No waves at Lakehead

Lakehead University, tucked away in the northern Ontario town of Thunder Bay, doesn’t make worldwide headlines all that often but last week the major news outlets made an exception when the school said ‘no’ to wireless Internet access.

Security was cited as one of the main reasons for not going WiFi, but probably the most significant rationale for the decision is the big question mark over what impact, if any, radio waves, microwaves and electromagnetic waves can have on health after prolonged exposure.

These days, most urban areas are blanketed by radio and microwaves, enabling cell phone and wireless devices. Power lines also generate electromagnetic waves, as do many of the electronic devices in our homes.

There have been a lot of studies on the topic to date, but none of them are definitive, or long-term enough to take into account the cumulative effects.

However, some researchers are concerned that exposure to waves may lead to various cancers and even miscarriages in the worst cases, and may also contribute to ailments like chronic fatigue, poor sleep and headaches.

According to a Globe and Mail Technology story ( ), Health Canada believes the only risks posed by wireless devices come from attempting to use them while driving a vehicle.

Speaking of wireless dangers…

In a past Cybernaut I wrote about how airlines were considering allowing the use of cell phones and other transmission/reception devices during flights. According to most experts who weighed in on the subject at the time, the airline ban has always had more to do with concerns over customer annoyance than with the issue of safety.

As a result of those opinions, and increasing pressure from airline customers and telecommunications lobbies, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission is even now considering whether to lift the ban on portable electronic devices during flights.

That was before last week, when a new study by Carnegie Mellon University discovered that some signals can and do interfere with critical aircraft systems.

For the purposes of the study, researchers brought monitoring equipment on board actual flights that measured various types of signals. Among other things, they discovered that between one and four illegal cell phone calls were made per flight in the northeastern U.S., and that some of those calls were made during critical take-off and landing times.

Researchers also found that devices like Laptops, DVD players and GPS receivers pose a greater risk than previously thought.

According to the authors of the study, "We found the risk posed by these portable devices is higher than we previously believed. These devices can disrupt normal operation of key cockpit instruments, especially Global Positioning System receivers, which are increasingly vital for safe landings."

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