May 17 2011
The Council of Europe (COE) has recently recommended that all WiFi (wireless phones, laptops, and other electronic devices) be banned from schools, sparking another round of this controversy.
The concern revolves around a possible connection between long term use of cell phones and similar devices and cancer – but also seems to involve broader concern about electromagnetic waves in the environment and its overall environmental and health impact. In other words, the concerns raised by the COE are not limited to the long term health risks of holding a cell phone against your head.
The report has been widely criticized, and with good reason. While the Council cites the precautionary principle as justification, there can be a fine line between appropriate precaution and unwarranted hysteria.
Cell Phones and Cancer
I have covered the issue of cell phones and cancer previously. There doesn’t appear to have been any major new publications since my last report on this issue. The bottom line is that plausibility is low (but not non-existent) for a health risk from the type of electromagnetic radiation emitted by cell phones. The energy of this EM radiation is non-ionizing, meaning that it does not break chemical bonds. It therefore cannot cause mutations in DNA, or break proteins. However, there may be indirect mechanisms by which non-ionizing radiation affects cell metabolism that could pose a health risk. So the plausibility of risk is low but not zero.
The epidemiological evidence that a risk exists is also low but not zero. Overall there is no clear signal of increased brain tumors associated with cell phone risk. This kind of evidence cannot prove that a risk does not exist, only that it is smaller than the power of such studies to detect. At this point we can say that the evidence does not support an association between cell phone use for up to 15 years and brain tumors in adults. The evidence for children is less clear, but still there is no proven link.
The World Health Organization and other bodies have reviewed the data and reached the above conclusion. My sense is that at present there is no reason to panic or make sweeping policy based upon fears of a risk from cell phone use. But we could use more research to improve our confidence in the safety of cell phones, and to look for more subtle effects. Meanwhile I continue to use a cell phone, just like I continue to use my microwave, but it doesn’t hurt to limit your direct exposure while more data is being collected.
Perhaps the greatest criticism of the COE report is its reliance on scientific reports concerning so-called electromagnetic sensitivity. They specifically cite the work of one Professor Belpomme as support for the concern that individuals may be especially sensitive to EMF. However, Belpomme’s work with EMF is mostly self-published, not peer-reviewed, and his conclusions are not generally accepted by the scientific community. He is an advocate of the view that most cancers are caused by environmental factors, which also puts him out of the mainstream of scientific opinion.
The claim is that certain people are especially sensitive to EMF, even the low-energy non-ionizing EMF of radio waves and the now ubiquitous EMF of technological societies. However, the symptoms of EMF hypersensitivity are mostly vague and non-specific and conform to the symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, and somatization disorder. A systematic review of the evidence concluded that there is no evidence that separates so-called EMF hypersensitivity from the above disorders, or so-called “nocebo effects” (like a placebo effect for negative symptoms).
What the research essentially shows is that if you blind self-identified sufferers of electromagnetic hypersensitivity to the presence or absence of EMF, they cannot tell the difference. Their symptoms are based upon expectation, not the actual presence of EMF.
Citing of the work of Belpomme and the notion of electromagnetic hypersensitivity opens the COE report to extreme criticism and cripples confidence in its conclusions and recommendations.
I am in favor of the judicious application of the precautionary principle, especially with respect to health concerns. But there is evidence and plausibility to bring to bear on this issue, and at the very least any invocation of the precautionary principle should get the evidence right. The COE’s conclusion seems to be more political hype than scientific reality, and is out of step with other systematic reviews of the same evidence.
Meanwhile, the premature recommendations could adversely affect the quality of education, which is moving in the direction of incorporating electronic media. We increasingly access and communicate information wirelessly, and it is difficult to teach children to function in our wireless society without exposing them to this technology. This, of course, does not justify genuine health risks, but when there are no proven health risks we should not casually toss aside such a useful technology.
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