Public Debate on the use of the wireless network (Wi-Fi) in schools

 

The use of laptops, tablets and smart mobile phones has become an integral part of daily life in Israel and throughout the world over the past few years.  Wireless communication networks installed at numerous points in the public domain, such as coffee-houses, parks and beaches, allow for constant connection to the Internet.

The Israeli education system has not remained behind.  Within the framework of the National ICT plan to adapt the education system to the 21st Century, an infrastructure was installed in many schools to enable the use of advanced technology for teaching and learning.  This infrastructure included wired and wireless Internet connections (Wi-Fi routers, projectors, an amplification system, light-dimming devices, smart screens and laptops).

Using laptops in class

 

Using laptops in class

 

     

What is a wireless communications network?

A wireless communications network (Wi-Fi) uses radiofrequency to transmit information and data from end-user devices, such as laptops, tablets and smart phones to the Internet and vice versa – from the web to end-user devices – and also from one device to another.  The end-user device (e.g. laptop) has a wireless adaptor that translates the data from the computer into radiofrequency signals and transmits them to a wireless router via an antenna.  The wireless router receives the signals from the computer, translates them, and transmits the information to the Internet via a cable.  This is a bidirectional process: the wireless router receives information from the Internet, translates it into radio signals, and transmits it to the computer.  Wireless routers transmit at a frequency of 5 or 2.4 GHz.  This frequency is higher than that used in mobile phones, allowing radio signals to carry more information.

 

Wireless routers operate at powers  and frequencies similar to those of other communication devices in the home environment.  They constitute a local source of non-ionizing radiation, whose strength decreases significantly with increasing distance from the device.

 

 

Policy regarding the installation of communications equipment in schools

The Ministry of Education has adopted the policy of the Ministry of Health and the TNUDA center by applying the precautionary principle to matters relating to exposure to non-ionizing radiation.  In accordance with this policy, the exposure of schoolchildren to this type of radiation should be minimized as much as possible, while striking a balance between protecting the health of the children and using advanced technology.

 

Consequently, the Ministry of Education determined, in a Director General's circular dated 10.10.2012 (5773/2(b)), that preference should be given to installing wired networks in educational facilities, if their installation does not constitute a safety hazard.

 

In August 2012, the leaders of the national parents' association, the Sane Mobile Forum, and other groups, appealed to the High Court of Justice against the Minister of Education, the Deputy Minister of Health, and the Minister of Environmental Protection, to instruct the Ministry of Education not to install or operate wireless internet networks in schools.  Following this appeal, an inter-ministerial team was set up, to discuss the difficulties arising from the implementation of the Ministry of Education's policy regarding the installation of communications equipment in schools.  As a result of the deliberations of this committee, the Ministry of Education published a revised Director General's circular (5773/10. 3.6-11) (Hebrew)  in August 2013, which stated that where the installation of a wired network was problematic, a wireless network should be permitted, with specific restrictions. These include:

  • Age restriction (wireless network prohibited in nursery schools and preschool settings, but permitted from Grade I and above).
  • Restricted hours of use for Grades 1-3
  • Installation of an access point for wired connection at the teacher's post, to be used whenever the wireless connection can be avoided.
  • Preference to be given to teaching by computer applications not necessitating the use of a wireless network.

 

In addition, the Director-General's circular stated:

  • Managed wireless communications systems should be used, ensuring that transmission intensity would be automatically minimized to the lowest possible level in accordance with the strength of the active devices and the requirements of the service.
  • Within the school grounds wireless communication through end-user devices should be disconnected when not used for teaching.
  • In all schools where communications equipment and end-user devices are installed, radiofrequency radiation levels should be measured by an authorized person before and after installation of the network, to ensure that radiation levels are in accordance with the requirements of the Ministry of Environmental Protection.  This testing should be carried out in all schools while the equipment is in use.

 

The High Court of Justice dismissed the appeal in April 2015 (Hebrew). The court has ruled that it did not find any cause to intervene in the Ministry of Education's Policy on the use of Wi-Fi in schools; according to the Court, such policy is a clear matter of professional expertise and it could not determine if the policy, upon which the CEO Circular is based, is unreasonable in such a way that would justify its intervention.

 

It was noted that the Ministry of Education would continue to examine the implementation of the CEO Circular according to a consolidated layout, in the framework of which future radiation measurements will be conducted in schools to ensure that radiation levels are within the permitted standard.

 

In August 2015, the High Court of Justice dismissed the request of the petitioners to conduct an additional deliberation on the ruling (High Court of Justice Additional Deliberation Document no. 3367/15) (Hebrew)

 

What is the level of exposure to non-ionizing radiation through wireless communication?

Standards and recommendations - According to the recommendations of the International Committee for Non Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), which were adopted by the World Health Organization, the maximal power density exposure threshold for the radiofrequency range of Wi-Fi is 1000 mWcmfor the general public.

 

The recommendations of the Israeli Ministry of  Environmental Protection, as adopted by the Ministry of Health, are even more stringent, and the maximal exposure threshold stands at 100 micro-watts/cm² for the general public (i.e. one-tenth of the level recommended by the ICNIRP).

 

In 2007 KR Foster measured radiofrequency fields from wireless local area networks in a variety of environments (such as offices, shops, educational facilities). He showed that 50% of the measurements were lower than 0.001 – 0.0001 mW/cm2 at a distance of one meter from the laptops while uploading and downloading large files to the wireless network. A study conducted by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) in British schools, found that at a distance of half-a-meter or more, the levels of non-ionizing radiation emitted, both from the access points and from the laptops, were below the ICNIRP threshold.  A survey conducted in schools in New Zealand showed similar results.

 

When comparing exposure to radiation emitted by wireless routers to that from other devices emitting radio waves, it can be seen that exposure to the radiation emitted by Wi-Fi routers per average time-unit is 20-200 times lower than that from mobile phones (0.0001-0.0008 mW/cm2, compared with 0.002-0.02 mW/cm2).  In fact, a 20-minute exposure during a single mobile phone conversation is equal to a whole year of exposure to Wi-Fi.

 

Does exposure to non-ionizing radiation from wireless routers constitute a health hazard?

The known and proven biological effect of exposure to high levels of radiofrequency radiation is heating of the cells.  This effect is observed for exposure at very high power that is much higher than that of existing standards.  However, there is concern regarding other potential effects on the body, at exposure levels lower than those that cause heating of tissues.  Despite the numerous studies performed on this topic, it is not yet possible to reach an unequivocal conclusion regarding the possible relationship between exposure to radiofrequencies and carcinogenesis.

 

In 2011 a Working Group of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) noted the existence of limited evidence for an increased risk of developing malignant brain tumors (glioma) and benign tumors of the auditory nerve among mobile phones users, but the evidence was not sufficient to allow conclusions regarding other types of cancer and/or regarding occupational or environmental exposure.  On the basis of the conclusions of the IARC  Working Group, radio frequency radiation emitted by mobile phones was classified as a possible carcinogen in humans (2B).

 

Most population studies examining the effect of radio frequency radiation assessed the effect of radiation emitted from mobile phones in adults. Almost no research has been conducted to examine the specific health effects of Wi-Fi networks, especially on child health.

 

Why do people oppose the introduction of Wi-Fi networks in schools?

As mentioned above, non-ionizing radiation emitted by routers and end-user devices used in wireless communication is very low.  Nevertheless, in Israel and throughout the world there is strong opposition to the installation and operation of wireless communication networks in schools.  This opposition is based on a number of reasons:

  • This technology has been in widespread use for a relatively limited number of years, and the health consequences of exposure to non-ionizing radiation below the recommended threshold are still being investigated.
  • Children are obliged to be within schools grounds by virtue of compulsory education laws, so that their exposure is forced, as distinct from the use of this technology at home, controlled by parental discretion.
  • On the whole, children and youth constitute a sensitive population group, compared with the adult population.

There have been claims that in some individuals, non-ionizing radiation causes electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS).

 

Since the long-term effects of non-ionizing radiation have not yet been determined, it has been decided to adopt the precautionary principle, i.e. reduction of exposure, while striking a balance between the needs of technological advances and protection of human health.

 

The debate regarding the introduction of wireless networks into schools in Israel has not been resolved. One should keep in mind that the major part of the population, including children, is exposed to wireless networks in the home and in the public domain.  Also, it should be noted that the mobile phone exposes the user to much higher levels of non-ionizing radiation than that emitted by wireless networks.

 

 Bibiliography

 

21.9.15