Yesterday Crikey reported on the “double-edged sword” in the Institute of Public Affairs paper “that bags the Government’s plans for using WiMax technology for rural broadband.”

But poor reach and poor policy may turn out to be the least pressing issues. The sword could well be triple-edged, if overseas developments are anything to go by.

Around the world, government organisations, including schools, are facing a backlash for imposing wireless internet signals on citizens.

In the US, a class action lawsuit filed by parents at an Illinois school claims prolonged exposure to low intensity microwaves emitted by WiFi networks “can break down DNA strands, cause chromosome aberrations.” Lawyers acting for the class action claimed to have collected “more than 400 scientific articles, summaries and references outlining health risks… most of which have been researched and written after 1995.”

In the UK, the Teachers Union is calling for a ban on WiFi in schools, and universities are also starting to ban WiFi from campus. Canada’s Lakehead University president Fred Gilbert said that “microwave radiation in the frequency range of Wi-Fi has been shown to increase permeability of the blood-brain barrier, cause behavioural changes, alter cognitive functions, activate a stress response, interfere with brain waves, cell growth, cell communication, calcium ion balance…” and so on.

And last month, an international working group of senior scientists and public health policy academics, The BioInitiative Working Group, released a report listing serious health risks and urging tightening of international standards, particularly around children. The report gives a meta-analysis of more than 2,000 studies and concludes that “existing public safety limits are inadequate to protect public health.” It recommends no WiFi in schools.

Another appeal, reportedly signed by 36,990 doctors, also claims existing standards are set too low, because they’re based on the erroneous assumption that only thermal heating of cells cause health effects. Yet as EMR Australia has reported, many studies suggest serious health impacts from non-thermal effects of low intensity radio-freqency signals like WiFi. The Freiburger Appeal signatories believe wireless devices, including portable home phones, have triggered “a dramatic rise in severe and chronic diseases”. Following this appeal, a reported 50,000 more doctors’ signatures were gathered on the Lichtenfelser Appeal, the Bamberger Appeal, the Hofer Appeal and the Helsinki Appeal.

Then there’s the Benevoto Resolution and the Catania Resolution both of which cite health risks and recommend wireless zones in cities. There are citizen groups like the San Francisco Neighbourhoods Antenna-Free Union and Australian groups like Tower Sanity Alliance.

On it goes. Implementing WiMax may prove trickier than the government bargained for.

Katherine Wilson is campaigning to implement WiFi precautionary protocols in schools until conclusive studies are undertaken.

Peter Fray

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