letter to the Editor
February 24, 2006
Globe and Mail

Fred Gilbert, President of Lakehead University made a sound judgment call in deferring deployment of WI-FI wireless technology on campus. Although he can anticipate industry flack for it, his decision is supported by a growing body of scientific evidence that should make other schools and universities take notice, and follow suit.

Bioeffects that are reported to result from low-intensity radiofrequency (RF) exposure include changes in cell membrane function, metabolism, cellular signal communication, activation of proto-oncogenes and heat-shock protein at 0.1 µW/cm2 and higher. Fatigue, depressive tendency, sleeping disorders, difficulty in concentration and cardiovascular problems were reported by Oberfeld (2004) with exposure to GSM 900/1800 MHz cell phone frequency at exposures characteristic of low-intensity base station levels (0.0006 – 0.00128 microwatts/cm2). Resulting effects which are reported in the scientific literature include DNA breaks and chromosome aberrations, cell death including death of brain cells (neurons), increased free radical production, cell stress and premature aging, changes in brain function including memory loss, retarded learning, slower promotion in school and slower motor function and other performance impairment in children, headaches and fatigue, sleep disorders, neurodegenerative conditions, reduction in melatonin secretion, and cancer. Disruption of sleep is reported to occur at levels as low as 0.0001 to 0.1 microwatt/centimeter squared (µW/cm2).

Low-intensity bioeffects have been reported to occur as low as 0.0006 to 100 µW/cm2 range (power density) or 0.0001 to 1 W/Kg for whole body exposure (SAR). This is commonly the level of RF exposure within the first few hundred to a thousand feet of a typical cell tower or antenna farm with multiple transmitting cell phone or PCS wireless communication antennas. WI-FI levels are expected to be lower than for cell towers in most instances, but this is not an indication that there is greater safety from more numerous, but dispersed WI-FI antennas. WI-FI exposures are variable depending on the distance to each transmitting antenna, and different wireless routers can be set at different power outputs. Thus, variability in exposure levels can be expected.

There is evidence that children have greater neurological sensitivity to the effects of many toxic environmental exposures including RF (WHO Report on Children and Health, 2000). FCC standards are based today on adults, so that chronic, low-intensity RF exposures for children may need to be lower taking into account their greater susceptibility during growth and development.

Compliance with ICNIRP and FCC public exposure limits is not necessarily a measure or guarantee of safety. Existing exposure limits protect only against thermal damage (microwave heating). There ARE no exposure limits for non-thermal (low-intensity) RF exposures, even though there is substantial scientific evidence that such effects exist, and should be regulated. Debate among experts about the adequacy of current ICNIRP and FCC limits for humans is seen in countries around the world. Finally, the 802.11b exclusion means that WI-FI technology is exempted from public exposure limits anyway.

Since there is no post-sales surveillance program in effect in any country of the world at this time, health effects we suspect today cannot be proven until many tomorrows pass. It may become just another footnote in the history of carcinogens which we ignored.

Cindy Sage, MA
Sage Associates Environmental Consultants
1396 Danielson Road
Santa Barbara, CA 93108
(805) 969-0557


Sent: Monday, March 13, 2006 11:30 PM
Subject: Radio Show

EMF and RFR: Where You're Exposed and What to Do:

Layna Berman, host and producer of Your Own Health and Fitness on KPFA and the Pacifica Network, will interview environmental consultant, Cindy Sage, and science journalist and author, B. Blake Levitt, on the disturbing science showing wireless technology's dangers to humans and the environment. Included will be practical alternatives and protection from electrosmog exposures.

Air Time is Tuesday, 3/14/06 from 1-2 Pacific Time.

To listen live, go to http://www.kpfa.org and follow the links to listen live to "Your Own Health and Fitness." The program will be archived on "Your Own Health and Fitness" website, available 24/7, for one week at http://www.yourownhealthandfitness.org -- Click on "LISTEN to the latest show".

Information and Resources:

Blake Levitt's website: http://www.blakelevitt.com
Layna Berman's website: http://www.yourownhealthandfitness.org
Janet Newton, EMR Policy Institute: http://www.emrpolicy.org
Cindy Sage's website: http://www.sageassociates.net

Informant: Iris Atzmon


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