Jumping Off the Wireless Bandwagon

Canadians perilously overexposed to electromagnetic radiation
March 1, 2011

After three days of hearings on the health impacts of Wi-Fi and wireless technologies, Canada’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health released a remarkably timid report -- An Examination of the Potential Health Impacts of Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Radiation – last December. Judging from the fact that there were three “supplementary reports” (from the NDP, the Bloc Quebecois, and the Conservative Party) accompanying the document, disagreement among Committee members must have been rampant.

     As well, for reasons that have not been publicly explained, there were major changes in the Committee membership (see sidebar) over the course of the hearings, which took place for two days in April 2010 and one day in October.

     Perhaps as a result, the Committee’s report primarily recommends more long-term study, at the same time the wireless industry in Canada is expanding exponentially, especially with the installation of smart meters in every home across Ontario, and soon B.C. 


Safety Code 6

The Committee heard from some of the top international experts in the field, many of whom roundly criticized Health Canada’s inadequate protection of Canadians from the dangers of non-ionizing microwave radiation.

     Dr. Olle Johansson, testifying by teleconference from Sweden, told the Committee that Canada’s Safety Code 6 is “completely out of date and obsolete” in terms of protecting people from “prolonged low-intensity exposures” to microwave radiation from cellphones, cell towers and masts, Wi-Fi, and smart meters.

The safety level in Safety Code 6 is some 6,000 times less stringent than the safety level advocated in The BioInitiative Report, which was released in 2007 by the University of Albany and includes about 2,000 expert international research studies (such as those done by Dr. Johansson) on electromagnetic radiation (EMR), electromagnetic fields (EMFs), and brain tumours, leukemia, and other illnesses.

     The co-editor of The BioInitiative Report recently told Harper’s (May 2010), “If EMFs function both as a carcinogen and a neurotoxin, then it’s not just brain tumours and brain cancers” that could result; “it’s also testicular cancer, breast cancer, leukemia, lymphoma, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and a range of cognitive and behavioural problems.”

     Dr. Martin Blank, Columbia University researcher in bioelectromagnetics, told the Parliamentary Committee, “The European Union voted to review their own [safety] standards on the basis of The BioInitiative Report.”

    But Brenda Pieterson of Health Canada countered by claiming that “The BioInitiative Report was biased. We do not support the findings,” she told the Committee. In spring 2010, Health Canada issued this statement: “Health Canada has no scientific reason to consider the use of wireless communications devices, such as cellphones, BlackBerrys, wireless laptop computers and their supporting infrastructure, dangerous to the health of the Canadian public.”

     “I have heard over and over again that the levels of [EMR] exposure are low,” Dr. Johansson told the Committee. “In the room you’re sitting in right now, just from the third generation [3G] mobile telephony... you are sitting in levels that are approximately one million billion times above natural background [radiation]. There you have your question mark: are we really built for a microwave life at such extreme levels?” 

4G mobile telephony is set to be released in Canada within months.


“Microwave Life”

Perhaps the most moving testimony at the hearings came from Rodney Palmer, spokesman for the Simcoe Safe School Committee.  In Ontario’s Simcoe County, children in at least 14 schools have become ill since the schools installed Wi-Fi, beginning in 2006.  Palmer described their symptoms – speeding heart rate, fatigue, headaches – and said that two children have “had cardiac arrests” and are on heart medication. “Now every school in Simcoe County has its own defibrillator, as though teenage heart attacks are normal.”

     Canadian schools take health issues seriously, having taken steps for asbestos removal and making schools smoke-free and nut-free. Trent University professor Dr. Magda Havas, an environmental biologist and expert in microwave radiation issues who also appeared before the Parliamentary Committee, argues that schools should also be “radiation-free” because “as many as 260,000 students (5%) across Canada may be adversely affected” by this radiation. 

     The short-term effects (called “electrosensitivity”) from EMR pollution include headaches, fatigue, dizziness, insomnia, skin rashes, heart arrhythmia, depression, nausea, memory loss, inability to concentrate, and suppressed immune function. As the UK’s Dr. Andrew Goldsworthy wrote in 2008, “In many ways, the effects of electromagnetic exposure may resemble those of premature aging.”

      Dr. Havas has predicted that, by 2017, some “50%” of the Canadian population will have developed electrosensitivity, “which is escalating.”

      Dr. Goldsworthy told the Parliamentary Committee that microwave radiation disrupts bird migration and “probably causes colony collapse disorder in bees.” Recent research from Europe has shown that bees exposed to EMR from cell towers made 21% less honeycomb and more than one-third of bees, taken a half-mile from the hive, couldn’t navigate back home.

     In 2007, UK researchers identified seven “cancer clusters” and other serious illnesses among people living near cellphone transmission masts – those ubiquitous antennae that are being installed atop store roofs. (In Toronto alone, there are 7,500 cell masts.) One UK study found 31 cancers on a single street close to a cell mast in Warwickshire. Similar findings have come from France, Spain, and Germany.

In 2007, Europe’s top environmental watchdog, the European Environmental Agency, called for immediate action to reduce exposure to radiation from Wi-Fi, cellphones, and their transmission towers and masts. Scientists from 10 countries have recommended that radiation levels from cell towers and masts should be 9,000 times lower than the safety guideline currently allowed by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection.

    After years of struggle against Telus’s proposed cell phone tower, in July 2010 the community of New Denver, B.C. was able to at least gain a commitment from the company to keep its radiation at the level recommended by The BioInitiative Report

     Four years ago, Vancouver’s Common Ground Magazine (Dec. 2006) noted: “The industry’s need to cover up the hazards of wireless technology has been fuelled not only by fear of lost profits, but also by fear of bankruptcy. Insurance companies gradually withdrew all coverage for claims relating to health problems from cellphones following the first studies showing they were dangerous. Today [2006], there are seven pending class action suits against the mobile phone industry... It took just one such lawsuit each to bring down the silicone breast implant and asbestos industries.”   


The European Difference

In an article for GQ Gentlemen’s Quarterly (Feb. 2010), Christopher Ketcham noted that the concern about wireless technology is “being taken seriously” in Europe. “In April 2008, the national library of France, citing possible ‘genotoxic effects,’ announced it would shut down its Wi-Fi system, and the staff of the storied Library of Sainte-Genevieve in Paris followed up with a petition demanding the disconnection of Wi-Fi antennas and their replacement by wired connections. 

Several European governments are already moving to prohibit Wi-Fi in government buildings and on campuses, and the Austrian Medical Association is lobbying for a ban of all Wi-Fi systems in schools, citing the danger to children’s thinner skulls and developing nervous systems.” 

     Switzerland is now providing free fibre optic connections to schools through the Swiss government’s telecommunication provider, Swisscom. The Swiss guidelines for microwave radiation exposure to the public are 100 times more stringent than Canada’s.

     Ketcham reports that, in Spain, Ireland and Israel, sabotage and attacks on cellphone towers have become “a regular occurrence,” and he memorably states: “The only honest way to think of our cellphones is that they are tiny, low-power microwave ovens, without walls, that we hold against the sides of our heads.” 

More than 22 million Canadians have cellphones, in what is now a $17 billion industry in Canada.

     The Globe & Mail’s Martin Mittelstaedt (Sept. 24, 2010) reported: “Several studies, including an exhaustive review this year by the World Health Organization’s cancer-research agency, find that people who have used cellphones for half an hour a day for more than a decade have about twice the risk of glioma, a rare kind of brain tumour, on the side of their head where they hold the phone.” 

     Dr. Devra Davis told Mittelstaedt, “For such a risk to show up in cellphone users within 10 years, given what we know about brain tumours, which is that they can have a latency of 40 years, is deeply, deeply disturbing.” Dr. Davis is the author of the new book Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation, What the Industry Has Done To Hide It, and How To Protect Your Family (Dutton, 2010), which was reviewed in the November 2010 issue of The CCPA Monitor.

      According to Dr. Magda Havas’s research, health officials in various countries have issued warnings for children to limit their use of cellphones: UK (2000), Germany (2007), France (2008), Russia (2008), India (2008), Toronto Public Health (2008), Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (2008), Japan (2008), Finland (2008), South Korea (2009), and the U.S. Federal Communication Commission (2009). In 2010, France passed legislation prohibiting the advertising of cellphones to children under 14, and prohibiting children under 14 from using cellphones in schools.

     A Swedish study published in Pathophysiology (June 2009) found that the introduction of cellphone technology nationwide in 1997 coincided with the beginning of an accelerating deterioration of several health indicators, including an increase in prostate cancer rates, brain tumours, and Alzheimer’s. As Dr. Goldsworthy states, “When you use a cellphone, its signal will be transmitted to all parts of your body; nowhere is safe.”


Smart Meters

Thanks to a 2004 Order-in-Council, signed by Ontario’s then-Minister of Energy Dwight Duncan, the provincial government has been installing millions of smart meters “to promote energy conservation, energy efficiency, and load management.” B.C. is planning to do the same thing.

    An appendix in Ontario’s 2004 “Implementation Plan” shows the dozens of private companies who were involved in the planning for smart meters, including giants like Enbridge, EPCOR Utilities, and IBM.

     Smart meters use wireless signals to transmit usage information every 15 minutes back to the utility, replacing the meter-reader human being who would come to the property to read the analog dial. Smart meters have a transmission range of about two miles. The amount of continuous pulsed radiation from thousands of smart meters in a single neighbourhood is raising red flags among critics of EMR pollution.

    While the Globe & Mail (Feb. 2, 2011) has reported a consumer “backlash” over smart meters because of “privacy” issues, the backlash is also radiation-related. A Jan. 7, 2011 study released in California by Sage Environmental Consultants estimates that the amount of microwave radiation from a home-installed smart meter is comparable to living within 200-600 feet of a major cellphone tower.

    Twenty-two local governments in California are demanding a moratorium on smart meters, which Pacific Gas & Electric is installing at a cost of $2.2 billion to ratepayers. The program does not allow individuals to opt out, even in cases of severe health impacts, such as people whose medical implants can be affected by wireless devices.

     Warning that short-term effects from smart meters include headaches, sleep disruption, tremors, cognitive impairment, tinnitus, increased cancer risk, and heart arrhythmia, Sage Environmental Consultants’ study states that “the explosion of wireless technologies is producing radiofrequency radiation exposures over massive populations before questions are answered by federal studies” about the carcinogenicity or toxicity of the radiation levels.


Other Parliamentary Reports


Aside from recommendations for more long-term study, Parliament’s Standing Committee on Health did recommend that “Health Canada ensure that it has a process in place to receive and respond to reports of adverse reactions to electromagnetic radiation emitting devices.” This was the only point that the Conservative Party’s supplementary report disagreed with, stating that, “to date, there has been no credible science linking exposure [from such devices] to adverse health effects.  To establish a process for reporting adverse health effects would not assist us in making that link.” 

     The Bloc Quebecois recommended that Industry Canada (which determines cell tower and mast placement) “respect municipal or provincial regulations” when awarding permits to companies for towers and masts. This would give more power to local governments to legislate restrictions on placement and (potentially) on radiation levels.

     The NDP’s “complementary report” made several recommendations, including that “concerned parents who fear their children are being exposed in classrooms to a dangerous technology... must have public options available to them;” that “it would be negligent not to investigate the role that wireless technology may have” in bee colony collapse; and that it would “be appropriate to let Canadians know that the safety of this technology is not guaranteed, but only theoretical at this point, particularly in the case of children.”

(Joyce Nelson is a freelance writer/researcher and the author of five books. She has also written about electromagnetic radiation for the Jan. 2011 Watershed Sentinel.)