Parents worried about potential health problems caused by wireless internet at school might as well worry about the dangers of fluorescent lights and recess, according to a CTV News investigation.

In tests conducted in four Vancouver schools, we found that children in schools with Wi-Fi installed have about the same exposure to electromagnetic emissions produced by the devices as schools without Wi-Fi. That’s likely because many other devices produce those signals.

And the levels inside schools were about 10 times lower than a student would feel outside in the playground or walking to school.

“Wi-Fi is not really an issue,” said Karl Reardon, an engineer with Planetworks who volunteered his time and equipment to test the schools.

“There’s no significant difference between Wi-Fi on or off. It’s lower than the environment we’re exposed to every day when we’re outdoors.”

The Vancouver School Board allowed CTV News into the schools to test their wireless signal exposure using a Narda high frequency meter, which detects signals in the band that wireless networks use. The Narda meter measures intensity as a percentage of the Health Canada maximum standard.

Elsie Roy Elementary in Yaletown and John Oliver Secondary on 41st Avenue both have wireless networks installed, while Brittannia Elementary and Britannia Secondary near Commercial and Venables don’t.

In the schools with Wi-Fi, the Narda meter measured the signals at between 0.0005 per cent of the Health Canada maximum and 0.0036 per cent of the Health Canada maximum.

But surprisingly, schools without Wi-Fi ended up in a higher range, measuring signals from 0.0004 per cent to as high as 0.0108 per cent of the Health Canada maximum.

That’s because we’re inundated with Wi-Fi signals from a wide range of devices, including cell phones and fluorescent lights – one of the factors behind the highest reading inside Britannia Elementary, where the reading was taken a few feet under a fluorescent light.

Within a few centimetres of the fluorescent light, the readings were much higher, Reardon said.

And readings as little as 20 centimetres from a wireless network hub at Elsie Roy – about 0.021 per cent of Health Canada maximum – were lower than the readings we got outside. The lowest reading outside was 0.022 per cent, and went to as high as one per cent of the Health Canada max.

“The signals coming off the Wi-Fi units are so low that they almost don’t register on most equipment,” Reardon said.

“And all of them are thousands of times below the Health Canada standard.”

Parents fear effects of Wi-Fi

Schools in B.C. have been under pressure from parent groups to stop installing wireless networks in schools on health grounds, despite teachers’ objections that wireless internet is a tremendous learning tool.

In May, the B.C. Coalition of Parent Advisory Councils voted to stop installing wireless networks and asked for a guarantee that each district has at least one school at every educational level that does not have the devices.

The chair of the coalition, John Puddifoot, said the motion is about parent choice. Some parents believe the waves could be cancer-causing and insist school boards should make sure parents can feel their children are safe.

“If you feel Wi-Fi is hazardous you should be able to send your kid to a school without Wi-Fi,” he said.

But after being presented with the results of the CTV News investigation, he said he would take the results to his board.

“I wouldn’t say that a political process is a rational process; it’s driven by feelings and beliefs, often,” he said.

“We can do better. I’d love to have had this data before the resolution was passed.”

John Oliver principal Gino Bondi says he hopes that the results will help inform parents about the reality of wireless networks.

At John Oliver, a digital immersion program sees kids paired with a laptop for their entire time in secondary school, using the technology in all parts of their learning.

Preventing kids from having access to Wi-Fi severely impacts their ability to use new learning tools, Bondi said. Without Wi-Fi, the students would have to plug in, making using a laptop much less practical.

“The only alternative is going back to pen and paper,” Bondi said.

Students at John Oliver are big fans of the program.

“We can work on the same Google Document, like five of us at the same time, and without the Wi-Fi that would not be possible,” said grade 9 student Benjamin Segall.

“Wi-Fi is not this ominous, dangerous thing,” Segall said. “It’s a great tool for us to use.”