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Published in Print: October 22, 2003, as 'Wi-Fi' Poses School Health Risk, Suit Against Illinois District Argues

'Wi-Fi' Poses School Health Risk, Suit Against Illinois District Argues

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A group of parents and their children has sued a suburban Chicago school district over the use of "Wi-Fi," or wireless fidelity, alleging that the technology's radio waves may pose serious health risks to children.

Three elementary school pupils, one middle school student, and their parents filed the lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court on Sept. 26 against the 5,000- student Oak Park Elementary School District 97, its superintendent, and its school board. The district has 30 days to respond.

The plaintiffs, who are not seeking monetary compensation, want the court to impose a moratorium on Wi- Fi use until it's conclusively deemed safe. They also asked the court to decide whether the district failed to "exercise ordinary care" in installing a Wi-Fi network, and whether the district exposed its students to "unreasonably dangerous health risks caused by constant exposure to high-frequency electromagnetic radiation."

Wi-Fi allows computers to connect over the airwaves to a base station, known as a hub or router, which is linked via wires to the Internet or to a local computer server. Wi-Fi signals have a range of up to about 300 feet. Wi-Fi access points are popping up in airports, hospitals, and coffee houses.

Oak Park district officials vigorously defend the use of Wi-Fi. They researched the safety issues, brought expert testimony on possible health risks from doctors and scientists before the school board, and pointed out that many other districts are going wireless, said Steve Chowanski, the district's information-services director.

'A Huge Debate'

In a statement posted on its Web site, the district says: "We believe that wireless technology is safe ... and that it brings greater flexibility and efficiency, both instructionally and administratively, to the operations of our district."

The district installed a Wi-Fi network in 1999, and wireless hubs are located in some of the district's 10 elementary and middle schools and in its administrative offices. The district has some 300 laptop computers for students equipped with Wi-Fi technology.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit maintain that the district ignored their repeated appeals over a two-year period to thoroughly research the possible health consequences of Wi-Fi, as well as the many studies on the possible health risks of electromagnetic radiation the board received. In addition, the plaintiffs say that officials rejected their proposal to notify parents that their children can leave classrooms where Wi-Fi is being used.

"We're not trying to make trouble for the district," said Ron Baiman, one of the parents in the lawsuit. "There's a huge debate about this [in the science community]. Given that uncertainty, we should get Wi-Fi out of the classroom."

"It is not a wise thing to bring this into the public schools," Mr. Baiman argued, "when there is a cloud hanging over [children's] heads about possible health risks."

The district did inform parents, Mr. Chowanski said. Earlier this school year, parents received a flier saying that if they wanted to learn more on technology use in their children's schools, they should get in touch with him or the schools' principals.

"And you know how many parents contacted us?" Mr. Chowanski said. "One."

He added that parents already have the option of pulling their children out of a classroom if necessary, such as for religious or health reasons.

Radiation Risks?

Neuroscientists and health organizations in the United States and around the world have published cautionary studies on the health effects of electromagnetic radiation. They cite genetic damage, childhood leukemia, decreased fertility, and abnormal changes in brain development as some of the possible risks of radio waves.

Yet scientists' concerns haven't prompted much public outcry. That's in large part because federal regulators and the technology industry say that there is no hard evidence that radiation emitted from new technologies such as Wi-Fi and cellular phones compromises the health of humans.

Federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, however, participate in industry-financed research projects investigating possible biological changes from electromagnetic radiation.

The technology industry maintains that Wi-Fi is safe. Wireless fidelity operates in the 2.4-gigahertz frequency range, the same frequency as cordless telephones and microwave ovens, said Dennis Eaton, the board chairman of the Wi-Fi Alliance, a Mountain View, Calif.-based nonprofit group that promotes wireless technology. But the power level of Wi-Fi equipment is much lower, he said.

"Wi-Fi operates at one-twentieth of the peak power level of the average cordless phone," Mr. Eaton said. He added that the radiation absorbed by humans drops dramatically the farther away it is from the body. So a person using a wireless laptop on a desk would absorb less radiation, for example, than a person holding a cordless phone to his or her ear.

The use of Wi-Fi has been spreading rapidly as the price of wireless equipment has dropped and the equipment has become easier to set up. As a result, 68 percent of school districts surveyed in a recent national sample had Wi-Fi technology in their schools, according to Quality Education Data, a Denver-based research firm. That's a huge jump from just 39 percent last year.

Many of the 28 schools in the 19,000-student Blue Valley school district in suburban Kansas City, Mo., for example, are equipped with wireless technology. Soon, a wireless infrastructure will blanket the entire district, said Bob Moore, the technology director for the 19,000-student school system.

"A lot of school districts are seeing the value of wireless," he said. "It gives you more flexibility; you're not tethered to a network cable. Wireless is going to be ubiquitous in a few years."

Vol. 23, Issue 8, Page 9

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