Sense about Science - Misleading on Radiation, EMFs, Health
Article from http://www.powerwatch.org.uk
Sense about science have recently published a very one-sided report entitled "Making Sense of Radiation" on the associations between EMFs and health. Not only did this report only present one side of an argument that has multiple conflicting opinions (both of which are based on peer-reviewed science), but it also contained a number of factual errors and omissions.
Below, we have separated and explained our reasoning for 11 factual issues we have with the report into "factually incorrect", and "factually misleading" (i.e. facts spun in a misleading manner).
Factually incorrect statements
1. "Non-ionising radiation does not have enough energy to damage or kill the cell, and so cannot cause cancer." ("The general picture", section 2, paragraph 2 - page 5)
This is a factually incorrect statement as it is infers that the ability to cause cancer is based entirely on radiation having sufficient energy to kill or damage the cell. Firstly, and importantly, killing the cell will have no impact on cancer, as dead cells are not cancerous. Secondly, and equally importantly, there is supportive evidence to suggest that cell damage can be caused by non-ionising radiation without needing sufficient energy break DNA strands via the production of reactive oxygen species [Friedman 2007, Yao May 2008(1), Yao May 2008(2)].
Professor Gerald Scott, an authority on polymer chemistry and free radicals, comments: "To distinguish between ionising and non-ionising radiation on the grounds that only ions cause biological damage is both simplistic and misleading. UV radiation is damaging because it produces neutral free radicals that are a major cause of disease in biological organisms. Furthermore there does not seem to be one chemist among the contributors who might understand the mechanisms of free radical formation, which as we have discussed previously frequently involves low energy excitation of atoms (particularly in transition metal complexes such as haematin) from a ground to an excited state that is quite different from breaking a carbon-carbon bond by high energy irradiation but can be equally damaging to cells."
2. "... it [the term Electrosmog] suggests that RF radiation is harmful when there is no evidence that it is." ("The general picture", section 5, paragraph 1 - page 5)
This is a quite unbelievable statement in a document attempting to clarify issues on science, and verges on irresponsible. To claim that there is no evidence that RF radiation is harmful is ignore a plethora of literature supporting quite the opposite. From in vivo effects such as carcinogenisis[Lonn Nov 2004, Hardell 2007, Hours 2007] and fertility[Erogul 2006, Agarwal Jan 2008, Baste 2008], to in vitro effects such as DNA damage[Friedman 2007, Yao May 2008(1), Yao May 2008(2)] and cell death [Ferreira 2006, Panagopoulos 2007, Yan 2008], the overall balance of papers is about 55:45 in the favour of those finding some form of effect. Not that this in itself is sufficient for any claims of causality, but the statement that the evidence is not there is simply wrong.
3. "Some campaigners suggest that corona ions can attach themselves to pollutants in the environment making them more likely to accumulate in the body. Research by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) concluded that this effect is small and does not cause harm." ("Radiation and health effects", section 10, paragraph 1 - page 7)
This is both misleading and incorrect. Firstly, the campaigners they are referring to are unclear, but the work done to date by Professor Denis Henshaw and his department[Fews 1999a, Fews 1999b, Henshaw 2008] supports other literature[Cohen 1998] suggesting that the impact of corona ions has a strong and replicable effect on pollutant deposition in the lung. Neither WHO nor the NRPB have published any original research on corona ions. It may be that the impact of corona ions is not substantial, but there is currently insuffient evidence to say one way or another, and claiming that corona ions conclusively "aren't harmful to health" is premature and scientifically unjustifiable.
Factually misleading statements
1. "Non-ionising radiation ... has not been shown to have longer-term ill effects." ("The general picture", section 2, paragraph 1 - page 4)
If "not been shown" is meant to imply "not been found", then it would be a false statement. There is steadily mounting evidence, especially with mobile phone base stations, that there may well be chronic ill effects associated with non-ionising radiation exposure[Bortkiewicz 2004, Yurekli 2006, Abdel-rassoul 2007]. This has not been shown to be causal, but to imply that the evidence does not exist is misleading.
2. "Although a government review recommended the precaution of restricting children's mobile use to "essential use", there is no evidence to show that they are adversely affected by radio frequency radiation." ("Radiation and health", section 7, paragraph 2 - page 6)
Actually, due to ethical restrictions in many countries, there is no real research into whether children are adversely affected by radio frequency radiation at all. However, there is plenty of evidence supporting the possibility that RF radiation may affect health in general (see factually incorrect statement number 2 above for references), and research also highlights the possibility that child brain exposure to rf radiation from localised sources (such as using a phone) is likely to be greater to that of an adult [Ghandi 1996, Ghandi 2002, Christ 2005, de Salles 2006, Wiart 2008]. This adjustment in absorbed dose may influence any magnitude of any health end points caused by the exposure, or it may not, but the statement in the report suggests there is simply no justification for concern, something not supported by the science itself.
3. "There are no known biological effects from mobile phones' RF radiation" ("Radiation and health effects", section 9, heading - page 7)
By using the term "known", Sense about science are stating that no biological effects from mobile phone radiation exposure have been established. As we have previously covered, this requires a very high level of certainty to be achieved. There is certainly scientific research supporting the possibility of biological effects, including a number of neurological endpoints[Krause 2000, Koivisto 2000, Oktay 2006, Wiholm 2008].
4. "There is no evidence that 'pulsing' is dangerous" ("Radiation and health", section 11, heading - page 7)
According to Sense about science, "anti-EMF campaigners" (no information to say who these are or when these claims were made) say "low frequency 'pulsing' might be dangerous since one research paper found that human's cell functions might be affected at a frequency of 16 Hz". We are not familiar with this reasoning, nor with the specific 16 Hz argument. It is very unclear what affect the amplitude modulation (pulsing) of RF signals has on any endpoints, but there is certainly some published evidence that they may affect genotoxicity to some degree, at frequencies designed to simulate GSM base station exposure (2, 8, 217, 1736 Hz and the corresponding harmonics) [Huber 2002, Huber 2005]. It is not known whether this adjusts the "danger level" of exposure, but the implication that it is irrelevent is unfounded.
5. "The final report (INTERPHONE) has not yet been published but most of the countries have found no causal relationship between mobile phone use and brain tumours" ("Debates about mobile phones, pylons and wi-fi radiation", section 14, paragraph 1 - page 9)
It is very true that a causal relationship has not been found. In reality, to expect any one project to find a causal relationship in itself would require a very consistent finding of strongly significant increases in risk. The typical latency of most brain tumours is at least 15 (and typically 25) years from exposure to the causative agent. At this point we have very little data from those who have used their phones for greater than 10 years, and we would therefore not expect to be finding an association at this point. Despite this, and the documented flaws in the protocol (accepted by the Interphone group themselves), a number of Interphone papers have found significant increases in risk [Lonn Nov 2004, Schoemaker 2005, Hours 2007] that support work done outside of the project by Lennart Hardell in Sweden[Hardell 2005, Hardell 2006, Hardell 2007]. The reason that the full results have not yet been published is due to the Interphone researchers being split into 3 roughly even groups. One group believes that the research shows sufficient evidence that there is an increase in long term risk that it should be highlighted with recommendations for further research, another believes that any increases are likely to be artefacts and there is no increase in risk, and another believes that the study protocol is so flawed that no conclusions can be drawn one way or the other (an issue covered in great detail on Microwave News). For Sense about science to reduce this to leave the impression no risk has been found is a very misleading picture of the science, and contradicts the "clearer picture" they state that the report was written to achieve.
6. "Mobile phone masts and harmful health effects" ("Debates about mobile phones, pylons and wi-fi radiation", section 16, whole section - page 10)
This section is littered with misleading or one-sided points. Firstly, the section describes typical exposure levels from base stations (masts) as being considerably lower than typical exposures from using a phone (which is absolutely correct) and proceeds to make a comparison between this level and ICNIRP guidance levels, which are only designed to restrict exposure above levels where thermal effects are known to occur. The section then claims that in over 30 reviews, none have found evidence have harmful health effects. This is simply untrue. There have been no reviews explicitly on base station exposure, and the general RF (and mobile phones specifically) that have covered base station exposure have not found sufficient literature to draw conclusions. The real issue is that there are less than 20 papers that have been published on base stations and their health effects, and this is too small a number to draw conclusions of any kind. Thus far the papers that have been published are skewed heavily towards papers showing an effect (about 85% of papers show statistically significant increases in risk for a number of health endpoints) either on cancer[Wolf 2004, Eger 2004] or on somatic symptoms such as headaches, nausea, concentration or memory problems[Bortkiewicz 2004, Yurekli 2006, Abdel-rassoul 2007]. That these are found despite the undisputed claim that the exposure levels are consdiderably lower than ICNIRP guidance levels draws into question the possibility (should the increases in risk be found to be accurate) that ICNIRP guidance levels are not appropriate for the general public's protection.
7. "Pylons and leukaemia" ("Debates about mobile phones, pylons and wi-fi radiation", section 17, heading - page 10)
This section does admit that the science supports an association between overhead powerlines and childhood leukaemia, though caveats it as a "non-causal" association due to a lack of animal model. However, the section fails to mention any of the literature supporting a possible association between power frequency electromagnetic fields and adult leukaemia [Tynes 2003, O'Carroll 2008], neurodegenerative diseases (such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) [Feychting 2003, Hakansson 2003, Ahlbom 2001], miscarriage [Lee 2002, Li 2002, Cao 2006]. It also fails to mention the only existing meta-analysis looking at an association with Alzheimer's disease, which found a strongly statistically significant doubling in risk (CI 1.51-2.80) [Garcia 2008].
8. "Someone sitting in a Wi-Fi 'hotspot' for a whole year, according to the Health Protection Agency, would be exposed to the equivalent radiation dose of a 20-minute call on a mobile phone" ("Debates about mobile phones, pylons and wi-fi radiation", section 18, paragraph 1 - page 11)
This is a completely unscientific statement, without any basis in science or physics. Originally stated by Michael Clark in 2006, he has repeatedly refused to answer our questions to him regarding the figures to back up the comparison. Our attempts (using basic physics - e.g. inverse square law - and specs documents of 802.11g wireless cards and access points) to calculate a typical equivalent exposure to 20 minutes on a mobile phone came to a timeframe two orders of magnitude lower, approximately 8 days at school if we are to make the assumption that only 2 hours of a school day actually involves a wifi enabled lesson. At the moment there is no published research into the health effects of Wifi (though measurements from the ITIS foundationin Switzerland, with state of the art measuring environments and equipment, find typical exposure levels to be very similar to those about 60-70 metres from a mobile base station, where the main beam typically reaches ground level) so the only reasonable conclusion is that "it is unknown whether effects exists at this point as no reseach has yet been carried out".
Conclusions and Summary
In fairness, and in credit to the report, the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation was well covered, giving a good background to the article. The fact that ionising radiation can be used in treatment was well explained, with some solid figures surrounding clinical treatment provided by Dr Stephen Keevil. He also covered the issues surrounding MRI treatment and the issues with inadequately considered "all-encompassing" registrictive legislation potentially causing more harm than good.
However, on the the contentious and controversial issues around non-ionising radiation (both ELF and RF), the report was strongly biased and left out any argument that didn't support the opinion of the authors. It is ironic that such a one-sided argument is presented by a charitable trust that aims to dispel misleading representation of science. Claiming that they "work with scientists and civic groups to promote evidence and scientific reasoning in public discussion", they show a consistent trend of not mentioning evidence that highlights a possible health issue, not allowing for the possibility of scientific plurality (where multiple sides have differing opinions, both based on published scientific evidence but based on a difference of interpretation of the science), and stating areas of considerable uncertainty as absolute fact - something which is rarely possible on new areas of science. There are very few references to any published science within the report, only 8 papers across 20 pages, and never more than 2 references for any given point. Instead of "Making Sense of Radiation", as the title claims, very little in the demonstrates the uncertainty and complexity underlying the current interpretations of existing science on electromagnetic fields and their health effects.
This summary and response is not intended to be the balanced article that the Sense about Science report should have been, but is intended to offer a scientifically supported alternative point of view that the report chose to ignore.
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