The Health Protection Agency (HPA) is to spend £250,000 on a two year research project to quantify everyday exposure to electromagnetic fields from Wi-Fi.
The agency reckons this will give it some ammunition to reassure people that their kids are safe if their school chooses to use a wireless internet connection.
The reaction of the press officer when we called to check on the scope of this research speaks volumes about the sensitivity of the subject area. Is this, we asked, merely a question of quantifying exposure levels, or are you investigating any possible effect on health, adverse, or otherwise? The poor lady became quite alarmed and started denying any suggestion that the HPA was running experiments on children.
We did eventually manage to establish that this is just about quantifying real-world exposure. There will be no double blind trials aimed at discovering a link between radio waves and health.
The project will start in the lab with computer models, before moving on to testing dummies kitted out with radio receivers to measure exposure to various parts of the anatomy. Later, HPA boffins will be making forays into actual offices, homes, and classrooms to measure the signals being given off by wireless equipment.
The expectation is that the research will discover that people are exposed to less non-ionising radiation as a result of Wi-Fi than they are from their mobile phones. "We felt a need to allay fears, because it involves children" the spokeswoman told us.
The agency said in a statement:
WiFi is becoming increasingly widely used in homes, schools, offices and throughout the general working and public environments. People using Wi-Fi, or in proximity to Wi-Fi equipment, are exposed to the radio signals emitted from it and will absorb some of the transmitted energy.
Given the precautionary advice from England 's Chief Medical Officer and from the Health Protection Agency to discourage the non-essential use of mobile phones by children, it is logical to consider the use of WiFi in schools and in the home.
Because of the diversity of available Wi-Fi equipment and the variety of ways in which it might be used, the precise quantification of exposures from Wi-Fi equipment is complex and requires a carefully thought-out approach to assessment.
The study has been welcomed by industry bodies, including the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme (MTHR), which investigates the health effects of mobile phones.
MTHR chairman Lawrie Challis told The Guardian: "If the exposure from Wi-Fi turns out to be less than that from mobiles, then you wouldn't expect any health effects to be worse. But first you need to look at what the exposures are, and then if there are surprises with Wi-Fi, you need to think what health studies need to be done." ®