Wi-Fi radiation: who do we believe?

Not everything is known about the health effects of wireless equipment. But does that make it dangerous?

A recent BBC investigation into the possible dangers of Wi-Fi radiation emissions in UK schools that aroused fear in sections of the British community is now raising similar concerns in Australia where uptake of wireless technology has been met with great gusto.

However, Dr Lindsay Martin, Manager of the Electromagnetic Radiation Section of the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), says ARPANSA is not particularly concerned about Wi-Fi.

Australians worried about dangers should be aware that strict standards govern these technologies, Martin said.

"The levels from mobile phones, from towers, from wireless technology, are all required to meet our standards, the RPS 3 standard, which is in alignment with international standards," he said.

"We have no established reasonable evidence of harmful effects at our levels of the standard or somewhat above the standard. And the levels from most wireless technology should be hundreds of thousands of times lower than the standard. So therefore we don't have grounds for concern."

Yet, Martin admits that not everything is known about the health effects of wireless equipment. In view of this, the Government's standard includes a requirement to minimise exposure to the public where that can be achieved.

"For example, in schools where children are using these [wireless laptops], to me it's quite reasonable as a precautionary activity that you arrange to sit the kids at a desk, and that way they will be half a metre or a metre away from the antennae," he said.

For those in the community still carrying doubts about the standard, Martin notes, when there is a factor of a thousand or a million times lower than the standard, it's hard to see the basis of concern.

Dr. David S Taubman, Senior Lecturer in Telecommunications, School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications at the University of New South Wales, weighed in on the argument, noting that the study and design of antennas as well as wave propagation effects have largely fallen by the wayside in terms of research interest by universities.

"This is because they tend to be fields which are strongly dominated by a few major players in the world of the appropriate equipment and resources," he said. "Normally most of these things are done by commercial organizations."

However, according to Martin, researchers are generally more interested in testing higher radiation exposures rather than the very low levels from Wi-Fi.

"There's a lot of research going on about the effect of mobile phones, handsets, where they're right next to your head and they're usually more powerful than a Wi-Fi. A Wi-Fi tends to 10-30 milliwatts. A mobile phone might be 100-200 milliwatts on full power, and it's right next to your head."

The weight of scientific evidence indicates that Wi-Fi radiation does not cause harm, said Martin, adding that if anything, we would expect the harm to arise in other technologies sooner.

Concerning the charge that children are more susceptible to radiation absorption with their growing nervous systems, Martin said the standards are intended to protect children as well and to do so with a reasonable safety margin.

The trouble with the BBC investigation was that some statements were not necessarily untrue but could be misleading, says Martin.

"This has led many people to become frightened, and as a government organization we want to try to stop people being unnecessarily frightened", he said.

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