Health advocates and industry clash over health effects from wireless technology

Could cell phone towers like this one in Merritt’s downtown core pose a significant health risk to humans?  Some experts say yes.

MAY 3, 2010

Concerns over the possible health effects from everyday wireless devices have prompted the federal government to take action.

The House of Commons Standing Committee on Health heard from several health experts from around the world last Tuesday to discuss concerns over the safety of the burgeoning use of wireless technology in Canada.

Several health experts say that everything from wireless routers, cell phones, cell phone towers, cordless phones, and other devices are harmful to humans, especially to children.

Also in attendance were representatives from Health Canada, Members of Parliament, and members from the telecommunications industry.

“People are no longer having confidence in our government authorities in telling us that things or good or things are bad, because they have made so many mistakes in the past,” said Magda Havas, a professor of environmental and resource studies at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.

While most European countries are reducing or eliminating their dependence on wireless technology and reverting back to cable systems and fiber optics because of concerns over health effects, North America is going in the opposite direction and expanding its wireless infrastructure with no end in sight and with little or no consultation.

“They’re simply turning a blind eye to the research that’s showing we should be precautionary and they’re not even recommending precaution as a measure.”

Havas helps those who are electro-sensitive and delivers presentations around North America showing health effects from EMF.

Industry Canada says if exposures don’t exceed the limits of Safety Code 6, there is no “convincing scientific evidence” that any adverse health effects will occur. However, Safety Code 6 deals with thermal (heating) radiation and does not specifically deal with the more common non-thermal radiation emitted from everyday wireless devices in households.

“There is no convincing scientific evidence of adverse health effects from exposures to EMF at levels below the levels outlined in Canada’s Safety Code 6,” said Bernard Lord, former premier of New Brunswick and now the president of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association.

Lord says the telecommunications industry in Canada adheres to all applicable laws and says Canadian standards are based on “actual science and not unsupported conjecture.”

Olle Johansson, a professor at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, attended the standing committee meeting by video conference and says he was both disappointed and surprised by the proceedings.

“There was not any official goal or aim presented to me beforehand; as a problem-handling or problem-solving scientist, I am used to having one.”

“I was surprised about the rather low level of knowledge (of health effects) among the committee members, as well as their willingness to take a risk with the entire Canadian population based on this low level of knowledge,” continued Johansson.

Concerns over the health effects from wireless technology is nothing new to Canada.

In 2003, the Vancouver School Board passed a motion to ban all future cell phone towers from school property over the potential health hazards posed to its students.

Ontario’s Lakehead University is another educational institution that has limited wireless technology over health concerns.

The International Firefighters Association has also placed a ban on cell phone towers from fire hall roofs, citing dozens of scientific studies showing a link to cancer and other negative biological effects.

An increase in cell growth of brain cancer cells, changes in the protective blood-brain-barrier, increase strand breaks in DNA, childhood leukemia, changes in sleep patterns, headaches, neurodegenerative diseases, a doubling of the rate of lymphoma in mice, and changes in tumour growth in rats are just some of the findings of studies associated with the International Firefighter Association’s report on RF and EMF health risks.

Reports of higher cancer rates among those living near cell phone towers have also surfaced in mainstream media outlets in Britain over the past few years.

“There are no research studies on Wi-Fi that I know of that the (Canadian) government did prior to putting them in anywhere, because they simply assumed the technology is safe and this is certainly unacceptable,” says Havas.

In Merritt, there is a cell phone tower in the downtown core as well as Wi-Fi hotspots around the city.

Havas says a buffer zone of at least 400 metres between cell phone towers and humans is necessary for safety, but with the addition of 3G and 4G technology, the radiation levels are even higher and require further distance from humans.

Several buildings close to the cell phone tower downtown are directly below or beside the tower, the location of greatest exposure to radiation.

Merritt elementary, middle, and high schools all have several wireless access points available for staff and students to connect to.

“We looked at it and it didn’t seem to be a big concern,” said School District 58 technology coordinator Burt Bergman, who helped implement a student laptop program.

“We did some research online and what the effects are, what the impacts are, and compared to a cell phone, it’s actually quite significantly less than your typical cell phone, which most people seem to use without any problems at all.”

Havas has carried out studies involving schools in North America that have antennas and wireless access points.

“It’s definitely not safe to put Wi-fi into schools and its especially not safe to put them into elementary schools,” says Havas.

Havas says a common symptom among children who attend schools with Wi-Fi are headaches. She says when the children return home, the symptoms usually subside.

Although she doesn’t expect anything to happen overnight, Havas says she would like to see Ottawa take the precautions that European countries have and reduce or eliminate wireless technology.

In 2007, Germany’s environment ministry issued a warning to German citizens to avoid using wireless technology whenever possible and go back to wired and cabled means of communication and media because of the health risks wireless technology poses.

Havas and several others in attendance at the Committee meeting say Canada’s limits for radiation emissions, which are lower than even Russia’s threshold, also need to be revised. Safety Code 6 was published in 1999. It was amended last year over a minor statistical error.