Waves of concern over SRJC plan for free Wi-Fi
Hope Bahanec, Contributing Writer
Published: May 12, 2008 Section:News
Riding around campus on his bike, John George (not his real name) looks like any other 40-something JC student. In fact, he appears quite fit. However, like many illnesses, his chronic medical condition is invisible. His condition, which includes Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, has kept him debilitated for much of the last 18 years.
"Usually, I'm home in bed. It's extremely challenging. This winter, my pain was so bad I couldn't physically leave my apartment for three months," George said.
George moved to Sonoma County 12 years ago from Berkley to get away from environmental pollution. "Now, everything has increased: population, traffic, smog. We are being bombarded with fumes and chemicals and people like me are getting sick."
A part-time JC student in the Adaptive Physical Education Program, George has deep concerns about the proposal from Sonic.net to cover the JC Campus with free wireless service for students.
George is part of a growing number of concerned people who believe that man-made electromagnetic fields, EMF's, from cell phone towers and wireless Internet connections are a form of invisible pollution making people sick with illnesses from depression to compromised immune systems to cancer.
"It's not the origin of my condition, but it exacerbates it. When I come in contact with EMF's, I get headaches, dizziness and other neurological symptoms. Then later, severe insomnia."
Both natural and man-made radiation is everywhere. Light from the sun is electromagnetic radiation and we need this radiation for life to exist. The debate concerns man-made waves, particularly radio frequencies, doing harm to the human body.
Man-made waves come from radio and TV station's antennas, cell phone towers and Wi-Fi as well as electrical appliances like computers, alarm clocks and toasters.
Ken Fiori, the JC Director of Computing Services says that the free Wi-Fi service from Sonic.net will be phased in over the next six months, first on the Santa Rosa campus and then Petaluma and Windsor.
Fiori feels claims about EMF's are not based on science, is quoted out of context or is not scientifically sound.
"The conclusion that you see over and over again is that there is no cause-and-effect relation between radio frequency waves and health issues. I wouldn't put a gun to my head. I have a high degree of confidence that I'm not putting myself at any risk," Fiori said.
The Sebastopol City Council recently took a stand on the side of caution and refused a proposal from Sonic.net to offer free wireless, or Wi-Fi, to the entire city of Sebastopol.
The decision drew international attention and an angry citizen backlash. There was even a "pro-Wi-Fi" float in the Apple Blossom Parade, with a woman on a laptop behind bars and participants shouting, "Free the Wi-Fi!" A petition in favor of Wi-Fi is circulating with more than 1,ooo signatures. The council's decision will be reevaluated in a few months.
Dr. Jeff Fawcett, who holds a Ph.D. in environmental economics and co-hosts a weekly health program on KPFA radio, says that EMF's are a global public health concern. Dr. Fawcett believes there is growing scientific evidence that Wi-Fi technology is dangerous.
"People who are sensitive to this kind of radiation experience insomnia, cognitive difficulties and neurological effects. When you blanket an entire area, people will be in a soup of radiation and not able to get out of it," Dr. Fawcett said.
When a large area is designated for wireless, "It's not giving people a choice," George said. "People who are physically or neurologically challenged can't get away from it." If the proposal goes through, George feels he won't be able to come to his SRJC classes anymore.
Dane Jasper, CEO and Co-founder of Sonic.net, has sympathy for those concerned about electromagnetic radiation but also wants to offer a free service to students and residents. "Instead of being cooped up in a cubicle, they can go out to the park, get connected and enjoy life."
Jasper admits that electromagnetic hypersensitivity is a legitimate condition, recognized by scientists and doctors. However, he says that many of the symptoms experienced- headaches, insomnia and rashes are also symptoms of fear and anxiety, widely regarded as psychosomatic symptoms. "Studies have not found any connection between EMF's and the symptoms that people experience. In fact, the studies that showed no ill effects were at a much higher energy output" than the proposed wireless.
Jasper explained that one wireless access point puts out about one-tenth of a watt of energy and covers about a city block. A cell phone tower that creates about six-tenths of a watt and can reach hundreds of miles. "Cell phones and cell towers output much more power than Wi-Fi. Wi-fi is the small fish in a big pond of EMF's."
Jasper says local radio towers like KZST and KJZY pouring out 6000 watts of energy each would be more of a concern. Jasper acknowledges that emotions on this subject are strong and that "It is a serious subject for a minority of people. I feel sympathetic to the concerns, but they are not interpreting the science correctly."
JC student Cyndi Varady says that full wireless campus coverage would be a "really cool resource for students." When asked about the health concerns, Varady said, "Wi-fi is everywhere at this point, much like radio waves. I haven't heard that it was dangerous in any way."
According to Dr. Fawcett, our bodies react to the radiation even if we don't feel it. "When exposed to EMF's, the cells of the body produce stress proteins, that protect the cells. This further confirms that whether or not you are experiencing symptoms, your body is reacting to an assault."
The Bioinitiative Report, a scientific document warning of the dangers of EMF's compiled by concerned scientists, researchers and doctors from around the world states, "The stress (protein) response shows that cells react to EMF's as potentially harmful."
This report and other evidence prompted the European Environmental Agency to call for a reexamination of current standard of exposure to EMF's from all sources. In fact, Europe is taking a role in reducing man-made electromagnetic waves.
According to Dr. Fawcett, the city libraries in Paris are turning off their Wi-Fi. Sir William Stewart, the head of England's Health Protection Agency, has called for a moratorium on Wi-Fi in elementary schools and further investigation is backed by the Teacher's Union.
However, the mainstream consensus is that there is no concrete evidence that EMF's are harmful. The World Health Organization and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, which set safety standards for many nations including the United States, have concluded that there is no danger to the current exposure levels of EMF fields.
Still, Wi-Fi opponents believe that the technology is too new and long-term studies have yet to be done.
"It is my opinion that where we are now with these technologies is where second-hand smoke was 30 years ago. Unfortunately, as with smoking, it will take citizen activism and the result of the experiment that we are all being subjected to, for action to be taken," Dr Fawcett said.
George chose to not use his real name because of the backlash he and his fellow activists have encountered. "For someone living with disabilities for as long as I have, I have experienced oppression and insensitivities, but this has caused all-out bashing. They are calling us fakes and quacks," he said.
"We are like canaries in the coalmine. This is something that will affect everyone eventually."