National Post (The Financial Post) (Canada)
March 8, 2006 Wednesday All but Toronto Edition
Small school sparks wireless furor
BYLINE: Anne Marie Owens, National Post
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. A1
DATELINE: THUNDER BAY, Ont.
THUNDER BAY, Ont. – Fred Gilbert is a renowned scientist, an innovative administrator, and an impassioned advocate of the technological advances required to make his small, somewhat remote Northern Ontario university competitive in the modern market.
So why has the university administrator suddenly become the object of international ridicule?
Here’s a hint: Prof. Gilbert doesn’t carry a cellphone.
He prefers not to live anywhere near power lines, and, if he can manage it, avoids laying down his head for the night near overloaded electric outlets.
Prof. Gilbert, the president of Lakehead University, has long been wary about what effect electromagnetic fields might have on humans. He doesn’t believe all the scientific evidence on the physiological impacts of these EMFs is in yet, and would prefer more conclusive results before embracing some of the associated technologies. It is according to that ethos that he decided against having his university go wireless.
The response to his decision has been virulent, incredulous — downright nasty.
In tones ranging from “ha-ha, get-a-load-of-this-Luddite” to scathing personal attacks, everyone from tech bloggers to media giants like CNN and ABC has taken issue with the decision.
“The next thing to go is electricity at this university,” declared one headline; “Why not tear out power lines and transmission towers?” wondered another; and “I’m donning my tinfoil hat and moving my
router,” derided one pundit.
It should be said that Prof. Gilbert is not wearing a tinfoil hat when we meet in his office. Nor is he clad, on this mid-winter day, in Birkenstock sandals or anything else that would suggest he adheres to the familiar standards of the uber-environmentalist.
There is a computer on his desk, a state-of-the-art VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) phone on his side table. His staff has just run through a whirlwind tour of the university’s Advanced Technology & Academic Centre, showing off its 15 smart classrooms (each of which features a one-touch system integrating Internet, document camera, projectors, speakers, microphones), and its virtual reality laboratory,
which affords medical students the opportunity to do 3-D dissections of online body parts. There are more than 7,000 Internet connections scattered throughout the campus, in Internet-cafe-style workstations, in plug-ins located everywhere tables are clustered and
beside comfortable tub chairs in hallway lounges.
Prof. Gilbert has some solid credentials as a champion of technological innovation, and his efforts “to position the university at the forefront of technology” have been lauded both inside and outside the university, which is what makes his resistance to wireless so much more compelling.
“We’re not Luddites,” he insists in an interview, the first time he has spoken since his decision gained international attention. The view from his top-floor office takes in the sprawling Lakehead campus and
beyond it, the Sleeping Giant rock formation that juts out from the winter majesty of Lake Superior.
Prof. Gilbert has awakened a sleeping giant by opting for caution instead of technological convenience — deciding against a campus-wide installation of the technology that makes computer access ubiquitous by eliminating the need for plug-ins or fixed-link access to the Internet.
Wireless, or WiFi transmission, is the latest trend, with organizations ranging from transport companies such as VIA Rail to entire cities, such as San Francisco, Manchester and even Toronto, rushing to
provide the kind of no-cords access that appeases the growing numbers who rely on a wall-to-wall cellphone and BlackBerry existence.
It is this environment that makes Prof. Gilbert’s stand seem like heresy.
“This is a technology that’s barrelling ahead without any checks and balances…. It’s a convenience technology,” he argues. “I say, as a biologist, that there are potential problems associated with this particular technology. Why should we, for the sake of convenience, put a potential risk in place?”
His concern is for the students, who as young adults have tissues that are still growing, which seems to figure more prominently in the scientific evidence. The hotly contested evidence includes findings that link some levels of EMF exposure to brain cancers, childhood leukemias, miscarriage, even DNA damage.
While Canadian studies throughout the 1990s found no correlation between proximity to power lines and children’s leukemia, a British study last year found that children who lived near power lines were 70% more likely to develop childhood cancer. There was also a groundbreaking report by California health department scientists who recently concluded that EMFs from power lines likely caused childhood leukemia and adult brain cancer.
The latest wave of research focusing on cellphones has similarly shown findings on both sides of the issue — benign, dangerous — with some studies finding no danger in prolonged use of these phones, but others suggesting a correlation with brain cancer.
His stance on wireless has introduced him to electrosensitive people, those who are severely affected by EMFs, and whose condition is regarded so seriously in Sweden that it is considered a disability.
Prof. Gilbert concedes most of the findings suggest the impact stems from what is considered chronic exposure, but he says it’s still too early to tell what counts as minimal exposure, particularly with the
newer WiFi technology.
He has been tracking the research on this issue since the mid-1970s, when he was living in Erin, northwest of Toronto, and the debate was close to home over a proposed hydro-transmission corridor.
“It never went away,” he said. “I did what I could on a personal basis to avoid exposure to EMFs.” That means not living under power lines, not sleeping near electrical outlets, and confounding his assistants by eschewing the requisite accessory of administrators,
He says this latest decision is deeply personal, but also practical. There is already some wireless in those areas of the university where fixed link access isn’t possible, but for the main, the conventional
technologies provide adequate coverage, he says.
“Whether I’m doing the right thing or not, only time will tell. I don’t know whether I’m doing the right thing. I’m acting from instinct and my background as a scientist and my analysis of the information that’s available,” he says.
“To be condemned for that is somewhat surprising…. This is what a scientist is supposed to do…. This is what universities should be doing: raising issues, fomenting discussion, helping people make better choices.”Leave a reply →