|There has been plenty of media coverage of WiFi and the potential dangers in 2007. There is
a lot of misunderstanding and misrepresentation of evidence being thrown into the mix, and it is becoming very
hard to follow the strands of a) what the exposure levels are, b) what the evidence is actually saying, and c)
what other aspects need to be considered on WiFi.
General Exposure Levels
Wireless access points commonly have
2.4 GHz wLANs operating at 0.03 watts output power (5-6 GHz ones can use up to 20 times this). In the
classroom there would probably be one wLAN node (0.03 W) and, say, 20 laptops all at 0.03 W. However, they are
only transmitting much power when actually transferring files. So, let's say that we have the equivalent
of one laptop operating absolutely continuously (actually the combined output of 20 may well be more that this),
and that we are on average 2 metres from the antennas. This seems reasonable based on the fact that there
are 20 in the room in this example. So E = (sq.root (30*0.03*2))/2 = 0.67 V/m equivalent continuous.
Now the ICNIRP guidance at 2.4 GHz is 61.5 V/m. So the signal strength is about 1/100th of what is
allowed. Power is proportional to signal strength squared so that would be around 1/10000th of the ICNIRP
A mobile phone next to head typically outputs 0.5% (1/200th) of the
ICNIRP guidance. In the 20 PC wLAN classroom example there would be something in the order of 0.01% (or
1/10000th) of ICNIRP guidance, about a 50-fold difference.
Therefore about 16 hours in the example classroom with 20 wLAN
PCs, (approximately eight standard school days) would be equivalent to 20 minutes on a mobile phone running at
typical power levels.
However, there are often a number of access points that are
sending short bursts of data a few times per second, and the signal strength of these are all reasonably
high. If this is the case, the average exposure from any access point will be much higher than in the
However, these figures are assuming that it is cumulative absorbed
power that is being implicated in RF research, and that then implies a linear dose-response relationship
model. From the evidence that has found a risk, this seems unlikely to be the case. Peak
signal strength received may also be important, and people using WiFi enabled laptops would regularly be exposed
to electric fields of 2 to 3 V/m. Whilst this is far below ICNIRP, it is far above the levels where
adverse health effects are being reported (~0.05 V/m).
Firstly, it is very important to stress that there is currently (as
of July 2007) nothing that we are aware of in the scientific literature that looks at WiFi. So initially the
answer would be "none". However, when anecdotal evidence of problems are being reported, it is
prudent to do two things: Firstly, prioritise research to be done looking specifically at effects from
typical WiFi exposure, and secondly, to have a look at the literature published on exposures and technologies
that may be relevant.
TV and Radio Transmitters use relatively similar frequencies, but are
not digitally pulsed transmissions (AM and FM radio are entirely continuous wave and TV is almost entirely
continuous wave). There is a reasonable chance that, if humans react to TV and Radio transmissions, it may
be very differently to the reaction to a digitally pulsed signal, so even though there is evidence of a possible
may not be relevant to WiFi.
Mobile Telecommunication systems (CDMA, GSM and 3G) are both closer
in frequency and are also digitally pulsed information carrying signals - these are sufficiently close to WiFi
that the research into phones and their base stations may be applicable to exposure from WiFi.
Firstly, typical exposure from a phone in use is likely to be far
higher than from a typical WiFi laptop or access point due to the different in proximity to the device in
question. So whilst, again, there is research showing that there may be a risk,
this may not be relevant.
However, signal strength from a mobile phone base station where it
reaches the ground (approximately 70 to 100 metres from the base station) is typically between 0.5 and 1.5 V/m,
exactly the same as we measured in a WiFi classroom in a school in Norwich, and the same as found in the above
calculations, and seems therefore to be very relevant. A quick survey of the literature looking very
specifically into mobile phone base station epidemiology finds some statistically significant health effects.
Many of these are summarised, with helpful graphs, etc, in our subscriber article "Radiofrequency
EMFs and health risks". There is, in fact, very little research looking at base stations that has
failed to find an effect. Also interesting is that many of the effects in the papers above (non-cancer
effects) are those being reported in the anecdotal evidence from WiFi exposure.
In essence then, there is sufficient evidence to warrant some degree
of precaution regarding WiFi until research has been done very specifically into its effects. With dLAN
systems and ordinary CAT5/6 wired networks offering better stability, bandwidth and security, there is simply no
need for most homes, organisations and schools to switch to wireless networks, apart from the savings of the
slight inconvenience in cables.
As briefly mentioned above, there are other serious drawbacks to
using WiFi that are important considerations when implementing computer networks. Firstly, the bandwidth
is really not very good. Modern wired network cables are running at 1 GBit/sec, and even older networks
are running at 100 MBit/sec. WiFi on the other hand typically performs at around 8-15 MBit/sec, even
though the specs suggest it should be capable of about 54 MBit/sec.
On top of the speed restriction, WiFi is also susceptible to
interference. An access point is typically only designed to accept concurrent connections from a handful
of laptops, else the system can easily start getting confused. Likewise, it is easy to disable a network
by blasting the area with higher powered 2.4 GHz radiation. Then lastly, and from an IT point of view, is
security. Without technical knowledge, many access points come without having WEP encryption set up, and
not doing so can leave your wireless network very vulnerable to intrusion from other wireless devices. It
is very easy to drive around a city residential area, and with the right hardware, find an unsecured wireless
network adaptor and simply "hook in" to someone else network and internet connection. Aside from
the usage of their payed for bandwidth, this has a risk of letting them access files on other computers on the
network, and also performing illegal activity whilst effectively framing the owner of the internet
connection. Again, wired networks are simply secure unless someone comes into your house and plugs a
laptop of theirs into your router / switch.
Having said this, Wireless network does have the rather useful
advantage of not having to cable up various rooms in your house (where you would intend on using a laptop) with
networking sockets. However, again, there is a more secure and stable alternative, at pretty much the same
price: dLAN units allow you to use the buildings mains circuitry as an extension to your computer network, so
all you have to do is plug one dLAN unit into the wall (and network to your router / wired network) and the
whole building is networked. Plug the other unit into any other socket on the same power circuitry, and
voila, you have a new network connection. Because the network traffic is still travelling down wires, and
it doesn't get out beyond the house's consumer unit, the network is secure from those that do not have physical
access to the house itself. It can also carry a higher bandwidth than a wireless network (typically 80
So there really is no need to use WiFi anyway, barring the
convenience of not having to plug your laptop into anything at all (but for those that need a mains socket
anyway, dLAN just uses one extra wire from the same socket as the laptop adaptor). For schools we would
recommend wiring up all the classrooms that need to have network access, preferably by putting the power and
network cabling through the same trunking. If done by IT staff, this is a lot cheaper than wireless
networking equipment anyway. If there is no-one capable, or allowed (perhaps on health and safety
grounds), again dLAN is the next best option as this reduces the need for expensive sub-contracting work.
Dr. Magda Havas (Environmental and Resources department, Trent
University, Ontario, Canada), has written an excellent precautionary paper, prepared for the Board of
Supervisors, City and County of San Fransisco. This 51 page document is available from here,
and covers a wide range of literature and scientific findings on RF research, and presents them in a logical and
Concerned parents Jane Smith and Vanessa Spedding have recently
fought a successful campaign to prevent WiFi being installed in Wigmore Primary School, Herefordshire.
Their campaign succeeded using a common sense approach combining precaution against the possible health effects,
cost, and IT practicality. They are happy with us presenting their
letter, an accompanying letter
from Prof. Olle Johansson, and a full
implementation costing from an IT company that installs network systems.
BECTA have provided a very thorough albeit technical
article on WiFi and wireless specifications.
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Foreword and Download Report]
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|Thanks to Alasdair Philips and Powerwatch : http://www.powerwatch.org.uk