The Office of Environmental Health and Safety removed a statement from its websiteabout the safety of radiation from Wi-Fi in June 2014 in response to activist pressure.
The statement, which reflected the University’s position on the hazards of exposure to wireless radiation and authored in 2007, disappeared from the website after the University deemed it to be out of date.
The move took place against a backdrop of activist concern about Wi-Fi safety in schools across the country and in Europe and was triggered by a series of emails from individuals outside the University who had viewed the University's statement on radiation safety.
The process began with an email in February 2014 from a womanconcerned about Wi-Fi safety who had two young children, Sue Dupre, the University's Assistant Director of Environmental Health and Safety, said.The woman was not affiliated with the University.
“She contacted us and everybody in our office, including more senior people in University management, expressing concern about our position statement and saying that there were other important, recent studies we needed to look at,” Dupre said. “In June, she decided we weren’t acting quickly enough and sent another round of emails.”
The woman who sent the emails was granted anonymity to talk freely about her concerns. She said she was threatened with losing her job after a previous media appearance regarding another university's Wi-Fi safety.
The woman said she has been following scientific research on wireless radiation and has been concerned for some time about the potential risk of Wi-Fi networks in public places.
“When I was trying to advocate for safe technology at my kids’ school, I was being told that ‘Princeton says it’s safe,' " she said. “I talked to other people across the U.S., and other people had the same situation. I thought, I’ve got to contact Princeton about this.”
The National Association of Independent Schools, for example, published a review of Wi-Fi safety on June 26, 2014, using the University's position statement as one of its references to assure parents of Wi-Fi safety.
Reading the University's position statement, the woman added, raised new concerns.
“I looked at Princeton’s site and said, ‘Well, this is completely outdated and it needs to come down,' ” she said.
However, the original position statement, which can still be found as an archived webpage, spent over 1,000 words summarizing scientific research on the safety of wireless radiation, concluding that emissions from Wi-Fi networks “do not present a hazard” to people on campus.
It also contained the results of a 2007 survey carried out at Firestone Library showing negligible levels of radiation, with the greatest measurement still over 1,000 times smaller than the state's allowable limits.
The original statement was never intended for use by people outside of the University,Robin Izzo, the director of the Office of Environmental Health and Safety, said.
“We wrote this statement because we were getting some questions internally from staff about this type of radiation and whether it could be harmful,” Izzo said. “The original statement was written and posted on our website to make it easier for people to find that information out internally.”
She added that she was unaware that other organizations around the country were referring to this statement as evidence for Wi-Fi network safety.
The issue of radiation safety has made the news in a number of countries in the last few years, with recent legislation passed in France to limit exposure to wireless network radiation in schools for young children. Websites advocating for the reduction or removal of wireless networks have also been making headway in Canada, where at least 12 middle and elementary schools banned Wi-Fi in 2013.
After reading the woman's comments and emails from several other individuals expressing similar concerns in June 2014, the University made the decision to remove the statement, Dupre said.
“We couldn’t dispute that our position statement didn’t refer to the latest literature and reviews,” she said. “So we did take the position statement down.”
The removal of the statement has been somewhat diversely interpreted, with a handful of activist websites reporting the action as an admission by the University of the dangers of Wi-Fi radiation. Izzo, on the other hand, emphasized that the statement’s removal had nothing to do with the University’s attitude toward wireless safety.
“Our level of concern has not changed at all,” she said. “If we do post a new statement, we will reference some of the new studies, but we probably won’t be as detailed. Our new statement is likely to say that we will monitor the literature and the scientific consensus.”
The identification of scientific consensus is precisely where the debate about wireless radiation becomes so convoluted, Emilie van Deventer, head of the World Health Organization's International Electromagnetic Field Project, said. Established by the WHO nearly 20 years ago, the project aims to assess the health effects of low-level radiation, like the radiation emitted by the Wi-Fi base stations around campus.
Although the project has repeatedly concluded that wireless network routers and base stations have no measurable health effects, the volume of information on both sides of the argument has maintained the debate this long, vanDeventer said.
“The data is gray. It’s not black and white,” van Deventer said of research on these health effects. “There is no consensus, it’s true. There’s a big group and a little group, but it’s still two groups. I can’t tell you that there’s one group that is completely correct.”
Devra Davis, president of the Environmental Health Trust and one of the most well-known advocates for what van Deventer calls the "little group," argues that there are enough studies demonstrating health risks associated with wireless radiation that state and national regulations should be made far stricter.
“We are dealing now with a massive, uncontrolled experiment,” she said, adding that the radiation emitted by wireless base stations is already listed by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer as a class 2B carcinogen, which means it it "potentially carcinogenic."
However, van Deventer said she believes that this sort of reasoning is misleading and that the WHO classifications of potential human carcinogens, along with the overwhelming volume of medical research on the topic, can be at odds with the public understanding of risk.
“The public, the media and to some extent the ministries of health want to know: Is it black or white?” she said. “Is it dangerous or is it safe? Our kind of classification does not answer this question so clearly."
The classifications ignore other factors such as the dose — or in the case of Wi-Fi, the power — that people are exposed to, that become important when making health assessments, van Deventer added.
The work of Davis and others have helped to convince the woman who sent the emails that the safety of her children depend on a more cautionary approach to wireless technologies.
Noting that she was speaking as a parent and not as a medical expert, the woman who sent the emails said parents and students need to know the risks involved in a way that makes sense to them.
“The question that needs to be asked is ‘What is the proof of safety?’ ” she said, adding she hopes all students will take the time to consider the evidence carefully.
To her, however, it makes sense to err on the side of caution.
“When it comes to my kids, they mean everything to me,” she said. “Why would I risk their future health? That's my stance.”
The Environmental Health and Safety Office will try to avoid becoming directly involved in any future debate on this topic, Izzo said.
“If we were conducting research in this, it would make sense,” she said, “but given that we are just adding our interpretation of research that other people have done, I don’t think we need to have a public position on this.”
As to whether the University is considering modifying its Wi-Fi service, Izzo saidshe doesn’t anticipate a change anytime soon.