(TNS) — WORCESTER, Mass. — A danger causing everything from cancer to insomnia in unsuspecting victims? Or a harmless necessity that is about as risky as a cup of coffee or a pickle?
When it comes to wireless internet, it all depends on whom you talk to — and what information you're looking at.
Worcester school officials now find themselves in the middle of that debate, as they ponder how far they're willing to go to alleviate fears of Wi-Fi and cellular radiation in city classrooms.
Last Monday, the School Committee's Teaching, Learning and Student Supports Standing Committee tentatively agreed to allow a few basic "best practices" to be posted to the district's website; members could make additional decisions after meeting with a representative from the state's Department of Public Health in February.
Worcester is just the second school district in the state to adopt such guidelines, which encourage steps such as keeping laptops and other Wi-Fi-enabled devices out of laps, and turning them off when they're not in use. The Ashland school system implemented its own recommendations, which Worcester school officials used as a template for theirs, a year ago.
In both cases, the move to explore the murky territory of electromagnetic radiation originated with local residents who have become passionate advocates for rolling back the reach of wireless internet.
Cecelia Doucette, former president of the Ashland Education Foundation, was a key figure in getting Ashland to address the issue and has also urged the Worcester School Committee to do something about it, appearing most recently at the Teaching, Learning and Student Supports Standing Committee's meeting on Monday. She has been joined in the latter effort by Worcester resident Leslie Saffer, who has also secured face-time with School Committee members.
For Ms. Doucette, Ms. Saffer and others wary of electromagnetic radiation, the proliferation of wireless internet in schools is symptomatic of society's too-rapid adoption of what they see as unfettered and ultimately unnecessary technology. The bombardment of Wi-Fi signals in the atmosphere has especially been harmful to sufferers of a condition known as electromagnetic hypersensitivity, they believe -- a controversial illness, not officially recognized by most health organizations, that allegedly causes various ill health effects in sufferers when they're exposed to the radiation.
"We're not opposed to technology -- we're not saying we need to go backwards," Ms. Saffer said. "We're saying there needs to be responsible use of technology. The way it's being used now is not responsible."
Proponents of reining in Wi-Fi and cellular radiation also believe the telecommunications industries, as well as the U.S. agencies tasked with overseeing them, have either knowingly suppressed the potential harm or at least downplayed it, which has contributed to what they feel is a general lack of knowledge about the problem.
"It's shocking, the level of ignorance in the U.S. Every time I talk to a doctor, they've never heard of it," said Robert Gilmore Pontius Jr., a geography professor at Clark University, who added other countries, especially the Scandinavian nations, have been more proactive about providing protections from electromagnetic radiation.
"All we ask of people is that they be open" to consider the possibility that there could be a health risk associated with large doses of radiation exposure, Ms. Saffer said. "Because if they're open to it, they're going to see there's something really there. We're not making this up."
Which is why Ms. Saffer said she "had to pinch herself" after finding a couple of receptive public officials in School Committee members Brian O'Connell and John Monfredo, the chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Teaching, Learning and Student Supports Standing Committee, who agreed to take up the issue earlier this year. At last Monday's meeting, Mr. Monfredo was especially adamant that school officials quickly get information out to students and their families about the potential harmful effects of Wi-Fi and cellular radiation.
"I'd like for (them) to at least be made aware of it," Mr. Monfredo said. "I think we have a moral obligation to the students to let them know there's a danger. It's not to scare anyone, it's to let them know these are things they need to be careful about."
For the school district, litigation is also a potential consequence of inaction, as a recent case involving the Fay School in Southboro has demonstrated. The parents of a student at the school, who they claimed suffers from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, sued the school last year on the grounds it refused to accommodate his condition. That case is still pending in U.S. District Court.
But School Committee Molly McCullough, the third member of the standing committee, is more hesitant to take action.
"Honestly, I don't think there's enough information on the table for us to be making a recommendation," she said, adding she doesn't want "best practices" to be confused as a new mandate for schools. "I've told my colleagues I'd keep an open mind, but I think it's important for us to be responsible with the information we put out there."
Germano Iannacchione, a physics professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, believes there is a real danger to blaming Wi-Fi signals for sickening the populace, in that actual causes of people's symptoms could end up being overlooked as a result. And Mr. Iannacchione assured that Wi-Fi signals, like all other nonionizing radiation, like radio signals and microwave rays, simply are not capable of causing the DNA damage that ionizing radiation like X-rays and gamma rays can.
"It's not a cumulative effect, from a molecular point of view," he said, adding the breadth of the wavelength, rather than the amount of exposure, determines the physiological effect on the human body. He blames fears of Wi-Fi and cellular radiation partly on the fact that most people simply never need to know much about the physics behind our telecommunications infrastructure. "It's understandable that people would be afraid," he said.
It doesn't help, Mr. Iannacchione said, that the government has taken in his mind an overly cautious approach to labeling electromagnetic radiation. Bob Walton, the Worcester schools' information technology officer, mentioned in a presentation to the Teaching, Learning and Student Supports Standing Committee at Monday's meeting, for example, that the World Health Organization has technically classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as a Group 2B carcinogen, meaning it is potentially cancer-causing. But coffee and pickles are on that same list, he added -- "we don't have any definitive evidence this causes damage to humans."
That's ultimately the basis from which the state's public health department has approached the issue, said Robert Knorr, the director of the department's environmental epidemiology program.
"We don't have any guidelines" officially for schools or anyone else to follow, he said, given the lack of definitive evidence of a causal link to adverse health effects, although he added the department is in the process of creating a general information sheet pertaining to multiple forms of radiation.
But Mr. Knorr also acknowledged he will provide "practical" advice to people who call his department worried about the effects of electromagnetic radiation, some of which mirror what the Ashland and Worcester schools have decided to suggest in their own best practices. Among the recommendations attributed to Mr. Knorr that were distributed at the Worcester standing committee's meeting Monday, for instance, were to use wire-based internet systems instead of wireless, and to store cellphones and routers a safe distance away from people.
Those kinds of steps, however, are likely impractical in Worcester, a district that, like many, embraced wireless technology years ago, Mr. Walton said. To go back now and install wired drops in schools that have already been outfitted with Wi-Fi-based systems, he said, could cost tens of thousands of dollars per building, as well as significantly reduce the usefulness of wireless devices like iPads that are no longer manufactured with cable ports.
Not only that, wireless internet "is a valuable technology," he said. "We don't want to educate our students like we did in the industrial age."
The standing committee even allowed a major omission, at Mr. Walton's suggestion, from its best practices: a recommendation that Wi-Fi be turned off when not in use, something Mr. Walton said would likely be infeasible in practice to do, given the multitude of classrooms that might be using it any given time in a building.
Even so, Mr. Monfredo said the future of Wi-Fi in the schools is a topic "I think we're going to continue to have conversations about.
"This is something down the line we really need to follow."
©2016 Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass., distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.