Some doubt safety of wireless
Fears of side effects from radio waves move Canadian university to disallow the service
March 14, 2006, 5:00 am·
Wireless Internet networks are cropping up in coffee shops, campuses and even entire cities, and though you can't see or feel them, one man thinks they are dangerous.
Frederick Gilbert, president of Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada, is concerned about the radio waves that wireless systems emit and has vetoed the idea of constructing a campuswide wireless Internet network.
Like cell phones, radios and TV broadcasts, wireless networks use equipment that generate electromagnetic fields, which Gilbert said are hazardous.
Penn currently offers wireless Internet access in several buildings and plans to install the service in all college houses by this fall. Philadelphia also aims to create a citywide wireless network next year.
Gilbert, who holds a doctorate in zoology, said that people exposed to such waves may be at risk for nausea, fatigue and even brain cancer.
He said that more research must be performed before wireless networks can be considered completely risk-free.
But Andrew Newberg, a Penn Radiology professor who specializes in nuclear medicine, said that there is no clear evidence suggesting that wireless devices pose health risks. He added that more long-term studies are still needed because even mild effects could have dramatic overall consequences on the body.
Gilbert said that there are indications that exposure can create long-term problems.
"If there is definitive data that zero risk is involved, we'll certainly proceed with deployment. But the jury is still out on this one," he said.
His rejection of a wireless network comes at a time when wireless networks are proliferating in many locations, including at Penn, with little resistance from technology experts or doctors.
The widespread use of cell phones, wireless networks and other radio devices is generally accepted, said Robin Beck, vice president of Penn's Information Systems and Computing.
The available evidence doesn't show any health problems associated with using wireless phones, according to the Federal Communications Commission Web site, though it adds that there is no proof that wireless phones are absolutely safe.
Gilbert said that while he watches his students casually chat away on their cell phones, he firmly avoids using them.
Some Lakehead students who want wireless networks say Gilbert is being stingy rather than paranoid.
"Most students think it's ludicrous," said Noel Quinn, a fourth-year Lakehead engineering student. "I think the school just doesn't want to pay."
Wireless networks can come with steep price tags. Finishing its network construction is expected to cost Penn $700,000.
In the United States, the FCC regulates all devices which generate radio frequencies or microwave radiation. Before wireless networks can be constructed, facilities must undergo an evaluation for compliance with the FCC's radio-exposure guidelines.
Its guidelines for human exposure to electromagnetic fields are based on the recommendations of the National Council of Radiation Protection and Measurements and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.