This is a lightly modified version of a response I posted on the MITIE forums recently. MITIE (pronounced “mighty”) stands for Managers of IT In Education. It is an association made up of ICT Professionals from educational institutions as well as representatives from various organisations that support the use of ICT in education. If you’re involved in ICT in an Australian or NZ school I highly recommend you join MITIE.
Schools regularly get asked by parents about whether it is safe for their child to be constantly exposed to RF radiation from school Wireless Access Points. These concerns are usually based on fear more than evidence1, often thanks to media scaremongering or dubious social media posts.
Assuming your school is adhering to the relevant RF standards (which you almost certainly are unless someone has maliciously modified your microwave ovens or performed illegal modifications on radio equipment) then I encourage you to work with your executive and senior teachers to present a united front. As it is fear you are dealing with, use the same strategies you would use for any other fear:
- Show that you care by listening to the concerns and taking them seriously. Don’t belittle the fears or humiliate the parent, even if the fears are overblown or irrational
- Point to the school’s track record of caring about the whole child (healthy food, sun protection, physical activity, safety initiatives, extra-curricular activities, etc) and stay up to date with the latest standards
- Solicit the parent’s help in coming up with a reasonable solution or mitigation strategies (even if you’re already doing them) such as mounting APs on ceilings, encouraging outside play during breaks, ensuring radio power settings are set relatively low (which also improves network performance), etc. This not only involves the parent in the process and gives them ownership but helps them to identify the drawbacks of more extreme alternatives (e.g. removing all Internet access, their child being isolated from the class or wearing a foil helmet, etc)
- Providing evidence or engaging directly with their “evidence” can be helpful in group settings (to stop the fear from spreading) but don’t get drawn in to a debate. Just defer to a higher authority such as WHO, ARPANSA, Australian Standards or the Education Department and then use the broken record technique2 to keep the conversation on track
- In extreme cases you may need to simply explain that the school exceeds (in a good way) the requirements of the higher authority and then politely refuse to engage any further.
As far as I am aware there is no evidence linking RF exposure to adverse health effects, even in the case of cell phones that generally operate much closer to the body. Whilst lack of contradictory evidence does not prove it is safe, I think it is reasonable to assume that we would have seen conclusive evidence by now (several decades into the spread of mobile phones and wifi).
The other common criticism of current standards is that they only consider the thermal effect of non-iodising radiation and that there may be other effects to DNA, hormones or glands. The reason these standards only consider the thermal effects is because much research has been done into other possible effects and no link has been found. The only link scientists can find between non-ionising RF exposure and human health is as a result of thermal fluctuations (see, for example, Radiofrequency (RF) Effects on Blood Cells, Cardiac, Endocrine, and Immunological Functions), hence their use in the standards. ↩
For those who aren’t familiar with it, the broken record technique is a good way of dealing with someone, child or adult, once you’ve ascertained they are just trying to score points or pick a fight. Remain calm, acknowledge what they have just said and then repeat your main point:
You: “We understand your concerns which is why we adhere to the Australian government guidelines for RF exposure”
Them: “But ‘A Current Affair’ said that two students got leukaemia the day after wifi got installed at their school”
You: “We’re familiar with some of the more sensational claims being made by the media and we understand your concerns which is why we adhere to the Australian government guidelines for RF exposure”
Them: “What about the change in power flux density that comes with 5GHz Wifi and the corresponding increase in Specific Absorption Rate”
You: “We understand your concerns about new developments which is why we stay up to date with and adhere to the Australian government guidelines for RF exposure”
Them: “But what about the Frey effect and possible impacts to DNA and glands?”
You: “We are concerned about all the possible dangers which is why we adhere to the Australian government guidelines for RF exposure”