School governors in Haringey have been advised to examine their WiFi internet access provision as health concerns about wireless technology intensifies.

NEETA DUTTA examines why, despite reassurances, some parents and scientists remain unconvinced that WiFi is safe.

What is WiFi?
WiFi is short for Wireless Fidelity and is a particular type of wireless local area network (WLAN).

Its appeal lies in the fact that you don't need to plug your computer into a phone network via a cable to get internet access. Two or more computers form a network using radio frequency (RF) signals.

More than two-thirds of secondary schools and nearly half of primary schools in the UK already use WiFi in the classroom.

Is it dangerous?
According to the Health Protection Agency (HPA), the signals from WiFi are of a 'very low power, typically 0.1 watt (100 milliwatts) in both the computer and the mast (or router) and resulting exposures should be well within internationally accepted guidelines'.

Mobile phones produce a higher exposure of RF - radiating around 0.25 watts. The HPA maintains that a WiFi user could sit in a WiFi hotspot for a year and only receive the same RF exposure as they would making a 20-minute mobile phone call.

The implication is obvious: if we give our children mobile phones to use, we can't really protest too much about WiFi in schools.

The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA) also advises that the radiation is within a safe limit.

However, some believe both agencies are misleading people. The International Commission on NonIonizing Radiation Protection bases exposure limits on a thermal effect - so the radiation has to be strong enough to cause a heat effect, like shocks or burns, before it is restricted.

It does not take into account the non-thermal biological effects of the radiation.

Sarah Purdy, a parent with two children at Tetherdown Primary School in Muswell Hill, is worried young children are at risk of headaches, cancer and DNA damage. She quotes Dr Andrew Goldsworthy, an honorary lecturer at London Imperial College and expert on mobile phone radiation, who has argued that because WiFi uses the same technology as mobile phones, it can therefore shatter DNA in human cell cultures.

"I no longer have a mobile phone and neither do my children," Ms Purdy said. "Having WiFi in schools is like teachers chain smoking and nobody saying anything. I do not have WiFi in my home but we do not have a choice in schools and this needs to change."

Why the confusion?
While the HPA states that WiFi is safe to use, the organisation's chairman Sir William Stewart, has said there needs to be a review of wireless networks in schools. Speaking to television current affairs programme Panorama last month, he said: "I believe there is a need for a review of the WiFi and other areas. I think it's timely for it to be done now."

The Stewart Report, published in 2000, examined the effects of mobile phones on children and found that 'it is not possible at present to say that exposure to RF radiation, even at levels below national guidelines, is totally without potential adverse health effects, and that the gaps in knowledge are sufficient to justify a precautionary approach.'

What is the precautionary approach?
If there are reasonable scientific grounds for believing that something is not safe, many believe it should not be introduced until it has been proved it poses no harm. Some scientists argue that it is impossible to prove something is completely safe.

How have WiFi providers reacted?
WiFi is a multi-million pound industry and there have been suggestions that money is playing a role in stifling investigation and public scrutiny. The company RM provides WiFi to schools, colleges and universities in the UK, including some in Haringey.

Its chief executive, Tim Pearson, is keen to reassure parents that WiFi is safe. In a statement, he said: "At present, neither my engineering staff, nor I have seen any credible scientific evidence at all, of risk to those using WiFi in normal classroom circumstances."

Where does Haringey Council stand?
Despite claims in the national media that Haringey was poised to suspend WiFi in all its schools, the council has stated that it does not have the power to impose a binding policy on its schools.

Councillor Liz Santry, cabinet member for children and young people, said: "It is not the case that we are about to suspend Wi-Fi.

"The installation or otherwise of Wi-Fi is at the discretion of the school governing body and headteacher. Our role is to provide support and advice based on best practice. We cannot dictate to schools."

So what is going to happen in Haringey?
At a cabinet meeting last month, the council responded to a report by its overview and scrutiny committee into the issue with a series of recommendations.

These include governing bodies of all schools being asked to 'consider wired-in systems as the preferred option when IT networks are being developed'. Where WiFi is already in use, governors should 'undertake a full consultation with parents and staff over its continued use'.

Lastly, schools that use WiFi are being asked only to switch them on when necessary.

How do teachers feel?
At a Professional Association of Teachers conference this month, general secretary Philip Parkin said: "My real concern is that until there is a full inquiry based on both existing evidence and on newly-commissioned research work, the nation's children are being treated as guinea pigs in a large-scale experiment.

"I have not said that there are health and safety implications from this technology - just that there may be."