ROCKVILLE — A few parents at a Montgomery County Public Schools Board of Education meeting said they worried that wireless computers and devices with wireless Internet was gradually impeding the health of students.
Theodora Scarato, who was an MCPS parent before her family moved, said 15 experts wrote to MCPS to advise the school system to hardwire its devices to address the concern about Wi-Fi. She did not want to say whether her children currently attend school in the County.
David Carpenter is a former county resident and a general physician who served on committees with scientists who performed research about the effects of radio frequency radiation.
He wrote a letter to members of MCPS management in November encouraging them not to have the school system connected to the Internet wirelessly.
Carpenter also is the director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany.
“It’s appropriate that every child have access to the Internet, but the problem is when it’s wireless access to the Internet, there is exposure to radio frequencies,” said Carpenter.
MCPS spokesperson Derek Turner said MCPS follows guidelines set by the Federal Communications Commission. One of the repeated concerns of parents who testified at the meeting and said the standard was 20 years old.
Turner said the guideline had been updated in 2013.
A call to the Federal Communications Commission was not returned before deadline.
MCPS said evidence for health risks associated with Wi-Fi were insufficient to warrant any changes to Internet in the school system.
Scarato, a social worker, said she was concerned the presence of Wi-Fi had the potential to harm the health of her clients through processing issues or sleep problems.
Biomedical engineer Karol Maret said he read reports indicating there is a possible connection between exposure to microwaves in cellphones and wireless Internet and headaches.
Carpenter was involved in editing reports by the BioInitiative Group issued in 2007 and updated it in 2011 about potential adverse effects of electromagnetic fields on health. He said in addition to the World Health Organization’s classification of radio frequency, radiation also may affect sleep.
Laura Simon, parent of students at Bells Mill Elementary School and at Winston Churchill High School, said students should have the option of using wireless computers or computers that transmit data via Ethernet cables instead of Wi-Fi. She and a few other parents said they read from scientific reports that having computers plugged in reduced the potential risk of radiation Wi-Fi might cause.
“Heating effects are not the only effects you have,” said Maret. “There can be nonthermal, nonheating effects, and that’s what we’re concerned about.”
He said some studies have shown possible links to headaches, issues with memory and issues related to processing.
The studies have not proven causal relationships, however.
Scarato said she was interested in the topic after she read a report about the likelihood of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields by a group of scientists on behalf of the World Health Organization published online in 2011. The report zeroed in on radiation from mobile phones, though like cellphones, Wi-Fi uses microwaves.
“Obviously, we’re not holding the tablets (or laptops) up to our heads, but how do we know that 10, 20 years from now there aren’t going to be long-term effects (from WiFi exposure)?” said Scarato.
Simon said she and the other parents who spoke did not want to rid the school system of the laptops and Chromebooks; rather, they wanted the devices to connect to the Internet using Ethernet cords or wires.
Joan Palmer said her child started experiencing headaches, nausea and blurred vision after the Chromebook rollout in August and after new Wi-Fi routers were installed in the school at the same time. She said her daughter had never had a problem with headaches prior to the rollout and that her 13-year -old said she experienced headaches during science class in particular, one of the classes in which students used the laptops.
“I’m sure there’s a relationship,” said Palmer.
She said she is skeptical with how Wi-Fi is installed in MCPS.
“What they do is they have routers that are too strong for what they need,” said Palmer.
Palmer said a classroom would contain about 30 students but the number of computers in the room would be less than half of that because students had to share. The router had the capacity to supply energy to three times as many devices.
Aerohive, the manufacturer of the router in Bells Mill Elementary School, said the router had the capacity to supply Internet to as many as 200 laptops, said Simon.
She said the Federal Communications Commission’s guideline did not address schools that have multiple Wi-Fi routers.
“We’re going with old science in a new arena and it doesn’t fit the situation,” she said. “The science from 20 years ago does not get what we’re dealing with now. We have the industrial strength routers all over the schools.”
Carpenter said the more computers using a router, the greater the radio frequency radiation is likely to be present.
MCPS said usage of the term “industrial” in reference to the routers was inaccurate.
Palmer agreed with Scarato and Simon that wired computers would be the best option for students.
“What we really want which would make this much safer for our children is wires, wired laptops,” said Palmer.
Simon said some classrooms at her children’s schools have Wi-Fi routers in their classrooms attached to the ceiling.
“Wherever your router is, that’s where the radiation is strongest,” said Simon.
Scarato said teachers in the county wrote letters to her expressing their concern of potential health impacts but that they were afraid to come forward and publicly say how they feel. She said she did not want to say how many letters she received but said she received more than three.
Palmer said in her school’s parent teacher association would not allow her to post about her concerns about Wi-Fi and wireless devices to the PTA’s listserv. She said she did not want to name the school.
“Anyone who will bring this topic up on the listserv is disallowed,” said Palmer.