Radiation is a scary word that actually describes a massive spectrum of wavelengths that we can potentially experience. Classically scientists have been very clear where in the electromagnetic spectrum danger lies- with Ionizing radiation including Sunlight and UV, X-rays and Gamma rays (found in nuclear weapons) posing a threat to health from which we must protect ourselves and Non-Ionizing radiation going from visible light down through infared, microwaves to low level radiation as emitted by mobile phones and wifi base stations (masts), electricity and the Earth itself having the potential to cause only harmless biological effects. Even in the absence of any external source of electromagnetic radiation, chemical reactions within our bodies (associated with nerves, digestion, the heart and brain, everything…) produce their own electrical charges. The amount of low level radiation in the world has increased exponentially over the last century- every electrical appliance is an emitter, in addition to their associated power lines, radio, television, mobile phones, wifi… We are flooded with low level radiation every day- and to a hitherto unknown extent, that’s a fact, and we do have biological responses to it [one interesting anecdote I discovered through a friend was that “soldiers at WW2 radar stations liked to stand in front of antennas on cold nights because of the warming effect. This led to development of the microwave.”] but could electromagnetic radiation (EMR) be inherently dangerous? Those that believe so are worried that long term exposure could be carcinogenic (cancer causing) and also associated with brain tumours and you’d have to have been living on another planet to have missed the sensationalist headlines that have adorned newspapers sporadically since we first welcomed mobile phones into our lives.
Before launching into my research for this article I thought i knew about EMR and was intending to echo the precautionary concern of the Council of Europe Committee on the Environment, Agriculture and Local and Regional Affairs (CECEALRA) because (according to their draft report which I’ll return to) “waiting for high levels of scientific and clinical proof can lead to very high health and economic costs, as was the case in the past with asbestos, leaded petrol and tobacco”. Bearing in mind of course that “electromagnetic fields are reported to be the most common and fastest growing environmental influence on the population”, with 1.4 million base stations worldwide and a rush to increase this to accommodate ever higher speed wireless Internet access and greater uptake of technologies… CECEALRA are lobbying for the world to adopt as ‘low as reasonably achievable’ positions on the levels and cumulative amount of electromagnetic radiation we are exposed to. Furthermore, the period of time we have to study is small right now and no one can say for sure what’s waiting down the line for our children who will have been exposed to our mire of low level EMR for their entire lives- but we need to do our best to understand the likely implications for their well being.
The International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (I know, sorry, ICNIRP) are the global authority on the issue. They advise the World Health Organisation (WHO) who are the first port of call for almost every government and non-governmental organisation when establishing safe limits of any kind of radiation for their populations. Their Guidelines ‘for limiting exposure to time-varying electric, magnetic and electromagnetic fields’ could not have blown my mind anymore than they did. In a 31 page booklet they had this, to say about EMR: “Induction of cancer from long-term EMF exposure was not considered to be established, and so these guidelines are based on short term immediate effects such as stimulation of peripheral nerves and muscles, shocks and burns caused by touching conducting objects and elevated tissue temperatures resulting from absorption of energy during exposure to EMF.”. They labelled evidence supporting cancer concerns ‘unconvincing’ and failed to even acknowledge the evidence regarding brain tumours. So, either the rumours about seriously adverse impacts on health are absurd- or this is one of the most malevolent pieces of institutional withholding of the facts that we have ever seen and we’re in big trouble. We’re mounting base stations on schools (I counted 10 on the roof of a primary school i passed today) and places of worship, the majority of workplaces are using wifi, baby monitors and TV are responsible for emitting the same frequencies… The WHO website goes into more detail, explaining that results of studies have been inconsistent but that there is no evidence to suggest significant increases in cancer risk in children or adults. Furthermore, where correlations in society have been established, they claim, a cause and effect relationship has not been supported by laboratory animal testing (which is far more reliable).
A separate agency within the WHO, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has this year warned of an impending global epidemic of cancer, emphasising that prevention and early detection are imperatives but not identifying EMR as a risk factor, and when presenting the report to assembled press in London one of their scientists stated that he would have ‘no problem at all’ with people of all ages being exposed to EMR 24/7. In 2011 the IARC conducted specific research into the EMR which resulted in them grading it at ‘2B’ meaning that it’s a ‘possible human carcinogen’ and one of the team responsible, Dr Lennart Hardell, is now a campaigner for it to be upgraded to ‘1, human carcinogen’ in light of further research into brain tumours and mobile phone use (which his research suggested are not more likely with mobile use but possibly faster growing) but this is not something the organisation is at present (explicitly) considering. What we also must remember is that a classified carcinogen is not necessarily something that should be avoided at all costs with the current list including such things as: hormonal contraceptives, Ultraviolet light, sunlight, alcohol, salted fish and wood dust. In his work, Dr Hardell found no link between cancer and exposure, in fact he found that some cancers occurred less often in users of mobile rather than traditional phones- an example of the weakness in data derived from studies, illustrating why we must apply skepticism when looking at results. In his opinion the need for research is urgent, on both use of mobiles and on passive exposure to EMR. The IARC has suggested some ways to limit our exposure: through use of mobile phones is with a low SAR (specific absorption rate which is a measure of how fast energy is transferred from the device to the body) handset for short calls with hands free kits or headsets.
In response to the 2014 IARC guidelines Hardell has posed the question “Is there a conflict of interests at the IARC?” and this is a crucial question underpinning most of the criticism of official conclusions on EMR’s safety with many convinced that industry is holding scientists to ransom to find evidence in their favour that it is safe. The WHO is funded by means based fees from it’s 191 member countries (budgetary funds) and voluntary donations from governments, NGO’s and private entities (extra-budgetary funds). In 1990 extra-budgetary donations exceeded budgetary donations for the first time and have increased the gap ever since leading some to question who is the WHO working for now? At present the biggest extra-budgetary donations are coming from (in descending order): the World Bank, the CEC (Commission for the European Communities) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Many private companies also donate but their contributions are a drop in the ocean compared to the big 3 so it’s them if anyone that the WHO would be wary of upsetting and I personally don’t find it plausible that they would be implicit in such a nefarious conspiracy against public health. The IARC predominantly sources its’ revenue from participating states and receives donations from charitable and governmental organisations. ICNIRP’s research is conducted by a small group of experts, working voluntarily, with finance from governments and industry. They publish their ‘interests’ which I have had a look at and, unless they’re being coy, they include nothing more suspicious than expenses paid by phone companies for road trips.
In the UK we have no legislation relating to maximum exposure to EMR- the government has some policies which can be adhered to voluntarilly and has released statements all amounting to the WHO line on the issue. The NHS find it ‘unlikely’ that mobile phones or base stations are carcinogenic whilst acknowledging that “long term effects are not fully known”. The Council of Europe Committee on the Environment, Agriculture and Local and Regional Affairs (who report to the European Parliamentary Assembly responsible for legislation) however believes that “there is sufficient signs or levels of scientific evidence of harmful biological effects to invoke the application of the precautionary principle and of effective, urgent preventative measures” and is seeking to convince the EU to reconsider the exposure standards set by ICNIRP in favour of pursuing the lowest possible levels. They want to see ‘wave free areas’ implemented and a ban on wifi in schools. They have a report currently at draft resolution stage which will go on to be debated by the European Parliament who can amend it, adopt it’s recommendations or reject it. Italy’s Supreme Court caused controversy in 2012 in a landmark workplace compensation case by finding in favour of Innocente Marcolini, a business man who claimed that excessive use of mobile phones had caused his brain tumour. Despite predictions of a flood of legal action following this precedent though no other court has followed suit and no other cases have been reported even in Italy which leads me to wonder whether it was a wise decision in the first place?
As parents, we have to make personal decisions about this based on a conflicting assertions and evidence. From my perspective I’m more trusting of the expertise at ICNIRP to reassure me than I am of politicos or judiciary who I hope are acting in the public interest but actually don’t understand the science. Whilst the idea of corruption within ICNIRP and the WHO aren’t entirely implausible I find the extent that’s being suggested by parties concerned about EMR unlikely… I’m also aware that in scientific studies the phrase ‘no smoke without fire’ just isn’t applicable- with the single most suspicious feature of evidence being consistency, as Dr Hardell’s work showed some studies found a link between old fashioned phones and cancer which we know to be nonsensical. Population studies in particular (which is where most of the evidence damning EMR is coming from) are notoriously unreliable… Plus, if you have a look at the electromagnetic spectrum you’ll find mobile phones and wifi somewhere between visible light and AM/FM radio… So, I continue to excitedly anticipate the ways in which connection to the Internet will become (in the words of physicist Michio Kaku) ‘as invisible as electricity’ in our lives to be taken for granted and depended upon, accessible through such devices as contact lenses and wallpaper, allowing us control and analysis of our environments as well as connection to the world. The astounding men and women responsible for these technologies that we are on the cusp of integrating into our lives must be very erudite and none of them advocate caution with the EMR that is the foundation from which the new world they’re creating will work. Still, I do find that if something is worth doing, offline, it’s worth doing offline. When I write or play with my children or socialise (eg)… Connection to the Internet is usually unnecessary at best, a distraction at worst. You can keep your phone or tablet on for photography or playing Angry Birds (eg) by turning it onto ‘Airplane’ in the settings menu which will stop you being bothered by calls or e-mails and EMR (whether or not it’s dangerous [it’s not]).