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Commentary

Emerging Public Health Challenge:
Electromagnetic Radiation (EMR)
in the Environment

By William Collinge, PhD, MPH

Overwhelming evidence indicates that the flooding of our environment with EMR from communication technologies has serious implications for human health. Dr. Anthony Miller, an epidemiologist from the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health, who served on the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer that categorized EMR as a "possible" carcinogen, now, in light of more recent findings, recommends it be re-classified as a "probable" carcinogen. Click here to see the 4 minute video of his presentation to the Toronto Council.

Unfortunately, this issue has not yet reached the level of awareness needed to bring about the serious re-examination of safety and planning for such technologies. This is a classic example of cultural lag -- the notion that culture takes time to catch up with technological innovations, and that social problems and conflicts are caused by this lag.

A Preponderance of Evidence
There are now over 1,200 published scientific studies examining whether EMR has physiological or health effects. As shown in the table below, the preponderance of studies, by a 4:1 ratio, find significant impacts.

Perhaps the most urgent findings concern cell tower proliferation in residential areas. Here are a few recent developments on this topic:

  • A study of symptoms associated with proximity to cell towers found significant adverse impacts on appetite, concentration, irritability, and sleep quality.
  • An epidemiological study in Netanya, Israel, just north of Tel Aviv, found an association between increased incidence of cancer and living in proximity to a cell phone tower.
  • Another study found significantly elevated levels of DNA damage in a sample of residents living within 300 meters of a cell tower compared to a matched sample living further away. This is important because all cancer originates with unrepaired DNA damage.
  • Wildlife is at risk as well. Bee colony collapse is now a global phenomenon threating agriculture and ultimately our food supply. A recent study has attributed this to the sudden influx of EMR into the environment, disabling the navigation mechanisms of honey bees developed over millions of years and preventing them from returning back to their hives. And, the US Department of the Interior is on record expressing a similar concern over the impact of cell tower emissions on migratory birds.

As the table indicates there are studies with both positive and negative findings. In any large body of research such as this conflicting findings are expected. For this reason scientists look at the body of research as a whole to see what direction it is pointing, rather than relying on any one study as "proof" one way or another. This makes the ratio of positive to negative findings all the more important.

Change Takes Time
It will take time for the evidence on EMR effects to be accepted by popular culture and even longer to be reflected in new policies that protect the public. For example, the current guidelines on cell tower emissions were set in 1999 by the FCC (not a health science body) and are woefully out of touch with current knowledge. Their standards are based on only the thermal effects of EMR, rather than current knowldege of the NON-thermal effects that are the subject of recent study. Thus, they allow continuous exposure levels to our population and wildlife that are many times higher than the levels at which biological effects are now known to occur from non-thermal effects.

Other countries that have longer history with EMR-producing technologies are further down the road on the cultural lag timeline, and as a result have already taken serious steps to protect children and the general population. The US lags behind in part due to our geographic separateness making us less aware of what is happening in other countries. But, we also lag due to our approach to democracy and governance: policy is largely shaped by commercial interests, while in countries where public health is the priority, policy is informed by science.

Now the insurance industry, with many brain tumor cases related to cell phones already in process, refuses to provide product liability insurance on cell phones for fear that cancer-related litigation may turn out like tobacco or asbestos litigation did, with huge punitive awards for denying or ignoring evidence.

Denial is a Stage in the Process
Denial is a normal and expected dynamic in cultural lag. Denial is present at all levels of society -- from legislation and government policies, to corporate marketing plans, to private consumer behaviors.

Denial takes time to fade, but it does fade over time. Government health education efforts--like the cancer warnings on cigerette labels--do gradually have impact; yet, while smoking rates and lung cancer deaths have declined markedly since warning labels began, individuals are still free to smoke, and many do even with full awareness of the health risks. In time we have come around to adopting new societal norms regarding second hand smoke, but people still smoke.

Denial of the potential health impacts of EMR will also take time to overcome. Right now it takes the form of these predictable responses:

  1. "Government regulations on EMR exposure surely must be adequate and trustworthy."
  2. "No real evidence exists of adverse effects worthy of concern."
  3. "The research designs or conclusions of studies finding effects are flawed."
  4. "Industry-funded studies showing no effects give us proof of safety."
  5. "Any effects found are not of serious consequence to humans or wildlife."
  6. "If there are any real EMR risks they are just normal risks in daily living, like driving or flying, that should simply be accepted as part of modern life."

Rational and Irrational Fears
Common human reactions when confronted with new and disturbing information are to deny, deflect, project, or attack the messenger by objectifying or labeling him or her (e.g., "fear monger"). The impulse to blame the messenger is understandable--it is, after all, an expression of real fear being triggered in the one doing the labeling. The notion of adverse EMR effects certainly should induce fear, which hopefully translates into motivation to change.

Over time, as the information becomes more familiar, most people get over their initial reactions and come to accept it. It certainly helps when government agencies take action to publicly acknowledge a problem and roll out protective policies, educational public service announcements and guidance. Until then, we need to rely on other avenues for informing the public. Grassroots efforts on this are taking place all around the US now.

An irrational fear associated with the news of EMR effects is that to accept their reality means having to sacrifice the benefits and convenience of modern technology. This is false. Certainly adaptations are required, but we did manage to adapt to the inconveniences of seatbelt laws and TSA security checks, and we are all safer as a result.

Simple Healthy Solutions
To a large extent we can have our cake and eat it too. Here are a few tips I have gleaned from the research and selected health advocacy websites for safe living in a world with EMR:

  • Keep your cell phone in airplane mode when not using it, and especially at night while sleeping.
  • Use your cell phone only on speaker or with a headset, never close to your head.
  • Do not carry your phone next to your body (especially in your bra), unless you are sure it is in airplane mode.
  • At home or work turn off the wifi function of your router and computer and use an ethernet cable (which is faster!). Note: Turning off wifi on your computer does not turn it off on the router, you have to access your router settings separately.
  • Use land line phones (you are likely already wired for them) and corded handsets (not cordless). Cordless base stations are another strong source of radiation.
  • If you must use wifi, at least power off the router at night to eliminate exposure while sleeping.
  • Avoid subjecting your brain to EMR stimulation in the evening so it can calm down before bedtime.
  • Advocate for no wifi in schools to protect children's sensitive and developing brains.

Do You Have a Right to Non-Exposure?
Not at this time. While the above steps alow you to control much of your exposure, unfortunately you do not have control over the radiation emitted 24/7 by nearby cell towers. Freedom from cell tower EMR is not a right in the US, though it has been adjuducated as a right elsewhere. The best we can do in the US is to advocate for setbacks from residential areas. The good news here is that physiological effects are most acute the closer you are to the tower, so the larger the setback, the less likely you are to experience them.

Join with your neighbors to advocate for responsible cell tower locations in your community--on the periphery and with maximum possible setbacks from residential areas that protect your neighborhood and reduce exposure. Cell towers should be prohibited from inside residential areas or near schools, hospitals, facilities for the elderly and other locations with vulnerable populations.

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To read a recent op-ed by William Collinge published in the Eugene Register Guard click here.


RELIABLE SOURCES

The inks below are grouped by general topic, and are offered for those who wish to learn more. This page will be updated in the coming weeks with more information.

LOCAL COMMUNITY ACTION

Video (3 parts): Community Forum on Cell Towers in Eugene, with Dr. Paul Dart and Lane County Commissioner Pete Sorenson, December 18, 2014, Good Samarian Center

Coalition of Local Oversight of Utility Technologies (CLOUT) listing of several cities' resolutions calling for revision or repeal of the Telecommunications Act of 1996

City of Glendale, California, municipal code regarding cell tower locations -- widely regarded as a model for other cities

Church pulls plug on plan for AT&T cell tower. Pastor takes the high road after neighborhood outcry, stating "We are saddened at the strife this has caused. We are people of peace."

Fairfield Grace suspends lease negotiations with cell carrier company, invites community to help clarify law. More on the above case where a church chose to respect its community over the desire for more money.

RespectPDX.org, website reporting community action regarding cell towers in Portland. Includes links to many other helpful resources.

FEDERAL ISSUES (USA)

Dept. of Interior Attacks FCC regarding Adverse Impact of Cell Tower Radiation on Wildlife

Dept. of Interior letter to the FCC, including scientific documentation

CDC Calls for Caution on Cell Phones, Then Gets Cold Feet: First Federal Agency To Acknowledge Risk Soon Backs Down

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

Declaration: Scientists call for Protection from Radiofrequency Radiation Exposure

European Citizens Initiative on Electromagnetic Radiation. This Initiative calls for full application of the Precautionary Principle. The Initiative will be presented to the European Commission in April 2015.

World Health Organization Classifies Electromagnetic Fields as Possibly Carcinogenic to Humans

Radiofrequency (RF) Fields: Possibly, Probably, or Definitely Carcinogenic — The Evidence Mounts Toward the Latter -- Excellent discussion of the progression of data since the WHO's initial classification of EMR as a "2B" (possible) carcinogen, leading to the recommendation to re-classify as "2A" (probable) or "1" (definite) carcinogen.

Taiwan dismantles 1,500 cell phone base stations to protect neighborhoods and schools

SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE AND SELECTED STUDIES

Why Wireless Exposure Should be a 2A Classification ("Probable Carcinogen") at the WHO

Powerwatch.org.uk. An excellent resource for comprehensive listing of studies on electromagnetic fields (EMF) and health-related effects. Powerwatch uses automatic updates from the Pubmed database (US National Institutes of Health, National Libarary of Medicine) to track the latest scientific literature as it is added.

Testimony presented to the Oregon State Senate Health and Human Services Committee on December 8, 2014, by Dr. Paul Dart and Dr. Martin Pall

Video: PBS Interview with neurosurgeon Peter Black, MD on brain cancer and cell phone use

Electromagnetic Radiation (EMR) Clashes with Honey Bees

Videos: Symposium on Health Issues Associated with the Exposure to Electromagnetic Fields and Microwave Radiation, 9/12/14, Toronto. Excellent presentations on the state of knowledge of EMR effects by Devra Davis, PhD, MPH, Hugh Taylor, MD, Anthony Miller, MD, Frank Clegg, and Magda Havas, PhD

Video: History of Electromagnetic Pollution: Eileen O’Connor, Director, Radiation Research Trust (U.K.), Commonwealth Club 11-18-10 (video, 15 minutes)

BioInitiative 2012 Report Conclusions

BioInitiative 2012 Research Summaries

A cross-sectional case control study on genetic damage in individuals residing in the vicinity of a mobile phone base station

CHILD ADVOCACY

National Association for Children and Safe Technology. Includes news of what is happening in the US and other countries to protect children from newly recognized threats to their health.

International Precautionary Actions that Protect Children. Listing of actions in other countries to protect children.

Portland Public Schools Complaint and Declarations regarding the school system's plan to have wifi throughout the schools. This site contains highly informative documents about the threat to our children's health from wifi in the schools (a trend that is now being reversed in more progressive countries who tried it and have found serious health impacts). Especially see the Declaration by Dr. Magda Havas.

LESSONS FROM HISTORY

RF as an Emerging Insurance Risk

Harvard Business Review article: "What Asbestos Taught Me About Managing Risk" -- an instructive article about corporate organizational culture and denial of health risks

The history of the discovery of the cigarette–lung cancer link: evidentiary traditions, corporate denial, global toll -- an instructive article by a Stanford historian on cultural lag and manipulation of social attitudes toward a serious health threat

Tobacco Explained: The truth about the tobacco industry …in its own words-- an instructive article about the logic and language of denial used by the tobacco industry to delay recognition of evidence of a cancer-smoking link

SAFE PRACTICES

EMF Solutions for Safer Environments, an excellent resource for EMF education

Video: Exposure tip: How to eliminate exposure to wi-fi radiation by disabling the wireless function of your modem and connecting your computer by ethernet cable instead

GENERAL ADVOCACY WEBSITES

WirelessWatchBlog.org compilation of links to informative websites

Center for Electrosmog Prevention