Friday, May 16, 2014
Governments deny radiation health risks
| MAY 16, 2014
We love electrical gadgets, particularly new mobile wireless devices such as "smartphones." And we demand more and better connectivity -- cell phone towers, WiFi networks, home wireless routers, etc. Wireless television -- now being aggressively promoted by Bell Canada -- will further increase demand.
An unavoidable trade-off is that we are bathed in radiation. At one end of the electromagnetic spectrum is extremely low-frequency (ELF) radiation. Power lines produce ELF radiation at 50-60 Hertz (Hz, or cycles per second), similar to the frequency of our heartbeats. The middle of the electromagnetic spectrum is occupied by radio frequency (RF) radiation, used for AM and FM radio, television and cell phones. Next comes infrared radiation, followed by the visible portion of the spectrum, ultraviolet rays, x-rays, and finally, gamma rays.
X-rays and gamma rays are powerful enough to break chemical bonds and cause physical damage to cells, with risks of cancer and birth defects. What about lower frequencies? Are ELF and RF radiation safe? Industry and government officials say yes -- unless radiation levels are high enough to shock or burn. But many studies raise doubts, and the stakes are high. If cell phones really cause brain cancer, disease and health costs may skyrocket.
Unfortunately, like climate change deniers, there are radiation risk deniers. And Canadian governments are some of the worst offenders.
How much do we really know about health impacts of lower frequency radiation? An expert panel commissioned by Health Canada issued an April 2014 report with the mind-numbing title The Limits of Human Exposure to Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Energy in the Frequency Range from 3 kHz to 300 GHz - Safety Code 6.
The panel got off to a rocky start. Its first chair resigned following accusations of conflict of interest, having been paid $126,000 by Industry Canada for advice on easing health concerns about cell phone use. He was replaced by Paul Demers of Cancer Care Ontario, a provincial "cancer adviser" agency.
Demers has authored over 100 studies on cancer risks from exposure to substances ranging from pesticides to wood dust. In 1991 he published "Occupational Exposure to Electromagnetic Fields and Breast Cancer in Men." Demers and co-authors found that "risk was highest among electricians, telephone linemen, and electric power workers… and radio and communications workers."
In fact, male breast cancers in radio and communications workers were nearly tripled -- suggesting significant health risks of RF radiation exposure. Demers and co-authors indicated in their study that this relationship also "warrants evaluation in women." A 1996study, "Incidence of Breast Cancer in Norwegian Female Radio and Telegraph Operators," found a 50 per cent excess risk.
Given Demers' own work in this area, it is surprising that his panel report ignores breast cancer as a possible health effect of RF radiation exposure. The panel did review studies of RF radiation and brain cancer. It said that the results of these studies appear to be "relatively consistent with… classification of radio frequency fields, specifically from cell phones, as a possible human carcinogen." But it did not call for stronger regulatory limits, saying only that "additional time and research will be required for a more thorough assessment."
Researchers criticized the panel report. A Canadian Medical Association Journal story, "Federal Wi-Fi Safety Report is Deeply Flawed, Say Experts," quotes one expert as saying that the panel "actively blinded themselves to vital evidence."
Risks of extremely low-frequency (ELF) radiation
The ELF portion of the electromagnetic spectrum is also of health concern. A 1998 study, "Residential Magnetic Fields and Childhood Leukemia: A Meta-Analysis," concluded that "data provide relatively strong and consistent support for a somewhat weak elevated risk of leukemia for children living in proximity to power lines." A 2000 study, "A Pooled Analysis of Magnetic Fields and Childhood Leukaemia," confirmed this result, reporting a doubled risk for children living closest to power lines.
These findings prompted Canada's Federal-Provincial-Territorial Radiation Protection Committee to issue a Response Statement to the Issue of Power-Frequency Magnetic Fields and Childhood Leukemia. It says that "epidemiological evidence to date is not strong enough to justify a conclusion that EMFs [electromagnetic fields] in Canadian homes, regardless of locations from power lines, cause leukemia in children." A more detailed report from this Committee's ELF Working Group concludes that there is "no conclusive evidence that these fields cause adverse health effects."
A Health Canada website, entitled "Canadians [sic] Exposure to EMFs at Extremely Low Frequencies (ELFs)" goes even further, stating that "exposure in Canadian homes, schools and offices present [sic] no known health risks."
Unlike most countries, Canada lacks national standards to limit occupational or public exposure to ELF radiation, and lacks mandatory set-backs of homes from power lines.
Also of concern is ionizing radiation: the alpha and beta particles and gamma rays emitted from nuclear reactors. A 2013 article, "Estimating cancer risk in relation to tritium exposure from routine operation of a nuclear-generating station in Pickering, Ontario" found "female childhood cancer cases to be significantly higher than expected." But the authors -- led by a researcher from Cancer Care Ontario -- dismissed this finding as a chance event.
Regulating radiation exposure
Even today, nearly 70 years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and extensive follow-up cancer studies, government and industry officials are reluctant to acknowledge that radiation exposures weaker than those required to burn tissues can have health effects. For RF and ELF radiation, their argument is that no amount of scientific evidence will be sufficient to trigger regulatory action unless there is absolute proof of a biological "causal mechanism."
Such proof will be difficult to obtain. Understanding how radiation may affect energy (e.g., in the mitochondria, our cellular "powerhouses") is much more complex than understanding physical damage caused by gamma radiation to cell membranes or DNA. Two McGill scientists have suggested that ELF radiation may alter hydrogen bonds in water molecules and slow the passage of protons through the membranes of mitochondria. This would inhibit production of ATP -- the basic energy currency of cells -- and trigger a wide range of adverse biological consequences and health impacts.
Their theory is detailed in one of the chapters in the 2012 Bioinitiative Report. This report, written by a group of scientists dedicated to providing a "Rationale for Biologically-based Public Exposure Standards for Electromagnetic Fields (ELF and RF)," makes a strong case that sufficient evidence of biological harm already exists to tighten government regulatory standards. This evidence is not limited to cancer -- the Bioinitiative Report also has chapters discussing neurological effects, Alzheimer's disease, and autism.
But with so much industry investment in wireless technologies, and such high profits, governments will likely continue to deny health risks and ignore science.
Even the recent Health Canada expert panel report mentions "practical measures that Canadians can take to reduce their exposure around cellphone use (for example, limiting use in areas with low signal strength, and using an earpiece)." Frank Clegg, former president of Microsoft Canada turned activist with Canadians for Safe Technology, has written an articleentitled "Do You Use Wireless Devices? Follow These 5 Simple Safety Tips."
Citizens are well advised to act independently to limit their radiation exposure.
Ole Hendrickson is a retired forest ecologist and a founding member of the Ottawa River Institute, a non-profit charitable organization based in the Ottawa Valley. This article first appeared in the Ottawa River Institute's Watershed Ways column.
Photo: Pat Dennis/flickr