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No clear call on cellphone safety

By Stefan Dubowski
| www.cos-mag.com
Is cellphone radiation posing a real risk to public health?

The effects of radio frequency radiation from cellphone towers has been the subject of much debate in the health and safety community: Is there a real risk to the health of those in close proximity to them? Whatever the answer, this issue is already causing some headaches — literally.

Soon after the mobile-communications transmitter was built on the water tower near Frank Woodcock’s home in Simcoe, Ont., one of his neighbours started experiencing feinting spells.

“It took a long time to find out he was electromagnetically sensitive,” Woodcock says. “He couldn’t live in his house anymore.” The neighbour moved out.

Stories detailing the various effects of radiofrequency (RF) radiation — the airwaves carrying wireless communication such as phone calls, email and text messages — are becoming common. Talk to folks like Woodcock and you’ll get the picture: these are not phantom symptoms; this is a genuine health concern.

Talk to others — representatives from Health Canada, for instance — and you’ll learn that as far as the government is concerned, there is no real scientific evidence that RF radiation is harmful.

Both sides of the debate seem so sure. How did we end up with such a big gap in opinion? Is radiofrequency radiation a health risk or not? And how are health and safety specialists supposed to keep employees safe when the danger isn’t clear?

The debate

Let’s begin with the debate. From Woodcock’s perspective, RF radiation is affecting the health of his neighbourhood. Neighbours complain of having headaches, ringing in the ears and trouble sleeping, since the transmitter went up.

Woodcock filed a petition with the federal government, looking for answers. Who is responsible for the health of citizens living near cell towers? Are the residents of his neighbourhood as safe today as they were before the tower was erected? Is Health Canada’s Safety Code 6 — the document detailing the RF emission limits for cell towers and cell phones — scientifically sound?

He got answers from Health Canada and Industry Canada, the federal department in charge of mobile technologies like cell phones. The government said individuals are responsible for their own health; there is no convincing scientific evidence of health effects from RF emissions within Safety Code 6 guidelines; and yes, Safety Code 6 is scientifically sound.

That may be, but Woodcock and his neighbours still recall a distinct change in their health when that transmitter went up.

“When you talk to Industry Canada and Health Canada you’re not going to get a clear picture,” he says.

Reports suggest something’s up. In a 2005 peer review of studies investigating the health effects of exposure to mobile phone network equipment, Dr. Grahame Blackwell, a PhD engineer specializing in wireless network technologies, found six studies that show ill-health effects from cell sites. One of the studies discovered that people living within 300 metres of cell sites experienced significant health effects, such as loss of memory, dizziness and depression.

In 2009, residents of Perez, Spain, said that the local cell phone tower was to blame for 43 cases of cancer among the 350 residents. The residents, vying for the removal of the cell tower, said 35 people had died from cancer — a rate of 10 per cent, well above normal rates of cancer deaths (less than one per cent).

In 2010, a paper published in Environmental Reviews, a National Research Council journal, noted that anecdotal reports and epidemiology studies “have found headaches, skin rashes, sleep disturbances, depression, decreased libido, increased rates of suicide, concentration problems, dizziness, memory changes, increased risk of cancer, tremors, and other neuro-physiological effects in populations near base stations.”

Dr. Magda Havas is a professor in Environmental & Resource Studies at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont. In her research, she found that RF emissions are a health risk for some people.

In one experiment people were put in a room with a cordless phone, hidden from view. Even though the device emitted RF at 0.3 per cent of Safety Code 6 levels, some people experienced rapid heart rates.

“Anywhere from three to five per cent of the population are really sensitive to this type of radiation, to the point where their lives are really compromised,” Havas says.

She says Health Canada should lower Safety Code 6’s limits to help reduce the impact of RF emissions on Canadians’ health.

“We definitely need a change,” she says.

But Beth Pieterson, director general of the environmental and radiation health sciences directory at Health Canada, says Safety Code 6 is just fine.

“We take a weight-of-evidence approach, where we look at all the literature, and all the evidence. If you look at it all — and according to the [World Health Organization] there are thousands of papers on this subject — we’ve concluded there is no convincing scientific evidence that it’s harmful.”

Cell towers generally emit RF at 1,000 times below the Safety Code 6 limit, she says. “I think there has been a lot of attention in the media on this, and it’s a small group of scientists that are raising the issue. People are naturally concerned.”

Woodcock says people have good reasons to be concerned. He notes that cell phone manufacturers routinely suggest people should avoid putting the devices right against their heads.

“If the cell company is telling you that, it must mean something. How can it be perfectly safe if you have a phone and you can’t touch it to your ear?”

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Stefan Dubowski is a freelance journalist ?based in Ottawa. You can contact him at sdubowski@rogers.com

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