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Whiteboard projector safety fears

Interactive whiteboards have been heralded as devices that will enhance education and be a major plank in the government's drive for new technology in schools.

But the BBC has learnt that while millions of pounds have been spent on them, very little attention has been paid to a potential threat to the eyesight of teachers and children.

It is only through the persistence of a whistleblower from the whiteboard industry itself that the authorities have begun to address the fundamental gaps in safety that still exist.

Sam Livermore, owner of Croydon-based company Selectasize, has been struggling to persuade England's education department to put printed warnings alongside all screens because of the light projected onto them.

Documents from the Health and Safety Executive, obtained by the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act, say users "should make sure that direct beam viewing of the optical output from this equipment is both controlled and restricted to no more than a few tens of seconds at a time".

'Few seconds'
They say the "eye aversion response" - the dazzle effect - will be so strong that most people would not be able to view the beam for that long.

But it is possible a viewer's peripheral retina could be overexposed even when they are not actually staring directly into the beam.

"In such instances, no protective aversion response is evoked in viewers and so they won't know that they could be overexposing their eyes."

Companies supplying the equipment are told to ensure that people are encouraged to keep their backs to the projector beam, and not to stare at it.

Those entering it, while facing the audience, should do so "for no more than a few seconds".

A straw poll of teaching representatives in Wiltshire shows only a small number have been told how to use whiteboards safely.

The National Union of Teacher rep for the county, Mike Harrison, who carried out the poll, said: "It's very difficult to avoid the beam because if you are standing in front and demonstrating a point to the class you immediately want to turn round to know that they are aware of what you are saying, rather than ducking out of the beam. You want to stay there and face the class."

One of the documents obtained backs up his small poll.

A letter from the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) admits that only a third of whiteboards have health and safety notices on them and says that its "current health and safety information does not address projectors".

An e-mail from a whiteboard supplier to the HSE flags up concerns that the government is "thinking of bringing in legislation related to the brightness of projectors which, if true, will have a large impact on our business".

A letter from the HSE in May 2006 says it is "concerned that users of such equipment can be at risk from UV radiation emitted by the projector if they look at the projector beam for too long or if the filters are faulty or incorrect".

Minutes of a meeting in June last year of the Department for Education and Skills say "schools may be using projectors at higher than agreed 1500 Lumens due to too much ambient light. Schools are buying projectors which could potentially be damaging to eyesight."

Sam Livermore of Selectasize says he has been lobbying Becta since 2001 to improve warnings.

"My concerns went on to 2004 when Becta visited. They decided it was best practice to put the signs next to the board, but nothing has been done since then.

"My concern is there are 250,000 whiteboards in the UK used on a daily basis in our schools and five million students.

"Of those five million, four million are totally unaware of the health warnings, and out of those four million two million are children.

"Looking at that blue light is quite dangerous and it should not be more than 1500 Lumens."

He says that if something is not done, in the long term people's sight could be endangered.

'Little research'
A number of teachers believe they have been affected. One who wants to remain anonymous said: "I felt dazzled when looking at the board from a certain position in the classroom.

"I had a child complaining that dazzle from the board was hurting their eyes.

"The projector was found to be too bright - which means that for months this had been having an effect on us."

One of the country's leading experts from City University's department of optometry and visual sciences, Dr Christopher Hull, said: "If you have a light source with UV there is always the possibility of damage.

"We simply don't know though for sure, because very little research has been done.

"What little evidence we have indicates misuse of whiteboards is likely to cause only non-permanent changes.

"But, in the meantime, there is no reason not to put safety notices up."

BBC News
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