The Twitter fire storm and why I said what I said about Wi-Fi

Elizabeth May

It has been an interesting day.  While doing my work on constituency matters,
I tried to keep at bay a growing furor over why I had tweeted about the safety
of electromagnetic radiation and Wi-Fi.  I
haven’t been attacked with such nastiness in ages.  (I used to be used to it.  It was almost
refreshing.)  The easiest thing to do on
twitter, would, I suppose, be to wave a white flag and say “just kidding.”  Instead, I think the controversy has created
a good teaching moment.

When I was first attacked and lambasted for
expressing concern about various forms of pollution and human health, I was
young and the attackers were brutal.  I
was worried about things like Agent Orange. 
Health Canada
wasn’t.  I was concerned about lead in
gas, but it was hard to get the government to act.  I worked to get certain pesticides banned,
but they were “safe” right up to the day they were banned.

So, for friends and foes alike on Twitter,
I think a fuller explanation for my views than can fit in a tweet is required.

First, a few clear caveats to keep the
issue in proportion: 

  • The health risks of electromagnetic radiation from cell phones,
    cell phone towers and Wi-Fi have not become the Green Party’s top priority.
  • For those who tweeted that other issues are more important, no
  • Poverty is a more important determinant of health. 
  • Active lifestyle and nutrition are also more important. 
  • The pharmaceutical industry and our lax testing is more
  • Climate change is a more important priority for all of us. 

Nevertheless, I was not speaking without a
careful review of the background on this issue which I would like to share
(please forgive the length of this blog as I will be posting links to important

The Green Party has passed the following members-based resolution:  


This is not to say the science is
essentially “settled,” as it is on climate change.  There is no scientific consensus on EMF and
health. But, it is equally not possible to make the claims many of Twitter have
made today that Wi-Fi and cell phones are all proven “safe.”

There are studies on both sides of the
issue.  They fall into two general
categories – epidemiological studies on humans and animal studies.

Epidemiological studies (studying the human
population exposed to a substance or activity and then working to assess
whether a health impact is linked to that substance or behaviour) are inherently fraught with difficulties in
proof.  There are always issues of bias
(not the same as suggesting researchers are biased, but that the patient’s
recall may be flawed), and there are confounding factors (such as other things
in the subjects’ environment that could have caused the health problem).  Causal links come slowly and over decades in
some cases to build up a weight of evidence. 
One study, either way is never conclusive. 

Animal studies have their own limitations.  Rats and humans are different.  Exposure rates used in animal studies will
exceed (often substantially) an approximation of what humans may be exposed to.

I have been paying close attention to the
issue since the first peer-reviewed medical study of Dr. Lennart Hardell in Sweden.  He found an association between cell phone
use and brain cancer.  I paid attention
because I knew Dr. Hardell’s name, his reputation and his work.  He was one of the first researchers to find
an association between phenoxy herbicides (Agent Orange) and cancer.

I paid attention to an editorial in The Lancet, the Journal of the British
Medical Society, over ten years ago (which I cannot now find on Google, but
which I have hard copy in files back in Ottawa).  It warned that, under the precautionary
principle, children and adolescents should not be exposed to cell phones and
that exposure to EMF should be kept to a minimum.  It said young people were more vulnerable  -- not only to cancer but to mental confusion
after being exposed to EMF.

2008, the European Parliament took action to bring in stricter limits for cell
phone and Wi-Fi use for children. The following is from The Independent (Geoffrey
Lean, “Mobile phone use 'raises children's risk of brain cancer fivefold',”
September 21, 2008.):

“Last week the European Parliament voted by 522 to 16 to urge ministers
across Europe to bring in stricter limits for exposure to radiation from mobile
and cordless phones, Wi-fi and other devices, partly because children are
especially vulnerable to them. They are more at risk because their brains and
nervous systems are still developing and because – since their heads are
smaller and their skulls are thinner – the radiation penetrates deeper into
their brains.

David Carpenter, dean of the School
of Public Health at the
State University of NewYork – who also attended the conference – said:
"Children are spending significant time on mobile phones. We may be facing
a public health crisis in an epidemic of brain cancers as a result of mobile
phone use."

2000 and 2005, two official inquiries under Sir William Stewart, a former government chief scientist,
recommended the use of mobile phones by children should be
"discouraged" and "minimised".”


did I say the evidence is mounting?

Because of two recent and important reviews
and events.

One is the May 6, 2011 Resolution passed by
the Council of Europe. 

The Council of Europe Resolution bemoans
the fact that earlier calls for the use of the precautionary principle in
relation to exposure to EMF (such as the 2008 resolution cited above) have been
ignored and that children and young people, in particular, are being exposed to
increasing levels of EMF.  The children
and young people are described as a “particularly vulnerable group.”

Please go to the
text of the full resolution to review the Council’s detailed call to restrict

The second major
event was the recent decision which I posted earlier on Twitter  by the World Health Organization to list EMF
as a Class 2B human carcinogen.  The
immediate twitter reaction was to latch onto the fact that it was not
conclusive.  I know it is not conclusive,
but you have to read the study that was conducted by the International Agency
for Research on Cancer.  Thirty
scientists from 14 countries reviewed a large number of human and animal
studies.  It was published in The Lancet on line on June 22, 2011.
(see this link for the full study

Here is an excerpt
to give you the feeling of the weighing of competing studies.  This was a rigorous review:

“Although both
the INTERPHONE study and the Swedish pooled analysis are susceptible to
bias—due to recall error and selection for participation—the Working Group
concluded that the findings could not be dismissed as reflecting bias alone,
and that a causal interpretation between mobile phone RF-EMF exposure and
glioma is possible. A similar conclusion was drawn from these two studies for
acoustic neuroma, although the case numbers were substantially smaller than for
glioma. Additionally, a study from Japan11
found some evidence of an increased risk for acoustic neuroma associated with
ipsilateral mobile phone use.”

(Glioma is a form of brain cancer. 
The INTERPHONE study has been controversial as it was industry funded,
but it needs to be considered.  The
debate has been from two primary cancer research groups  -- Hardell’s work and INTERPHONE’s)

I will attach an older review from the
European Environment Agency in 2007, but it is useful due to a list of citations
and references.  Not all of the
references say there is a problem.  As I
hope is now clear, I am not saying we know for sure that Wi-Fi, cell phones and
cell phone towers are health hazards. 
What is important to appreciate is that a significant number of serious
medical researchers, none of them wearing tinfoil hats, are concerned that the
human population is being subjected to an enormous biological experiment.

As for the
theory re pollinators, going back to review the current state of information,
the evidence is weaker.  There is one
study from India
and a presentation from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, briefing to Congress
expressing concerns, May 10, 2007.

Our stance is simple and responsible.  Exercise the precautionary principle.  A risk of a health problem requires a
cautious approach until the science is settled. 

For me personally, that translates into
using my blackberry, but not carrying it in my pocket.  I do not hold it up against my head.  I prefer land lines.  Do I occasionally use cell phones?  Sure. 
Do I want high speed internet in my house? Yes, and I have a cable.  Am I happy to latch onto a signal in the
airport by Wi-Fi? You bet.

It is a matter of knowing there are
unanswered questions and taking reasonable precautions.  If you have Wi-Fi in your home, turn it off
when you are sleeping.  Locate the router
away from where your kids are sleeping. 
Urge your kids to text more than talk with the phone to their head.

The place where those reasonable
precautions are most important is related to our children.  That is why the European Union and Council
for Europe urge much stricter standards than in Canada.  I don’t think that’s an unreasonable
position.  So tweet away!

European Environment Agency

Radiation risk from everyday
devices assessed
Document Actions

Published: 17 Sep

    A new report
    raising concerns about the effects of electromagnetic fields (EMF) on human
    health calls for tougher safety standards to regulate radiation from mobile
    phones, power lines and many other sources of exposure in daily life. The
    report, 'Bioinitiative: A Rationale for a Biologically-Based Public Exposure
    Standard for Electromagnetic Fields' was compiled by the BioInitiative Working
    Group, an international group of scientists, researchers and public health
    policy professionals. The EEA has contributed to this new report with a chapter
    drawn from the EEA study 'Late lessons from early warnings: the precautionary
    principle 1896–2000' published in 2001.


    and health

    The EEA study reviews the
    histories of a selection of public and environmental hazards, such as asbestos,
    benzene and PCBs, from the first scientifically based early warnings about potential
    harm, to subsequent precautionary and preventive measures. Cases on tobacco
    smoking and lead in petrol are forthcoming.

    the EEA does not have specific expertise in EMF, the case studies of public hazards analysed in the ' Late
    ' publication show that harmful exposures can be widespread before
    there is both 'convincing' evidence of harm from long-term exposures, and
    biological understanding of how that harm is caused.

    'There are many examples of the
    failure to use the precautionary principle in the past, which have resulted in
    serious and often irreversible damage to health and environments. Appropriate,
    precautionary and proportionate actions taken now to avoid plausible and
    potentially serious threats to health from EMF are likely to be seen as prudent
    and wise from future perspectives. We must remember that precaution is one of
    the principles of EU environmental policy,' says Professor Jacqueline McGlade,
    Executive Director of the EEA.

    Current evidence, although
    limited, is strong enough to question the scientific basis for the present EMF
    exposure limits, according to the BioInitiative Working Group.

    For more information:

    1. Mobile
      Telecommunications Research Programme, United
      Kingdom, September 2007
      1. MTHR: Mobile
        Telecommunications and Health Research
      2. Mobile
        Telecommunications and Health Research report 2007
    2. Interphone
      (World Health Organisation — International Agency for Research on Cancer)
      on-going project on mobile phones.
    3. BioInitiative
      Report, August 2007
      2. BioInitiative Report: A Rationale for a Biologically-based Public
        Exposure Standard for Electromagnetic fields (ELF and RF):
    4. German
      advice on WIFI exposures July 2007
    5. World
      Health Organisation review on Extremely Low Frequency Electric and Magnetic
      fields and Health, June 2007:
      1. Electromagnetic fields and public health. Fact sheet N322, June 2007.
      2. Extremely Low Frequency Fields

        Environmental Health Criteria Monograph No. 238
    6. IEEE
      (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers,
      Inc.) microwave magazine, Editorial, Volume 8, Issue 3, June 2007. Cellular Mobile Radiation and Intercranial Tumours. Lin J.C.
    7. Scientific
      Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR), Opinion on
      Possible Effects of Electromagnetic Fields (EMF) on Human Health, March, 2007

      Related web sites:
    8. REFLEX
      research study, DG Research, 2000–2004

      See also ‘EU Research on Environment and Health — Results from projects funded
      by the 5th Work frame programme, pages 176–177 on REFLEX and EMF projects,
      pages 166–181
    9. Friedman
      et al., ‘Mechanisms of short term ERK activation by electromagnetic
      fields at mobile phone frequencies’, Biochem Journal, 405, 559–568, 2007
    10. Mobile Phones and Health: Reports by
      Radiological Protection Board, United Kingdom, 2002, 2004
      1. Mobile Phones and Health 2004. NRPB. Volume 15, No. 5.
      2. A summary of recent reports on Mobile Phones and Health (2000–
        2004). NRPB. W65.
    11. IARC
      Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. Non-ionizing
      radiation, Part 1: Static and Extremely Low Frequency Electric and Magnetic
      Fields. World Health Organization, International Agency for Research on Cancer,
      Lyon, 2002.
    12. World
      Health Organization ‘Principles for evaluating health risks in children
      associated with exposure to chemicals’, Environmental Health Criteria, 237,
      Geneva, 2007.
    13. International
      Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection, Guidelines for Limiting
      Exposure to Time-Varying Electric, Magnetic, and Electromagnetic Fields (Up to
      300GHz), International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection, Health
      Physics, Vol 74, No 4, p 494–522, 1998.
    14. EEA,
      ‘Late lessons from early warnings: the precautionary principle 1896–2000’,
      European Environment Agency, Copenhagen,