The use of wi-fi networks in classrooms should be immediately suspended until an inquiry has fully investigated the health threat to millions of schoolchildren, teachers have urged.
Philip Parkin, the General Secretary of The Professional Association of Teachers, said that children were effectively acting as guinea pigs while the cancer risk posed by wireless networks had not yet been throughly considered.
He said scientific evidence had prompted him to question the safety of the systems already introduced in 15,000 schools across the UK.
Wireless technology has been linked with loss of concentration, fatigue, reduced memory and headaches. There are also claims it could increase the long-term risk of cancer.
Mr Parkin’s demand for an inquiry follows a similar call from Britain’s top health watchdog, the chairman of the Health Protection Agency.
Sir William Stewart said in May that a review of the health effects of wi-fi networks was “timely” amid fears they could pose greater dangers than previously thought.
Wi-fi systems use high frequency radio waves to transmit and receive data over distances of several hundred feet.
They allow users to surf the internet on demand within range of a wireless transmitter and remove the need to connect via a cable.
Some 70 per cent of primaries and 81 per cent of secondaries have already introduced wi-fi systems, according to official figures.
But, in a keynote speech, Mr Parkin said the drive to equip schools with wi-fi should be halted until a full scientific inquiry – including fresh research – had assessed the health risks.
Children are thought to be more vulnerable to electro-magnetic radiation due to their thinner skulls and developing nervous systems.
A recent BBC Panorama programme claimed a wi-fi network in a Norwich comprehensive gave off three times as much radiation as a typical phone mast.
Some scientists have since queried the programme’s claims but Mr Parkin warned that he had “heard and read enough to make me concerned”.
Guidance circulated to PAT members calls on schools to dismantle wi-fi networks immediately and replace them with cables. If this is impossible, they should measure radiation levels around the school and sign hotspots.
Addressing PAT’s annual conference in Harrogate, Mr Parkin, general secretary of the union, said: “My real concern is that until there is a full inquiry based on both existing evidence and on newly-commissioned research work, the nation’s children are being treated as guinea pigs in a large-scale experiment.”
He went on: “I understand that there are arguments from scientists on both sides of the question.
“If the scientists can’t agree, what chance have we got?
“I have heard and read enough to make me concerned and I had been made aware of an accumulation of evidence which suggests that the non-thermal, pulsing effects of electro-magnetic radiation could have a damaging effect upon the developing nervous systems of children.
“A full scientific inquiry should be commissioned in order to better understand the issues.
“Schools should be discouraged from installing further networks until the results of such an inquiry are known.”
Mr Parkin said current Government radiation safety limits failed to take into account biological effects of radiofrequency radiation into account, basing exposure limits solely on a “thermal effect”.
This means radiation only counts if it is so strong it causes a heat effect.
He said critics of wi-fi had been accused of “scaremongering” and “bad science”.
“I have not said that there are health and safety implications from this technology – just that there may be” he said.
Mr Parkin has already given his 35,000-strong union an advice document compiled by a PAT member who suffered a violent reaction after wi-fi was introduced at his school.
Michael Bevington, a classics teacher for 28 years at the prestigious Stowe School, became too ill to teach after suffering headaches, pains, sudden flushes, pressure behind the eyes, sudden skin pains and nausea.
He since conducted a study of research into electro-magnetic radiation and believes official advice on wi-fi is “inaccurate”.
“Until further research has been undertaken into the health effects of wi-fi, especially on children, it is recommended that it should not be used in schools” his report states.
PAT is now urging the Government to revise advice to schools which says wi-fi networks pose “no appreciable risk to children or others in schools”.
According to Panorama, ministers view wi-fi as a “magical system”. It is now being fitted as standard in all new state schools including academies.
However councillors in Haringey recently went against official advice and recommended the suspension of new wi-fi installations and existing systems in local schools.
They said there should be a full consultation of parents and health specialists and a “precautionary approach” because of concerns about health effects.
Earlier this year, Professor Lawrie Challis, chairman of a Government-sponsored telecommunications research programme, warned of the dangers of children using wi-fi-enabled laptops on their knees.
The wi-fi transmitter would be only 2cm from the child’s bodies – putting them at greater risk than if they were using a normal computer when the transmitter would be in the PC’s tower.
Despite its chairman’s call, the Health Protection Agency considers there to be “no consistent evidence of health effects from wi-fi”.
This advice has been followed by Becta, the Government’s education technology agency.
Ministers insisted last night wi-fi was safe to use.
Children’s Minister Kevin Brennan said: “The welfare and safety of children and staff in school is absolutely paramount – which is why we have already addressed concerns covering wireless computer networks.
“The Health Protection Agency has consistently advised that they do not consider there to be a problem with the safety of wi-fi.
“It is widely used in homes, offices and in public areas.
“On the basis of current evidence and expert safety advice, Becta believes that there is no need to discourage its use.”
A spokesman for Becta said wi-fi was valued by schools because it gave pupils flexibility over where they could use computers.
But he said schools were also encourage to maintain cable networks because they tended to be more reliable.
* 1.6million wi-fi connections have been set up in the UK in 18 months
* 15,000 schools across the UK have installed wi-fi