“No scientific evidence” to stop church wi-fi scheme

Research scientists told an ecclesiastical court there was 'no consistent evidence' to support health fears over a scheme to transmit wireless broadband from Norfolk's church towers.

The hearing was a 'test case' for the Wispire project, a joint venture run by the Diocese of Norwich and service provider Freeclix, which aims to use the height of historic buildings to beam high-speed signals into homes and businesses.

Postwick, outside Norwich, was the first parish to apply to have the equipment installed at All Saints church in a move which was welcomed by many villagers struggling with poor internet connectivity.

But the scheme was opposed by national charity ElectroSensitivity UK (ESUK), which said the potential health risks had not been fully explored.

Those concerns were put to experts from the Health Protection Agency (HPA) and King's College in London during a rare sitting of the Consistory Court of the Diocese of Norwich at Postwick Village Hall yesterday.

The hearing was told there was no scientific reason why the scheme should not be allowed to proceed.

Diocese chancellor Judge Paul Downes expects to make a ruling on the case later this week – and the decision could pave the way for more than 150 other churches which have so far registered an interest in the project.

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Dr Azadeh Peyman of the HPA said: 'There is no consistent evidence to date that wi-fi and wireless local area networks adversely affect the health of the general population. Exposure from wi-fi is much less than from mobile phones, therefore the HPA sees no reason why wi-fi should not continue to be used in schools and other public places.

'A sensible precautionary approach for exposures to wi-fi sources is to keep the situation continuously under review in light of any new scientific evidence.'

Dr Peyman said HPA guidelines were in line with several international laboratories recognised by the World Health Organisation.

She said the peak power output of a 2.4GHz wireless transmitter was up to 20 times weaker than some mobile phone technologies, and were positioned at a much greater distance from the user.

Judge Downes asked what research had been done into potential 'non-thermal' effects, as the opponents had presented research which suggested could cause biological cell breakdown and immune system damage.

Dr Peyman said the objections were based on a 'partisan' selection of results from research papers which had not been replicated independently, and that 'the totality of evidence has not shown any non-thermal effects associated to electromagnetic fields'.

ESUK believes between 10 and 20 people in the Norwich Diocese area suffer from symptoms which they attribute to 'electrosensitivity', including sleep problems, headaches, tinnitus, dry skin, chest pains and even depression and stress.

Although written representations were submitted to the judge, no representatives of the charity or individual objectors spoke at the hearing.

Dr James Rubin, senior lecturer at King's College in London, said electrosensitivity was a controversial, unexplained phenomenon and that repeated surveys had shown no correlation between reported symptoms and the presence of electromagentic fields.

'The symptoms experienced by people who report electrosensitivity are undoubtedly real and can sometimes have a dramatic effect on a person's quality of life,' he said. 'However, well-designed experimental studies have repeatedly demonstrated that these symptoms are not triggered by exposure to electromagnetic fields, although they can be triggered by the belief that electromagnetic fields are present.'

'We have been unable to find any evidence of this condition as biological entity.'

Across the diocese, more than 150 churches have registered an interest in the scheme, which Freeclix said would guarantee a connection speed of 6Mb/s as long as the receiver is placed within 'line of sight' of the elevated transmitter.

Deputy diocesan secretary David Broom said: 'We are about to enter the most challenging economic times in a generation. If Norfolk is to meet these challenges it is crucial that it has fast broadband available to all.

'Despite the clear guidance from the HPA and the fact that wi-fi is in extensive public use, following represetations from ESUK the Diocese has gone to some lengths to address the concerns.'

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