Controversy dogs wireless health panel

The Royal Society of Canada still hasn’t appointed a new chairman of a panel of international scientists reviewing Health Canada’s wireless radiation standards after the head of the group resigned four weeks ago.

It’s a sign of how sensitive the panel has become to the decades-old controversy over wireless waves.

But a consumer group which says half of the committee is riddled with members with conflicts of interest favouring the wireless industry not only welcomed the resignation, it wants to start all over.

The panel set up by the Royal Society of Canada in March at Health Canada’s request to look into its Safety Code 6 standard “is a joke,” should be disbanded and a new one created, says Frank Clegg, chairman of Citizens For Safe Technology (C4ST) and former head of Microsoft Canada.

His group is demanding the code, which sets a guideline on human exposure to electromagnetic energy be changed because it doesn’t take into account the increased use of smart phones and Wi-Fi in homes, schools and businesses today.

Last month, after complaints by C4ST and an article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, panel chair Daniel Krewski resigned. The Journal said Krewski, a professor in the faculty of medicine at the University of Ottawa, didn’t disclose to the society he’d had a contract in 2008-2009 advising Industry Canada on explaining to the public the risks with cellphone radiation. In an interview with the publication Krewski did say he tell the society he had done consulting for the government.

The Royal Society of Canada didn’t respond to several requests this week for a spokesperson to discuss the resignation and criticisms of the panel. Panel members come from several countries.

Meanwhile because there is so much interest in the possible health risks of radiofrequencies, the society had to abandon a scheduled public consultation last month in Ottawa. A new date hasn’t been set yet.

There’s been international controversy for years over the possible impact of radiation from wireless sources including cellphones, cellphone towers and Wi-Fi access points. In the face of that, in October, 2011 Health Canada – which regulates the telecommunications industry, encouraged parents to reduce their children’s exposure to cellphones. While a small number of studies have shown brain cancer rates might be elevated in long-term, heavy users of cellphones, the advisory said, other studies haven’t shown a relationship.

It also noted that the International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies radiofrequency (RF) energy as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”

 While advising parents to limit children’s RF exposure from cellphones because they are more sensitive to the environment than adults, Health Canada also acknowledged there is a lack of scientific information on the potential health impact of cell phones on children.

Last year the U.S. Government Accountability Office said the Federal Communications Commission should take another look at its regulations for radiation exposure from cellphones in part because other countries have stiffer rules.

The current version of Safety Code 6 was set in 2009. The limits “have been established based upon a thorough evaluation of the scientific literature related to the thermal and possible non-thermal effects of RF energy on biological systems,” the document says in part.

The code covers maximum exposure limits to frequencies between 3 KHz and 300 GHz. It says that at the time of publication “there is no scientific basis for the premise of chronic and/or cumulative health risks from RF energy at levels below the limits outlined in Safety Code 6.” Above the limits, the danger is from tissue heating so the code sets out specific absorption rate limits to which a person can be exposed.

However, Clegg says Safety Code 6 is used by the Canadian government to avoid investigating reported health effects of RF exposure.

Clegg and his group have no doubt about the dangers of emissions from cellphones and Wi-Fi. “I’ve spent my life in information technology and have seen incredible solutions,” he said. “I’ve also seen some implementations where technology has not done the right thing or been harmful.

“I’ve met people who are electro-sensitive and cannot leave their homes, or who had do more from their homes and are in fear of going into a Starbucks or Tim Horton’s because they feel it.”

Ever since the panel’s creation C4ST and others have been hammering at its credibility. Clegg said that of the seven remaining members three have conflicts.

“We’re not saying the panel has to be cooked” with anti-wireless supporters, he said, but “get representation from some people that acknowledge the harmful effects.”

Panel members include Dr. Brian Christie, director of the neuroscience program at the University of Victoria; Dr. Richard Findlay, a British physicist who has worked in the field of electromagnetic research; Dr. Kenneth Foster, professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania; Dr. Louise Lemyre, who specializes in risk management in public health; Dr. John Moulder, who has done work on the biological risks of mobile phone use; Dr. Frank Prato of Western University, whose research includes discovering that exposure to extremely low frequency magnetic fields can relieve pain; and Dr. Rianne Stam, a Dutch researcher who works on the possible health risks of electromagnetic fields.

Clegg has written to the society about alleged conflicts of interest. In reply Geoffrey Flynn, chair of the committees that set up the panel, said in a letter the points of view and potential conflicts of interest “are largely known to us.” He urged Clegg not to pre-judge their findings.

“It is almost inevitable that experts in a field will have express conclusions based on existing evidence,” he wrote. “But these views are not immutable. Scientists are accustomed to assessing new evidence and changing their conclusions as required.”
Although the cellphone industry could be affected by the length of time it will take for the panel to issue its report, a spokesman for the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA) had no comment on the issue. Marc Choma said in an interview that regardless of the timing, carriers have to follow standards set by Health Canada.

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

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