May 17 2011

More EMF Hysteria

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.

EMF Sensitivity

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.


14 responses so far

14 thoughts on “More EMF Hysteria”

  1. The report reads far more like a political platform or legal resolution than a science based recommendation. It’s not just bad science, it’s bad politics as well.

    It doesn’t state any frequency ranges of concern other than to emphasize “radio frequencies” and microwaves, and it barely touches on power levels, and it doesn’t provide any support for the levels specified.

    “8.1.1. take all reasonable measures to reduce exposure to electromagnetic fields, especially to radio frequencies from mobile phones…”

    “8.2.1. set preventive thresholds for levels of long-term exposure to microwaves in all indoor areas, in accordance with the precautionary principle, not exceeding 0.6 volts per metre, and in the medium term to reduce it to 0.2 volts per metre;”

    Then there’s this gem of a recommendation:

    “8.1.5. in order to reduce costs, save energy, and protect the environment and human health, step up research on new types of antennas and mobile phone and DECT-type devices, and encourage research to develop telecommunication based on other technologies which are just as efficient but have less negative effects on the environment and health;”

    Given that they have not actually established there are any negative effects from current technology, what criteria should one use to determine if an alternative technology is safer?

    “in order to reduce costs, save energy, and protect the environment and human health,” …What the eff is the goal here, anyway? This committee has multiple goals and is confuddleing the issue of this paper.

    What should be different about this new technology? “just as efficient” seems to imply the same power levels (which wouldn’t save energy), as it would take greater efficiency to use lower power levels. They are recommending better technology without specifying what it is about current technology they find problematic.

    Even if you accept the extreme form of the precautionary principle they are advocating, the recommendation for new technologies is premature unless they have specifics of what the problem is. In fact, their application of the precautionary principle seems to lead to its application in regards to new technologies; hold off on anything new until we figure out if there’s a problem and what it is.

  2. ccbowers says:

    I wonder if they also ban all vehicles from schools, since accidents are the leading cause of death for school age children. If cars were invisible (but carried the same risk of death) imagine how afraid we would be of them.

  3. CivilUnrest says:

    ccbowers just blew my mind

    I think I’m going to write a scifi/horror short story about invisible cars stalking a group of unsuspecting teenagers.

  4. ltrottie2000 says:

    This may to be further fallout from a lopsided motion carried by the European Parliament a couple of years ago. I wrote a piece about this at the time on my web site: These politicians are ignoring the findings of systematic reviews conducted by their own scientific advisory groups. For more information on the subject of EMF and Health, see my web site:

    Lorne Trottier

  5. ChrisH says:

    Make it worse, have the invisible cars driven by invisible teenagers!

  6. jre says:

    Oh, crap. ccbowers, CivilUnrest and ChrisH got me completely derailed with ideas for magically realistic environmental horror stories — like, what if there were two polarities of dangerous fields, but in a China Mieville-ish City and the City kind of way, each was only dangerous to those who were not supposed to perceive it, but, by some horrible mistake, did?

    Enough of that. I’m here to tell you that your worries are over. Not only does this scourge have a name — “dirty electricity” — but there are selfless humanitarians out there who want nothing more than to spend their lives testing your home and installing state-of-the-art equipment to safeguard you and your family from the undoubtedly grisly consequences of exposure to these EMF thingies. I think a small fee is involved.

  7. norrisL says:

    What’s up with the Europeans? They banned meat produced with the aid of hormones many years ago, despite the fact that there is little to no evidence of harm to consumers. This was a political decision to make them look good to the “green” constituents. Now they want to ban something else that is harmless. They banned (or tried to, not totally sure on this one) GM food because of concerns re health. Don’t these twits know that a Labrador is a GM dog (not that I’m about to eat a Labrador, I’d much rather a Chihuahua). Banning use of GM foods has the potential to increase starvation and yet little to no chance of causing health effects.

  8. eiskrystal says:

    “What’s up with the Europeans?”

    It’s when your politicians don’t have enough proper work so take a 2nd job as overprotective nannies.

    I’m not even sure why we have a Council of Europe and if this is their output, i’m sure i’m not the only one.

  9. tmac57 says:

    So turn off your cell phones. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off! Turn them off right in the middle of the sentence I’m speaking to you now! TURN THEM OFF…

    Howard Beale (sort of)

  10. locutusbrg says:

    !6 years olds and sometimes younger can smoke legally in europe, and they are worried about WiFi. That makes sense.

  11. ccbowers says:

    Speaking of Europe as if it is one country is problematic. It makes for a simplistic (and incorrect) view, since there are many different perspectives that people hold from many different countries/ cultures. Even when referring to a single country like the U.S., as if the country were a single entity with one perspective…I can only imagine what is said about the U.S. elsewhere using such simplistic thinking.

  12. DLC says:

    Dr. Panic, aka Dr Sanjay Gupta, is now as I write doing a half-hour long panic-fest on cell phones and cancer, on CNN. I couldn’t watch more than a few minutes of it. Horrible.

  13. DS1000 says:

    Thanks for the post jre, I almost just lost my breakfast.

  14. Chiara says:

    The World Health Organization stated that they will not comment on microwave radiation effects on people until 2015, when it will be able to establish effects on human beings. The WHO only began studying microwave radiation effects on children in 2009 and it said it won’t be able to comment until 2020.

    Since when is refusing to have your child be a guinea pig being labelled hysteria? If we are talking critical thinking, why is it companies in Canada and the U.S don’t have to prove their products are safe but instead the public has to prove they are unsafe?

    Some of the most brilliant minds in history never had any exposure to the ‘quality of education’ you refer to ( which translates into wifi access in the classroom).

    Isn’t this a tit bit hillarious? I mean I am all for the exposure to modern technology when it pertains my childs education but to make the argument that it is crucial to have access to wireless in order to call it quality education and to use my child as an experiment in the process is beyond ludacrous.

    “The American Academy of Pediatrics in 2004 issued a policy statement indicating that children 0 to 2 years of age should not be exposed to any form of technology, and school-aged children should be limited to 1 to 2 hours technology per day.

    Further research indicates that there is no research evidence to support the use of technology for the achievement of student literacy (with the exception of assistive technologies for children with significant disabilities), and mounting research which indicates causal links between technology and impairment to child physical, mental, social and academic performance.

    Responsible schools might be wise to consider discontinuing all technologies with students through grade six until such time as these technologies have proven to be effective and safe. Relying on the World Health Organization and Health Canada reports that wireless internet is safe is not recommended, as neither can produce long term studies to support their statements, and ultimately may result in harm to children.”

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