Tuesday, 5 June 2012

WiFi: Another Legal Accident Waiting to Happen

Tomorrow, June 6, in a Toronto Divisional Court, lawyers for Peterborough Needs PCVS will make their arguments regarding KPR’s mishandling of the attempted PCVS closure. In the upcoming posts, we’ll put the Judicial Review into a broader perspective and look closely at some of the details.

While the lawyers prepare their cases, let’s wrap up our examination of another issue on which KPR may one day face legal action from the very people it supposedly serves – the ill-conceived plunge into the world of pervasive WiFi.

In the preceding two posts we’ve seen the way KPR’s repression of dissent around its WiFi plan resembles that around the attempt to close PCVS. We’ve also seen the direct link between astronomical technology expenses and the drive to close schools, and the obliviousness of KPR trustees and administrators of the Pandora’s Box they’re opening in allowing students unlimited internet access on their own hand-held devices.

The most important issue around WiFi for many, however, continues to be the safety hazard it poses.

Unless you’re a trained scientist, it’s not likely that you understand the nature of different kinds of radiation, or what role exposure to them can play in long-term health problems. Even among scientists themselves, there’s no unanimity, as demonstrated by the differences of opinion on the subject held by doctors and Trent University professors. Last year, KPR made the news by handpicking professors who supported their view of WiFi for a public information session, while excluding Environmental and Resource Studies professor Magda Havas, whose research concerns public health effects of industrial development, as you can see from her extensive website, which includes useful information on “electro-pollution.”

The fact is that Kawartha Safe Technology supporters are far from the only ones to suspect long-term negative effects will result from extensive, uncontrolled exposure of children to WiFi radiation. KSTI’s position – that school boards, as public bodies, should err on the side of caution – is a common-sense one, especially because schools are already hardwired and WiFi has little more to offer than convenience. As with other “conveniences” in our contemporary world, such as junk food, plastic bottles, and disposable consumer items, WiFi’s eventual cost will likely outweigh its benefits many times over.

This past February, Peterborough’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Rosana Pellizzari, wrote to KPR’s Director of Education in response to concerns about WiFi in schools raised at the Peterborough City-County Health Unit by parents and teachers. Pellizzari asked for clarification as to why KPR had done nothing to accommodate concerned parents, and for a comment on the radiation measurements made in KPR schools as reported by the KSTI.

Embarrassingly, the dynamic duo of Rusty Hick and Diane Lloyd took Pellizzari’s query as an invitation to promote KPR’s “vision” of “why the use of wireless technology is a crucial component of 21st century learning.” Predictably, their response, which you can read here, failed to answer the question as to why KPR hasn’t bothered to accommodate concerned parents by offering some kind of WiFi-free environment – unless you count the elimination of the problem of having “cables strewn across the floor” as a justifiable rationale.

Hick and Lloyd state unequivocally that they “know the technology is safe.” They also state that one of the main reasons for installing WiFi is to allow students to use their own hand-held devices in class. The defense they offer regarding the safety of WiFi is threefold: a) a lot other institutions are using it; b) the measurements made in classrooms are lower than the Health Canada threshold for radiation exposure; and c) many health authorities have concluded that “wireless technology does not pose a public health risk.” KPR’s attitude toward WiFi is perhaps best summed up in the blunt characterization of it as “a fact of modern life.”

A more sophisticated view is offered by the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association. This past March they issued a position paper (included in the correspondence at the above link) which quite rationally compares this potential workplace hazard to cigarettes and asbestos, and observes that “the health effects of unprecedented long-term exposure to this radiation may not be known for some time.” The paper points out that school boards like KPR are engaging in an uncontrolled experiment with its students by exposing them to WiFi signals for unprecedented durations throughout their growth from young children to adults.

The paper notes that Health Canada’s “safety code 6” threshold of 1000 microwatts per square centimeter – a threshold repeatedly referred to by KPR and others as their primary benchmark – is based on a six-minute exposure by an adult male, and was never intended to be applied to schools. The paper also observes that many countries in Europe have much more stringent guidelines than Health Canada’s, and unlike Health Canada, also consider deeper potential long-term biological effects.

The OECTA paper also points out that “at least three percent of the population has an environmental sensitivity to the radiation emitted” by wireless devices – often to levels far below the Health Canada guideline. The paper notes that “employers have a duty to accommodate persons with environmental sensitivities under the Canadian Human Rights Code as well as the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act.” KPR and other school boards, backed by the Ministry of Education, have chosen to ignore these facts, at their own legal peril.

Remember when it was perfectly fine to wear strong perfumes in schools? Who could have conceived a generation ago that people with chemical sensitivities would complain, and have their rights to a healthy environment upheld? Who would have wagered that schools would become “nut-free” in deference to those with allergies? My grade 12 math teacher routinely went to the staff room to smoke a pipe, and held the view that both he and his students should be allowed to smoke in class. Now we don’t even tolerate smoking in the school yard.

And then there’s asbestos. KPR is now on the hook for a million-dollar asbestos removal-and-containment bill as they refurbish TASSS. Apparently this deadly carcinogen, responsible for the early deaths of many thousands of unsuspecting people, was thought perfectly acceptable to install in schools when TASSS was built forty years ago.

The first legal action against public schools for forcibly subjecting their students to wireless radiation was filed in Portland, Oregon last year. You can read some wildly contrasting views on the suit in this online news article and the comments posted by readers. In those comments, you’ll see the great discrepancy between attitudes in Europe and attitudes in North America.

The contact list on the website for Citizens for Safe Technology, a North American umbrella group, confirms another notable discrepancy – far more women are on top of the issue than men. It seems that the basic social norms that say that males should be comfortable with any technology no matter how dangerous continue to have a great deal of power.

The bottom line is that the ubiquity of wireless radiation in our built environment today is no defense for its presence in schools. In fact, the opposite is true – we all get enough radiation exposure as it is without soaking our biggest public institutions with it, day in and day out, year after year. Like other “facts of modern life,” such as junk food, cigarette smoke, bullying, and images of violence, we should be trying to minimize radiation exposure in schools, not maximize it.

If history is any indication, pervasive WiFi in schools will eventually be consigned to the dustbin of bad ideas by a court upholding Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms

By that time, Hick and Lloyd may be long gone from KPR, leaving taxpayers with the bill to reconfigure our schools’ internet connections. But tomorrow’s court proceedings offer ample evidence that taxpayers’ rights rarely cross their radar screen.

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