TORONTO – Federal guidelines that spell out safe exposure levels of radiofrequency waves emitted by cellphones and other wireless devices appear to be mostly adequate, but research to clarify the potential risk of cancer should be aggressively pursued, an expert panel recommends.
The Royal Society of Canada panel issued its report Tuesday on Health Canada’s Safety Code 6, which sets out limits on exposure to radiofrequency fields aimed at protecting the health of workers and the general public.
The panel was asked by Health Canada to recommend any necessary changes to the code following a review of the latest research on adverse health effects linked to radio waves from mobile phones, Wi-Fi equipment, cellular phone towers and TV/radio broadcast antennas.
“The conclusion of the panel was that the Safety Code 6 limits are science-based and are designed to avoid all known hazards of radiofrequency radiation,” said panel chair Paul Demers, director of the Occupational Cancer Research Centre in Toronto.
“And we do not believe at this time that additional precautionary measures should be introduced directly into the exposure levels or limits.”
However, the eight-member panel said Health Canada should pursue research aimed at determining if there is a link between exposure to radiofrequency waves from ubiquitous wireless devices and cases of cancer.
“That certainly is one of the areas that has arisen as a concern,” said Demers, noting that studies investigating the issue have had inconsistent results.
“This is an area that certainly deserves further scrutiny, but at this point it’s still in the possible category in terms of a potential health effect. So that’s why we recommend that there still be research ongoing.”
Canadians for Safe Technology, a non-profit group whose stated goal is to educate Canadians and policy makers about the dangers of exposure to unsafe levels of wireless radiation, reacted angrily to the report.
The organization accused the panel of siding with the wireless industry and ignoring scientific data warning of health risks.
“This RSC review is an expensive exercise that was corrupted by industry and so is a waste of taxpayer dollars,” CEO Frank Clegg said in a release, calling the report’s findings “questionable at best.”
“Rather than providing value to Health Canada, RSC’s rubber stamp leaves Canadians exposed to unprecedented risk.”
As part of its review, the expert panel also sought input from the public about possible adverse health effects from radiofrequency waves.
Demers said members heard testimony from a number of people who considered themselves to be hypersensitive to emissions, with symptoms that fall under a broadly defined category called idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields, or IEI-EMF.
“We were very concerned with the health of these folks who did present to the panel,” he said. “So we recommended that Health Canada further investigate their problem … understanding their health conditions and finding ways to find effective treatments for these individuals.”
While there is no scientific evidence to pinpoint a clear relationship between exposure to radiofrequency waves and reported symptoms, Demers said “there are people who are seriously ill and seriously concerned about that, and we believe that this should be a priority area for research to identify just what is causing their symptoms.”
Panel member Ken Foster, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the health effects of electromagnetic fields, said studies on human exposure to Wi-Fi devices have provided little useful data on biological effects.
“There’s very good evidence about how much exposure these things produce, and based on what we know and within the framework of Safety Code 6, we can say that the exposure is below that which is reasonably expected to be hazardous,” he said.
“As far as proving that the use of Wi-Fi does not cause health effects, well, that’s a very difficult question and there’s not much data at this point.”
Demers said many people are worried about children’s exposure to radiofrequency waves. Concerns include possible effects of cellphone emissions on still-developing brains, since research has shown that about one-third of radio waves are absorbed through the skull.
“Again we didn’t find specific evidence to say that children were at increased risk, but as a general principle, we usually try to take a higher level of action when it comes to our children.”
Franco Momoli, an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa who’s involved in brain cancer research, said that based on current scientific data, Safety Code 6 restrictions seem to be “fairly good, several factors below what evidence would suggest is not safe.”
Momoli is among researchers taking part in MOBI-KIDS, an international study designed to assess whether exposure to emissions from wireless telecommunication technologies increases the risk of kids, teens and young adults developing a brain tumour.
As it stands, the scientific jury is still out as to whether radiofrequency fields can cause brain tumours, he said. A 2011 European study, known as the CEFALO project, determined there was no causal relationship brain tumours and exposure, “either in terms of the amount of mobile phone use or by localization of the brain tumour.”
“Not everyone agreed with that interpretation. Some thought there was something happening there,” Momoli said of the data.
Because children have smaller bone structures, a cellphone held to the ear would be in closer proximity to the brain compared to an adult, so there’s a suggestion that radio waves might penetrate more deeply.
“There’s a general feeling that if someone would be susceptible to radiofrequency emissions, actually causing tumours, it might be kids.”