EMF – An issue of concern in schools

By Sandy Doull on October 12, 2014 in Comment

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Maintaining and updating knowledge about hazards and changes in patterns of incidence of diseases of occupation are a continuing challenge. For outbreaks of diseases such as SARS, schools and the Department have strategies that can be enacted to quickly contain and stop the spread. Yet these types of events are uncommon.

Another type of hazard which is present every day and may be placing many at risk is yet to have a well thought out containment and preventive strategy. Exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF) – both radio frequency and extremely low frequency wavebands permeate the school environment and are now recognised internationally as possible human carcinogens.

In some instances the initial concern arising in a school has focused on the emissions from WiFi systems and from I.T. servers. These are generally harmless and the main type of potentially harmful exposure issue is not recognised.

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Electromagnetic fields are generated in all types of electrical equipment and cabling through which run electric currents.

Exposure to fields from electrical power in the Extremely Low Frequency wavebands is assessed as a particular risk for children. This is the most common type of EMF arising from electrical systems that permeate our living and working environmentsincluding schools.

Our consultants have experience in assisting school management (Principals and Business Managers) in metropolitan and regional areas to identify, assess and control hazards associated with electromagnetic fields.

Recent projects include assisting with problems arising from changes to the electrical infrastructure of schools, which have been part of well-intended and necessary upgrading of facilities and conditions programs.

It is of course possible to upgrade electrical systems and infrastructure without increasing the extremely low frequency exposure of staff and students, by employing low field design and installation procedures which are generally supported and recognised as implementing Prudent Avoidance. [This is particularly important where new and upgraded electrical infrastructure is going to change the environment of young children who will occupy a particular classroom for a year and maybe longer.]

When this type of electrical work does not take into account the need to plan for low field Prudent Avoidance otherwise foreseeable problems (and costs) can arise.

As an example, as occurred recently in a suburban primary school, a member of the school council (who is an electrician) noted new electrical works that had been carried out without any Prudent Avoidance considerations.

A set of new subfloor cables under the bubs classroom floor had been installed, feeding a new switchboard on one wall of the classroom. The School Council carried out their own measurements of the extremely low frequency fields in the bubs classroom and found about 40% of the floor area was affected by field levels many times higher than those associated with increased rates of childhood leukaemia. Our Consultants engaged closely with School Principal and parents and, on checking the initial measurements, confirmed what the Council had found. We recommended a series of changes to the classroom and the electrical systems. With input from our specialist electrical engineer, the worst case situation was calculated, tested and modelled (on the hot days when the school would draw the most electrical current and thus the highest field levels would occur in the bubs classroom). A range of appropriate controls that could be implemented at this stage were discussed and several options implemented including installing some shielding to achieve a low field environment.

This could all have been completely avoided at the planning stage.

And it’s not just the kids who might be at risk! We have seen many situations where school staff, including the Principal and office staff, are working in locations where there are sources of prolonged, repeated and significantly elevated exposure which it is clearly prudent to avoid. For example, being located in situations abutting i.e. in close proximity to, substations, switchboards and distribution boards, uninterruptible power supplies, sitting on top of subfloor cables or under ceiling runs of electrical cabling connecting switchboards to other boards.

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For new installations this can all be avoided at the planning stage. For existing and older installations simple and quick measurements to make the strength of these fields known and visible can often be followed by reorganising and reallocating spaces to prevent a person being unwittingly in a situation where they are exposed to elevated EMF levels (and possibly increased risk of cancer).

It’s a simple enough calculation:

Likelihood [of hazardous exposure i.e higher continuous exposure at levels known to be associated with cancer risks] + Consequences [increased risk of cancer)] = implement controls to mitigate risks.

The knowledge of what to do (to reduce exposures) and how to do it (cheaply and efficiently) has been around (and developing) for over 30 years. Now is the time to implement controls in those circumstances where people and especially young children are at risk.

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Sandy DoullView all posts by Sandy Doull