Potential to be harmful? Keeping the conversations open about innovation and impact on health

For every sizeable innovation there are detractors and advocates. Think, for example, the television in the late 1950s, 60s and 70s. When it initially became available and affordable for many people, was going to open up education for the world (think Open University programmes from the UK, and the City Colleges of Chicago in the US). On the other hand, detractors felt it was undermining literacy skills, amongst other things. Newton Minow, in 1961, called television “a vast wasteland” (you can hear an extract from his speech here).

Hindsight now indicates that TV has not revolutionised the face of education, and people still read books.

The thing is – to have balance, we need both sides, and all the opinions in between – to ensure they are robust discussions about innovations that may, potentially, be game-changers, or harmful. We also need folks to keep re-assessing and re-visiting these discussions – to challenge what can otherwise become assumptions. The danger is that we can blindly assume that what science is apparently indicating is reliable; take for instance, Hormone Replacement Therapy. What initially appears to be a no-brainer positive, can sometimes turn out to be way less cut and dried, and on the other hand, what can appear to be negative, turn out to have some previously un-thought of benefits).

Bearing all of this in mind, this is what I suspect has been happening in the case of wifi. Which brings me to Wifi and tinfoil hats: An evidential approach (a post that was brought to my attention by Glen Davis). Recently, at Te Horo school, on the Kapiti Coast in New Zealand, wifi was recently turned off. It is all somewhat complex, with a number of sides to the story. The end result, though, is that the wifi has been switched off and I am left wondering, to what end?

Paul Matthews, the author of the post, indicates that intensity of EMFs was the key to the debate, and refers to Jonathan Brewer’sInside Telecommunications blog that includes the following table:

Type of Radiation

Power Level

Potential to be Harmful (heat can be felt)


Maximum Permitted in New Zealand


Highest Radiation Cell Phones (Avg of 20)


50 Watt Cell Phone Transmitter at 10m distance


Lowest Radiation Cell Phones (Avg of 20)


Wi-Fi Device Average between 0.5 and 2m distance


Matthews goes on to say that if you go by this table, “wifi would have to be 35,000x as strong as its current average to be potentially harmful to humans” (source). He also refers to the World Health Organisation’s EMF Project, which has concluded after a review of over 25,000 scientific articles and research projects” that “Despite extensive research, to date there is no evidence to conclude that exposure to low level electromagnetic fields is harmful to human health” (source).

In addition, “the US National Cancer Institute[state that] there is no evidence from studies of cells, animals, or humans that radiofrequency energy can cause cancer” (source). In other words, “Following very comprehensive and ongoing research, there is absolutely no evidence of a link between exposure to wifi transmission and adverse health effects” [emphasis in the original] (source).

So – should everyone be turning off their wifi? It appears not. Extensive research to date is not indicating any cause for alarm. As, the author of the post says, “Hopefully other communities around New Zealand will consider the science first and foremost” (source). However, that’s not to say ‘case closed’. Rather, let’s keep the conversations and the research current and open.

Would be great to read your comments and reactions.

Image: ‘Surfing the web‘, http://www.flickr.com/photos/44302262@N08/5426170352. Found on flickrcc.net


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About ictenhancedlearningandteaching

I am a director and consultant at Ethos Consultancy NZ (http://www.ethosconsultancynz.com/). I have a keen interest in all aspects of ICT Enhanced Learning and Teaching (ICTELT) where the focus lies on ways of scaffolding and empowering learners. In particular, I am interested in the way that creative, blended approached to Academic Professional Development can create trust, rapport and encourage reflective practice. As such, ICTELT is approached from facilitation, design, evaluation and assessment as opposed to the tools and what they can offer. I am a strong advocate of the potential of Web 2.0 to empower learners from all walks of life and cultures, especially after my experiences working for 6 years in the Middle East. In particular, I am interested how ePortfolios can be used in the VET sector (especially where Literacy and Language challenges are faced), in Recognition of Prior Learning, and in authentic, applied assessment. I have been involved with designing and developing ICTELT approaches and programmes for ten years. Following research informed approaches and design, I apply a qualitative, iterative process to evaluate the effectiveness of interventions, programmes and tools, encouraging learners' voices and input from all stakeholders.
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