By Theodora Scarato, MSW –
In December 2016, the Maryland State Children’s Environmental Health and Protection Advisory Council (CEHPAC) voted to issue recommendations advising the Maryland Department of Education to recommend that local school districts reduce classroom wireless radiation exposures to as low as possible by providing wired – rather than wireless – internet connections. The Council’s action represents the first State Body to make recommendations to reduce school wireless exposure in the United States.
The Council began its review of the health risks posed by electromagnetic radiation exposures from laptops and wi-fi after I first raised the issue three years ago. Several countries, such as France, Israel, and Cyprus, already have policy in place to minimize wireless exposures to children in schools. Yet in my daughter’s school they were installing wi-fi and buying more and more digital devices for classrooms.
The Council’s responsibility is to identify environmental health issues that impact children, advise the General Assembly, and recommend uniform guidelines for State agencies to identify, reduce, and eliminate children’s exposure to environmental hazards. The 19 members include governor-appointed pediatricians, toxicologists, Maryland State house/senate appointees and representatives of the Department of Education, the Department of Health, and other state agencies.
The Children’s Environmental Health and Protection Advisory Council recommended that the Maryland State Department of Education take the following actions:
• “Recommend that local school systems consider using wired devices” … “WiFi can be turned off” and instead “a wired local area network (LAN) can provide a reliable and secure form of networking…without any microwave electromagnetic field exposure.”
• “If a new classroom is to be built, or electrical work is to be carried out in an existing classroom, network cables can be added at the same time, providing wired (not wireless) network access with minimal extra cost and time.”
• Local school systems should use strategies to minimize exposures: “Have children place devices on desks to serve as barrier between the device and children’s bodies; locate laptops in the classroom in a way that keeps pupils’ heads as far away from the laptop screens (where the antennas are) as practicable; consider using screens designed to reduce eyestrain; and, consider using a switch to shut down the router when it is not in use.”
The Council also directed the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to provide suggestions to the public on ways to reduce exposure such as, “switch tablets to airplane mode to play games or watch videos stored on the device.”
The Council advised that the General Assembly consider funding education and research on electromagnetic radiation and health, and called on the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to ask the United States Department of Health and Human Services to formally petition the FCC to revisit the exposure limit to ensure it is protective of children’s health.
The report is shared with the United States Department of Health and Human Services, Federal Communications Commission, Maryland State Department of Education, and Maryland General Assembly.
While this report focused on wi-fi radiation in schools, there are additional concerns about mobile phones and cellphone towers CEHPAC plans to take a look at these broader issues over the next year.
The Council also cited the recent US National Toxicology Program findings of increased rates of rare cancers in rats, as well as children’s unique vulnerability and relatively increased absorption of this radiation as part of the rationale for their recommendations.
Referring to the fact that US wireless public exposure limits were set in 1996 without testing for long-term safety, the CEHPAC Council Report also stated, “decades-old standards need updating in light of new science.” Such statements are in line with the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has repeatedly called on the United States government to strengthen wireless exposure regulations to protect children and pregnant women.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics, consumer reports, obstetricians, and several medical associations have issued recommendations to reduce cellphone and wireless exposures to children. The New Jersey Education Review published an article last Fall entitled “Minimize health risks from electronic devices,” and issued similar recommendations to schools:
• Hard wire all devices that connect to the internet.
• Hard wire all fixed devices such as printers, projectors, and boards.
• Use hard-wired phones instead of cell or cordless phones.
• Put devices in airplane mode.
The American Academy of Pediatrics also states, “Avoid making calls in cars, elevators, trains, and buses. The cellphone works harder to get a signal through metal, so the power level increases.” We told the Council that several school districts have installed wireless networks on the buses and expect that the Council will address the use of cellphones in classrooms and on school buses in the future.
The Council heard testimony from many organizations and parents who traveled to meetings from across the state. The Council website has made publicly available the hundreds of pages of expert scientific material and public comments which notably includes several letters from medical doctors advising against wi-fi in school.
“Parents have a right to know if there is an environmental hazard in the classroom and actions that can be taken to reduce exposure,” stated parent Laura Simon.
This effort started in 2014. I was shocked to learn no government health agency had reviewed the issue from a health and safety standpoint considering how fast wi-fi was being installed in schools across the state. First, I wrote the Department of Education and of Health letters of concern about the radiation exposures in schools.
Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, then Secretary of the Maryland Department of Health, initially responded to my letter stating, “It is fair to say there are legitimate questions about the long-term health implications of microwave radiation,” and that the Department of Health, “would be interested in the advice and counsel of groups such as the Children’s Environmental Health and Protection Advisory Council.” The Department of Education also directed me to the Council.
The State Department of Education representative voted in favour of these recommendations.
Twenty-first century learning should include the best available 21st century science. Thousands of studies connect wireless radiation to a wide range of biological effects that range from neurological changes to sperm damage and behavioural problems, in addition to increasing cancer. Corded non-wireless classroom connections are an important part of a safe and healthy school environment, respecting not only our children but also the teachers and staff.
Theodora Scarato MSW LCSW-C is Director of Public Affairs at Environmental Health Trust, a scientific think tank focused on environmental health risks, prevention, research, and policy. Environmental Health Trust maintains the database on international policy in regards to wireless and children’s health with a special focus on schools. She develops community educational programs and co-ordinates with research institutions internationally on electromagnetic radiation and health. She has also co-founded several organizations that address environmental health and safety concerns and also is a practising clinical social worker.