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Something's in the Air

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Something's in the Air

When Martin Weatherall retired, he wanted to get away from it all. The former Toronto police investigator and his wife bought a place in the Ontario countryside. But almost as soon as the couple moved in, Weatherall started feeling sick.

When Martin Weatherall retired, he wanted to get away from it all. The former Toronto police investigator and his wife bought a place in the Ontario countryside. But almost as soon as the couple moved in, Weatherall started feeling sick.

This normally healthy man developed headaches, nausea, tinnitus, body aches, insomnia, and suffered from depression. Yet his symptoms dissipated whenever he spent time away from his supposed retreat. Weatherall says he suspected from the start that the cause of his illness was electromagnetic radiation (EMR) coming from nearby power antennas. He’s still convinced to this day.

EMR is emitted by the many radio-frequency devices we can’t live without–power lines and antennas, cellphones and cellphone towers, cordless phones, laptops, and microwave ovens. People like Weatherall, who suffer from what’s also known as radio-frequency sickness or electrosensitivity, maintain that the negative health effects of EMR are far more pervasive than scientists or government officials are willing to admit. As the borders of the wireless world expand, they say the harm is only going to get worse. Meanwhile, many health officials say that levels of EMR to which Canadians are exposed are safe.

So, how great is the threat of EMR?

Good question.

A Bit of History

In 1973 the Canadian government issued a report called Environmental Pollution by Microwave Pollution–A Potential Threat to Human Health. It stated that international accord hadn’t been reached about safe exposure levels.

It seems little has changed.

Weatherall says microwave sickness goes back to the Second World War, when radar operators reported similar symptoms. Today, overexposure to radio-frequency radiation is causing illness, cancer, and death, he claims. He cofounded the group Canadian Safe Wireless, Electrical, and Electromagnetic Policies to educate people about the understated and severe impact of EMR.

“There are so many cases of ill health because of microwave radiation,” Weatherall says in a phone interview. “Unless people are affected directly, they find it hard to understand. The trouble is, a lot more people are being affected than we realize. And the government keeps telling us it’s safe.

“I’d like to see the government investigate complaints and sponsor a public-education program to let people know how electromagnetic radiation can affect them,” he adds.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), radio-frequency energy is absorbed in the body and produces heat, but the body’s normal thermoregulatory processes carry that heat away.

That’s where any certainty ends. Research is as conflicting as public opinion.

Science Proves Links

On one hand, the WHO states that scientific evidence indicates that exposure to radio-frequency fields, such as those emitted by cellphones and their base stations, is unlikely to induce or promote cancers.

A 2001 study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute looked at cancer incidence among nearly 421,000 cellphone users in Denmark between 1982 and 1995. It concluded that there was no association between cellphone use and tumours of the brain or salivary gland, leukemia, or other cancers.

In 1999, the United States National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences found “limited evidence” that residential magnetic fields increase the risk of childhood leukemia.

According to Health Canada, “scientific evidence has not presented convincing evidence” to implicate EMR exposure from portable phones as a cause of cancer.

On the other hand, a 2000 report released by the UK Health Protection Agency’s National Radiation Protection Board Advisory Group on Non-ionising Radiation found that “the possibility remains that intense and prolonged exposures to magnetic fields (from power lines) can increase the risk of leukaemia in children.”

More recently, study results released at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine’s 2006 annual meeting showed that men who used a cellphone for more than four hours a day had the worst sperm counts and the poorest-quality sperm. Researchers said the damage could be caused by the EMR emitted by handsets.

Elsewhere, findings are just plain murky.

The WHO website notes that one 1997 study found that radio-frequency fields increased the rate at which genetically engineered mice developed lymphoma, but states that “the implications of this result on human health is unclear.” WHO goes on to note that scientists have reported other effects of using cellphones, including changes in brain activity and sleep patterns, but describes these effects as having “no apparent health significance.”

As WHO’s website puts it: “There are gaps in knowledge that have been identified for further research to better assess health risks.”

Research pointing to the safety of EMR isn’t enough to convince members of the Bolinas, California-based Collaborative on Health and the Environment. The group issued a draft consensus statement on EMR last fall.

“We believe there are legitimate health concerns regarding exposure to radio-frequency electromagnetic radiation,” the group wrote, pointing to newer technologies such as wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) networks.

“Although convenient, Wi-Fi wireless networks create pervasive, continuous, involuntary exposure to radio-frequency radiation,” the Collaborative wrote. “Preferable alternatives to wireless technology… including cable and fiber-optic technologies (that produce no radio-frequency radiation), should be considered.”

Answering the Call

Some jurisdictions have been taking people’s concerns seriously.

Because of health concerns, the Vancouver School Board banned cellular antennas from school property in 2005, the first action of its kind in Canada. In 1999, the City of Toronto recommended that companies wishing to install new antennas must demonstrate the safety of radio-frequency exposures.

Further, the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) responded to concerns about microwave emissions from cellphone base-station transmitters by measuring levels and comparing them with Health Canada’s exposure guideline, which is known as “safety code 6.” The code specifies maximum levels and durations of exposure to radio-frequency fields between 3 kHz and 300 GHz in order to prevent human health effects. According to Health Canada, those limits are at least 10 times lower than the threshold where potentially harmful effects begin. In the early ’90s, the BCCDC sampled 21 communities throughout the province for EMR. It found that the maximum level of exposure was 3,000 times lower than Health Canada’s guidelines.

“I get contacted regularly by people…who have personal concerns,” Brian Phillips, director of radiation-protection services at the BCCDC told alive. “Our approach is to look at the science… That’s not to say that personal concerns aren’t as important.

“Some people feel that exposure standards are not acceptable, but those are based on what scientific evidence tells us,” Phillips adds. “The standards are revisited every five or 10 years to see if the numbers are still appropriate… We’ll keep assessing, evaluating, and researching to see if there are adverse health effects.”

Entangled with Industry

Such reassurances don’t satisfy critics, some of whom argue that the reason more isn’t being done to minimize EMR is that the wireless industry is big business. Take American public-health scientist George Carlo. On his Safe Wireless Initiative website, Carlo claims that “information-carrying radio waves from mobile telephones and other wireless devices, now used by more than 2 billion people worldwide, are dangerous” and cause everything from learning disorders to cancer.

“Governments around the world continue to be burdened by entanglements with the industry that render them unable to protect consumers,” Carlo writes.

Ontario’s Weatherall agrees.

“The research that indicates that there are not negative impacts on health…supports the industries and people selling and using wireless and microwave transmissions,” Weatherall wrote to the Brant County Health Unit earlier this year.

If the threat of EMR is as great as Weatherall believes, steps such as those in the accompanying sidebar could go a long way to protecting your health and your children’s.

Stay Safe

  • Invest in a radio-frequency meter to test levels at home and then take preventive measures if necessary.
  • Locate bedrooms at the back of a house to reduce exposure to power lines that may be in front.
  • Use a hands-free accessory instead of always having a cellphone next to your head, and use a land line whenever possible.
  • Don’t allow children under eight years of age to own a cellphone.
  • Get involved in decisions about the placement of cell towers. The Collaborative on Health and the Environment says, “Where possible, the facilities should not be near residential areas and schools, daycare centres, hospitals, and other buildings that house populations more vulnerable to the effects of radiation exposure.”

Are Microwave Ovens Safe?

Microwave ovens are considered safe as long as they’re not damaged. According to the BC Centre for Disease Control, microwaves can’t penetrate metal and are contained inside the oven because they are always enclosed by metal. Ovens should be tested for leaks if the door, hinges, or seal are damaged.

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