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Transform Penang but not at public health expense

We refer to the Malaysiakini report CM hits back at ‘wireless’ critics’ .

CAP is shocked at the Penang government’s ignorance of Wi-Fi’s potential health risks, which is currently a world public health and safety issue. The state government’s defensive and non- sympathetic stand on the matter goes against current trends of international concern on wireless technology.

We are disturbed by the state’s lack of understanding of residents’ rightful fears of the impending health and environmental consequences of the Penang Wi-Fi project.

We are also concerned that the state government has decided to ignore public objections and will go ahead with the project. The CM’s refusal to entertain views from concerned groups on the issue is undemocratic and unfair.

CAP urges the CM to view public opposition to the project in the right light – as constructive criticism, not naughty dissent – and to consider reviewing its Wi-Fi plans for Penang. Wi-Fi use state-wide should be viewed with caution, not reckless abandon. As the guardian of public health, the state government is duty-bound to make rational decisions that will benefit, not pose harm, to consumers.

Any understanding of Wi-fi, or official decision that sanctions it as safe for public use, is fundamentally flawed if it does not take into account all of the following:

Wi-Fi, like mobile phones, is an untested technology. Wi-fi operates in a way very similar to mobile phones – which itself, is not a safe technology. At a September 2008 testimony before a subcommittee of the US House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Reform, scientists warned that the potential link between mobile hones and brain cancer could be similar to the link between lung cancer and smoking – something tobacco companies took 50 years to recognise.

David Carpenter, director of the Institute of Health and Environment at the University of Albany, one of the scientists who testified, stated: "Precaution is warranted even in absence of absolutely final evidence concerning the magnitude of the risk". Society "must not repeat the situation we had with the relationship between smoking and lung cancer where we … waited until very ‘i’ was dotted and ‘t’ was crossed before warnings were issued."

Wi-fi could be just as unsafe as mobile phones (both emit microwave radiation) but proof could be a long time in coming. The CM’s contention that "wireless service had never been proven by anyone as a health hazard despite numerous researches carried out worldwide over the years" is thus not reassuring.

Present official stands in other countries on the same issue: Many advanced countries have adopted a precautionary approach to the use of wireless technology. The Swiss government issued a health alert on electrosmog in 2005.

Germany, Austria and Belgium have all advised schools against installing Wi-Fi networks. In France, five public libraries shut down their Wi-Fi over health concerns. Last year, the German government warned its citizens to avoid using Wi-Fi.

The above actions were all on the basis that a possible risk has not been ruled out, rather than because an actual threat has not been determined. The Penang CM’s conjecture that: "Until today no one has proven that wireless system endangers health" is thus no guarantee of safety. It reflects the state’s undiscerning view of the matter, which flies in the face of conventional wisdom and does not inspire public confidence.

Latest world developments on the matter: Concern over Wi-Fi has been recently raised in the European Parliament. In August 2007, the Bioinitiative Report, endorsed by 14 world experts – the latest scientific opinion on electromagnetic fields (EMFs) – warned that "corrections are needed in the way we accept, test and deploy" wireless technologies "in order to avert public health problems of a global nature".

Wi-Fi health concerns need to be publicly addressed. According to Dr George L Carlo, Chairman of the Washington-based nonprofit Science and Public Policy Institute’s Safe Wireless Initiative project, "EMR (electromagnetic radiation) disease and environmental impacts are every bit as important as global warming, Aids and other issues that have taken on political importance around the world."

The CM’s directive that opponents of the Penang project "move out of the way" of the state’s technological advancement drive is thus a blatant disregard of international advice.

Current radiation safety limits are not up to date, and are thus not a reliable benchmark for evaluating wireless technology’s safety.

According to the Bioinitiative Report, existing public safety standards for microwave radiation in nearly every country of the world are "thousands of times too lenient". The report states that: "The lower limit of reported human health effects has dropped 100-fold below the safety standard (for mobile phones and PDAs), 1,000-10,000 fold for other wireless (cell towers at distance; Wi-Fi and WLAN devices). The entire basis for safety standards is called into question, and it is not unreasonable to question the safety of RF (radiofrequency) at any level."

According to Powerwatch, Britain’s independent electromagnetic radiation watchdog and research organisation, although recently there has been a number of studies showing very specific biological effects far lower than safety levels set by the International Commission for Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), there is no international guidance that has taken any of these studies into effect.

The Penang government’s decision to go ahead with the project may thus jeopardise public health. Such a stand also ignores people’s rights to basic health and a safe living environment.

It is obvious from the above that Wi-Fi poses "threats of serious or irreversible damage", a condition which, under the Precautionary Principle that several countries now adopt, is a valid basis for the Penang government to abandon the project, or at the very least, review it.

It is sad that the Penang CM deems public consultation before implementation of the project as "unrealistic". The Penang Wi-Fi project is not just a state matter. It is also a public interest matter. It’s a travesty of social justice for a government to refuse to engage the public in a major state decision that is likely to directly affect them in more ways than one.

A project of this scale, with the potential to cause worrying health ramifications to every citizen of Penang, necessitates consultation with the people, addressing of health risks, and tabling of public discussions (CAT) – which is in tandem with the state government’s own CAT (Competency, Accountability and Transparency) policy.

The Penang government should assuage the people’s anxiety with concrete actions, not intensify public jitters with an arbitrary stance that raises more questions than answers. All that is needed for a public threat to occur is for the government of the day to do nothing. Authorities in advanced countries are adopting a precautionary approach to Wi-Fi. The Penang government should do the same.

"Transforming Penang into a technological state" should not be at the expense of public health.

The writer is president, Consumers Association of Penang.