In the race to roll out Wi-Fi networks in hospitality venues, are we in danger of putting our customers' health at risk? Ross Bentley reports on a scientific debate that refuses to go away
It seems Wi-Fi networks are proliferating at a tremendous rate in the hospitality space. Only last week Regent Inns, which owns the Walkabout, Old Orleans, Jongleurs and Bar Risa outlets, announced plans to roll out free wireless internet access to customers in 100 sites across the UK.
And last month fast-food chain McDonald's revealed plans to introduce free high-speed wireless internet access at most of its 1,200 UK restaurants by the end of the year - a move that is likely to make it the biggest provider of Wi-Fi services in the country.
But as the roll-out of this relatively new technology continues apace, a number of people are questioning the safety of this trend, believing Wi-Fi's electromagnetic frequency (EMF) waves, which are also emitted by mobiles, phone masts and power lines, might have a negative impact on the public's health.
The debate over whether Wiâ'Fi poses a risk was brought into the spotlight earlier this summer after the BBC broadcast a much-publicised Panorama documentary on the use of Wi-Fi networks in schools. Panorama spoke to a number of scientists who were concerned about the possible health effects.
"If you look in the literature, you have a large number of various effects like chromosome damage, you have impact on the concentration capacity and decrease in short-term memory, and increases in the number of cancer instances," Professor Olle Johansson of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden said during an interview.
Readings taken for the programme also showed signal strength to be three times higher near a laptop using Wi-Fi in the school classroom than in the main beam of radiation intensity from a mobile phone mast.
However, the programme has been widely condemned as scientifically flawed. For example, measurements were sometimes taken from different distances (100m in the case of the phone mast and one metre for the laptop). And the laptop was measured while downloading a very large file - something most pupils rarely do. Even then, the radiation level was 600 times lower than Government safety guidelines.
But a charity called ElectroSensivity UK maintains that mobile phone and Wi-Fi networks present a real danger to some people's health. The organisation was established in 2004 to "support those made ill by electromagnetic fields/radio frequency and microwaves with information about a condition known as electrical sensitivity or hypersensitivity".
An active member of the charity is Brian Stein, chief executive of a food manufacturing company in Nottingham, who claims to be a sufferer of hypersensitivity. He says his condition was brought on by years of heavy mobile phone use while on the road with his work.
Stein says he now gets headaches whenever he is near any device that emits electromagnetic waves, meaning he can't operate a computer, watch television or stay in a hotel where a Wi-Fi network is in place.
"The last time I stayed in a hotel that had Wi-Fi, I couldn't sleep all night and started to bleed internally, as I passed blood in the morning," he says.
"If I ever stay away overnight, I have to look for a hotel without Wi-Fi, and there are fewer and fewer of them about these days."
Stein says his suffering is made worse because there is little understanding of his condition in wider society. He believes that, just as it took years to find out that asbestos was harmful or to establish scientific proof that smoking causes lung cancer, in the future we will regret this unquestioning increase in mobile phone and Wi-Fi coverage as more people go down with similar or related ailments.
GP David Dawson, who is a trustee of ElectroSensivity UK, also believes we should err on the side of caution until more is understood about the long-term effects of EMF. He believes the UK should follow the example of countries such as Sweden and Switzerland, where governments are curbing Wi-Fi use until more tests are carried out.
He says: "The truth is, we don't know what effects Wi-Fi is having, but we need to prove it's safe before we go gung-ho. I just think we don't know enough, but there do seem to be some people who are effectively allergic to electromagnetic fields and through constant exposure develop hypersensitivity."
These arguments are counterpoised by experts such as Dr Paddy Regan, course director for the MSc programme in radiation and environment protection at the University of Surrey. He says reports of the side-effects of EMF are anecdotal and that "all the serious studies that have been carried out offer no conclusive scientific proof that these illnesses are down to EMF".
He points to bodies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Government -sponsored Health Protection Agency (HPA), which both say Wi-Fi is not dangerous.
For example, on the HPA website it states: "There is no consistent evidence to date that Wi-Fi and WLANs adversely affect the health of the general population. The signals are very low-power, typically 0.1 watt (100 milliwatts) in both the computer and the router, and the results so far show exposures are well within internationally accepted guidelines."
Suppliers of Wi-Fi equipment also insist they are committed to ensuring the technology they install is safe. In a corporate statement released earlier this year, BT, which is rolling out its Openzone Wi-Fi networks for McDonald's, asserted: "Speculation about health issues in relation to mobile phones, mobile base stations and related wireless products is still very much in the public eye, and we take these concerns very seriously, ensuring we monitor the latest research available."
And Brunoli thinks the concerns over safety are more relevant where you have large "mesh" networks to cover wide areas, where the radio transmitters are more powerful.
"The ones we use only have a range of 200m, but there are some systems that can go up to 1km, and those are the ones that might warrant testing," he says.
As with all scientific arguments, there are two sides with opposing views. The only certainty seems to be that as more Wi-Fi networks are installed, the debate will intensify.