Print Copy 18/1924
9 April 2010
By Cardenas (DIE LINKE), MdL Hesse, from 11/02/2010
RE: Use of Laptops and Wireless Networks (WLAN) and the Associated Health Risk for Children and Adolescents at Hesse Schools - Part 2
By the Minister of Cultural Affairs
Preliminary Remark by Inquirer:
The use of IT technologies at schools has become indispensable by now. Computers are not only used during computer science classes. In many subjects they are an ever-present tool for design and information processing. The use if these applications will continue to increase so that teaching at school will more and more turn into work at a "computer workplace." This development touches on all types of schools and grades and thus also on different developmental stages of children and adolescents, which demands a differentiated approach.
Generally speaking, the use of these technologies in schools is to be welcomed. It is alarming, however, that at the same time this also leads to an increased number of laptops (notebooks) and internal wireless devices (WLAN, Bluetooth) in the learning environment whose use is recommended and promoted by the Hesse government (cf. reports at the HKM-Forum schule@zukunft). On both accounts, however, there are serious health concerns involved, especially for children and adolescents who are still developing. They, therefore, require our urgent attention in the school setting if the learning success with these new technologies shall not result in physical disabilities and health problem.
Specific Preliminary Remark:
At this time the use of laptops at Hesse schools is associated with an increasing use of wireless network technologies at all types of schools and at all grade levels. Due to some advantages during use, frequently the wireless network solution is chosen even when there is wired Internet access available.
During use of wireless network technologies both the access points as well as the individual laptops emit pulse-modulated, radiofrequency (RF) electromagnetic radiation which may cause adverse health effects. Especially for children and adolescents who are still developing, this has not been sufficiently studied to date. Even though the currently valid exposure limits of the 26th BImSchV are complied with during operation of such wireless networks, both the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS information sheet July 2005) as well as the German Federal Government (print copy 16/6117) recommend to reduce and keep the personal exposure to RF electromagnetic fields as low as possible in order to meet health risks in this way. By way of precaution, the Federal Office for Radiation Protection recommends to use conventional wired connections when it is possible to forego the use of Bluetooth or wireless network solutions. In general, the major wireless access points shall not be placed in areas where people spend a considerable amount of time such as at a workplace, i.e. in our case the rooms of a school.
These BfS recommendations also take into account the needs of those people who increasingly respond to electromagnetic field exposures with physical symptoms (cf. German Mobile Telecommunication Research Programme (DMF) Protocol "Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity", BfS 16 June 2006). The 6% of the total population who (already) respond in this way almost certainly include students and teachers.
In a decision from 22 March 2007 (br-online.de), the Bavarian parliament asked its schools to forego the use of wireless Internet networks such as Wi-Fi because of health concerns and instead to go back to wired network solutions. In an additional decision from 21 June 2007 (print copy 15/8409) on "Protecting Children at School from Radiation Exposures," the state government was asked to inform the school authorities about the statements and recommendations of the Federal Office for Radiation Protection.
In Hesse, health risks associated with the use of wireless network technologies have not yet been considered in political decisions. Only the School Department of the City of Frankfurt has declared that "as long as the safety of wireless communication is clarified (... ) WLAN networks must not be used at Frankfurt schools" (FR 08/06106).
As can be read in various documents at the Web site of the media initiative "Schule@Zukunft [School@Future]" (e.g. keyword WLAN at www.schuleundzukunft.de), the use of wireless networks is described as the optimal solution for schools and various arguments are put forward that consider wired Internet connections to be negative and unfavorable. In the publications of the Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs, the potential adverse health effects associated with the use of this technology are not mentioned.
To date, the school offices, school boards, teachers, parents, and students have not been informed by the Hesse government about the concerns and recommendations of the Federal Office for Radiation Protection regarding the use of Bluetooth and WLAN at schools. The precautionary principle with its call for minimizing harmful impacts on ®mans which should especially apply to children and adolescents - as promoted by the Federal Environment Agency in its full-length report "Late Lessons from Early Warnings" from 2004 has not been implemented at Hesse schools.
With wired Internet connections, this could easily be changed without compromising the technical qualities. Moreover, this would also have the advantage that such computer connections can be used for exams. Because, just like other wireless connections, WLAN and Bluetooth are not bug-proof (WLAN sniffer) and thus can be influenced from the outside. For reasons of legal certainty, exams can only be administered via wired connections, which then could be used in regular class.
In agreement with the Hesse Ministry of Labor, Family and Health, I reply to the parliamentary inquiry as follows:
Question 1 What percentage of Hesse schools use wireless networks and how many use exclusively wired connections for their Internet access?
From the schools that participated in the Hesse-wide IT online poll, 12% use wireless connections and 88% wired connections for their Internet access.
Question 2 As a rule, how far apart are the major WLAN access points from the areas where students and teachers usually spend most of their time? And how frequently are the access points located close to students in their classrooms or on laptop carts?
In a school, the distance between a student laptop and a WLAN router usually ranges from three to thirty meters. The power density of the electromagnetic field decreases with the square of the distance. In this context the impact of the electromagnetic fields emitted by the cell phones of the students must be considered to be much stronger. The maximum power output of a WLAN router is 100 mW and that of a cell 2,000 mW.
Question 3 How does the Hesse Government plan to implement in schools (and other public facilities) the recommendations of the Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) or German Government, respectively, that calls for minimizing the exposure to electromagnetic fields?
The power output of WLAN is per frequency channel 100 milliwatt at 2400 MHz, 200 milliwatt at 5150 and 5350 MHz, and 1,000 milliwatt at 5470 through 5725 MHz. Due to the relatively low power output levels, the 26th Ordinance on the Implementation of the Federal Immission Control Act regarding Electromagnetic Fields (26. BImSchV) does not apply to these wireless devices.
The exposure level of WLAN devices depends on their power output and the respective data traffic. At maximum data traffic load, the exposure level is at its highest and rapidly decreases with increasing distance to the transmitting antenna. According to measurements carried out as part of the German Mobile Telecommunication Research Programme, internationally recommended reference values for this frequency range are met by WLAN devices and usually their emissions are well below them. The project results show that WLAN devices in typical user settings cause exposure levels that are 0.1% of the reference values recommended by the Council of the European Union (1999/519/EG).
Health-relevant biological effects of RP electromagnetic fields below the exposure limits could not be verified by nationally and internationally recognized expert commissions. The new results of the German Mobile Telecommunication Programme' confirm this. Apart from that, uncertainties about the health effects of WLAN-capable devices worn close to the body are still the subject of research.
The question as to whether wireless or wired network solutions should be preferred is the responsibility of the local school authority.
It can be assumed that the school authorities most certainly follow the recommendations of the Federal Office for Radiation Protection to reduce the personal exposure to electromagnetic fields in order to keep potential health risks as low as possible. Furthermore, the Parliament of Hesse will continue to pursue questions of ergonomics and radiation exposure together with the Hesse school authorities within the framework of the joint initiative Schule@Zukunft.
Question 4 Is it possible to forego the use of WLAN (and Bluetooth) in schools, especially in elementary and junior high schools, and to use computers with wired connections only?
To reduce the exposure to electrosmog but also to provide the computers with faster access to the school network, a wired connection should be given preference wherever possible.
For this, however, school authorities need to lay the necessary groundwork. Classrooms must be fitted with many, easily accessible network ports. Desks must be arranged in such a way that cluttered network cables do not pose a risk to students.
In isolated cases a wired network will not be possible due to the structural makeup of the school building. Due to pedagogical requirements, it may occasionally also be impossible to forego the use of flexible, supplementary learning tools.
Question 5 Will the Hesse Government inform the school authorities, teachers, parents, and students about the health concerns and BfS recommendations regarding the use of WLAN?
School authorities, teachers, parents, and students have already been informed about this issue.
For several years the Office for Teacher Education has uploaded information about questions concerning WLAN to the Hesse education server as part of the school computer support. This also includes documentation about the viewpoints on the WLAN issue. As far as possible, this information is updated on a continuous basis.
Question 6 Which options do teachers, parents, and students have to participate in the decision as to whether a given school uses for its computers in the classroom a low-emission network with wired connections or a wireless network associated with potential health risks?
The Hesse School Act does not provide any provisions for participating in questions about the equipping of schools.
At the same time, school authorities invite committees to participate in the decision-making processes in a spirit of cooperation based on trust. When notebook classes are introduced, for example, all school committees as well as the parents are involved.
Question 7 Which options do teachers and students suffering from electrosensitivity documented by a written medical confirmation note have to be excused from teaching or learning with emitting devices and in school rooms fitted with wireless technologies (WLAN; Bluetooth, DECT, etc.)?
"Electrosensitive" people require adequate (environmental) medical help.
At any time members of the teaching staff can consult the school's occupational health office.
In the case of students or their legal guardians, respectively, the public health authority is called in when a written medical confirmation note is submitted. In cooperation with the medical doctor who issued the confirmation note, the parents or students, the school and public health authority, a decision will be made about the options to attend school depending on the available diagnosis.
In this context it is very important to point out that to date-despite numerous scientific studies - no causal relationship between the presence of electromagnetic fields and health complaints or the corresponding "electromagnetic hypersensitivity" could be established; within the framework of the German Mobile Telecommunication Research Programme, several research projects had been carried out on "electromagnetic hypersensitivity."
Question 8 Which rules and actions ensure that school computers cannot be manipulated from the outside during exams?
If in computer science classes questions are asked that require the use of a computer, the school administrator must ensure that it is impossible to have unauthorized access to either the local or global networks. This usually means that students work at isolated workstations. If a network specifically designed for the exam environment is used, relevant technical solutions ensure that neither unauthorized network access nor exchanges are possible.
Question 9 How does the Hesse Government make sure in the future that legitimate concerns of intended actions regarding media use will be broadly communicated, discussed, and considered during the decision-making process?
Within the framework of the joint initiative "Schule@Zukunft," the state government and the school authorities jointly explore the questions of media use. During the development of standards, the aspects mentioned in the above question are integrated in a suitable manner.
Wiesbaden, 31 March 2010
Received on 9 April 2010. Sent out on 19 April 2010
Printing and dissemination: Office of the Hesse Parliament. P.O. Box 3240. 65022 Wiesbaden
[Translator's Note: This is an unofficial translation. The original German document is available at http://download.bildung.hessen.de/medien/einrichtungen_medien/supportlDrucksache_18_1924_Laptop_WLAN_Gesundheitsgefaehrdung_an_Schulen .pdf]