SkeptiCamp Winnipeg is a conference for the sharing of ideas. It is free and open to the public: anyone can attend and participate! Presentations and discussions focus on science and free inquiry, and the audience is encouraged to challenge presenters to defend their ideas. You can visit our SkeptiCamp page for information about upcoming events and links to past SkeptiCamp talks.
In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Gem, Ashlyn, Ian, and Laura discuss some terrible films (and one that’s pretty good), including “Resonance: Beings of Frequency”, a YouTube film that rivals “Thrive” in the contest for most misleading documentary.
I have of course written and presented on the subject of EMF and anti-WiFi scares before, so I was happy to provide a sound-bite or two. The coverage aired this evening, and while they cut an eight minute conversation down to a few seconds of talking head and some B-roll (hey, that’s how these things work), I was pleased that Jon Hendricks worked in a few of my talking points for me in his coverage.
In the brief time that I had, I tried to express just a couple of ideas: First, that the proposed guidelines seem to be based on rigorous scientific evidence (which is good). It’s always easy to cherry-pick a poorly-conducted study here or there that seems to show a previously unknown adverse health effect, but it’s important to take the quality of these studies into account, and view their findings in light of prior plausibility and the larger body of scientific literature. If you have small, poorly controlled studies, the results are far more likely to simply reflect the bias of the researchers. That’s something that we have to watch out for in science generally.
Second, the primary concerns here is for those who perceive that they suffer from some sort of electromagnetic hypersensitivity. These people may report headaches, nausea, dizziness, or difficulty concentrating when they perceive that they’ve been exposed to an electromagnetic field. But this has been well studied in double-blind, controlled provocation trials, and the results are very clear: those who report that they’re hypersensitive do experience a negative reaction when they believe that they are in the presence of an electromagnetic field, but that reaction occurs irrespective of whether they actually are. There is no correlation between actual exposure to EMF and the symptoms of electromagnetic hypersensitivity, and Health Canada and the World Health Organization both recognize this.
The article was published under a host of fear-mongering headlines, including “Are cellphones really dangerous?” and “Could smartphones be slowly killing us?”, bringing Betteridge’s Law of Headlines quickly to mind: if a headline is in the form of a question, the answer is probably “no”. Gifford-Jones makes his opinion known in his typical style: heavy on anecdotes, light on evidence, and simply recycling much of its material directly from past articles he’s written*.
He begins by relating the story of a young woman who had the habit of carrying her mobile phone in her bra. According to Gifford-Jones, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, “what shocked doctors was that the pattern of the cancer lined up precisely with the shape of the cellphone.” Gifford-Jones uses this story as a potent rhetorical device, and while he notes that it doesn’t constitute “proof”, the reader is left with the clear implication that radiation from the mobile phone is responsible for the cancer.
Usually I’d begin with an admonition about the plural of anecdote, but here we’re not even provided with more than one. We should also be wary of confirmation bias: it’s helpful to remember that one in nine women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, and given the dearth of functional pockets in women’s clothing, it would be surprising if none of them had the habit of carrying their phone in their bra. Dr. David Gorski (a practicing oncologist who writes for Science-Based Medicine) also notes that in this particular case, it isn’t at all strange that the cancer was just where the woman had a habit of keeping her phone, because she happened to keep her phone right where breast cancers are most common (I recommend reading Dr. Gorski’s discussion of the case over at SBM). Finally, I’d suggest that perhaps people often see what they expect to see.
In May 2010, the World Health Association released a 10-year study into cellphone use and cancer rates. WHO recognized a significant correlation between brain cancer and those who used their cellphone, wireless home phone or Wi-Fi for more than 30 minutes daily.
He seems to be referring to the Interphone study, published on 17 May 2010, but Gifford-Jones’ discussion of the findings is so woefully incomplete that calling it a distortion of the facts would be charitable. First, and most obviously, the study did not recognize “a significant correlation” between cancer and those who use wireless home phones or WiFi, because the scope of the investigation was limited to mobile phones (and did not, so far as I can determine, measure exposure to WiFi or cordless home phones at all).
So what did the Interphone study find? Well, the World Health Organization (when Gifford-Jones references the “World Health Association”, I assume that he is referring to the same body) provides a useful summary of the results in their mobile phone fact sheet:
The international pooled analysis of data gathered from 13 participating countries found no increased risk of glioma or meningioma with mobile phone use of more than 10 years. There are some indications of an increased risk of glioma for those who reported the highest 10% of cumulative hours of cell phone use, although there was no consistent trend of increasing risk with greater duration of use. The researchers concluded that biases and errors limit the strength of these conclusions and prevent a causal interpretation. [Emphasis added.]
So the study that Gifford-Jones cites as evidence that mobile phones cause cancer found no increased risk of brain cancer in those who have used mobile phones for the longest, found no dose-response relationship between exposure and risk of cancer, and concluded that the data do not support a causal relationship between cell phone use and cancer.
If Gifford-Jones were publicly disagreeing with the methodologies or statistical interpretation used by the IARC researchers, I’d have no problem with that—but that’s not what he’s doing. He’s using the authority of the WHO to lend rhetorical weight to his argument while cherry-picking little snippets of their analysis out of its proper context. And, as usual, he fails to provide his readers with the name of the study he’s referencing (despite the fact that the results are available online), making fact-checking that much more difficult.
At this point, proponents of a cell phone-cancer link may well point out that the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields in Group 2B as a “possible carcinogen”. And this is true, as far as it goes; but what this means is that the evidence is equivocal. While this does put radio waves in the same category as DDT, it also puts them in the same category as pickles, coffee, and “being a carpenter”. I’ll also hasten to point out that beer, wine, and other alcoholic beverages actually fall under Group 1 (that’s the “definitely known to be carcinogenic” group).
It’s important to remember that substances aren’t categorized based on how carcinogenic the IARC thinks they are; they’re divided up by how positive they are that a substance is at least a little carcinogenic. If they’re quite sure that something is a little bit carcinogenic (like alcohol), it goes into Group 1. If the evidence shows that something is probably carcinogenic, it goes in Group 2A. If the evidence is rather muddled (as is the case with radiofrequency EMF), regardless of how carcinogenic the IARC thinks it might be, it goes in Group 2B. So saying that cell phones are in the same category as DDT (or carpentry) can be misleading. It has nothing to do with how dangerous they think it might be: it has to do with how sure they are that it might be somewhat dangerous (in this case, not sure at all). Several large, randomized, controlled trials have found no link between cell phone use and cancer, while others have found a small correlation. Suffice it to say, I’m far from convinced.
Talking about the dangers of “radiation” requires nuance, a skill that Dr. Gifford-Jones seems loath to display in his writing. Every time you turn on a lightbulb or have your photograph taken with a flash, you are being bathed in radiation—but it’s a harmless form of radiation. Not all radiation is created equal, and talking about the dangers of radiation in such sweeping terms does us all a disservice.
* The article even includes his usual porcupine lovemaking analogy. I don’t know what it is about this comparison that he loves so much, but I find it strangely amusing that so many of his articles admonish people to “use cellphones like porcupines make love”. At least this time he got the phrasing right. In the past a slightly mangled version has made it past the editors, which on a literal reading is rather unsettling: “Teach your children to use cellphones like porcupines — make love very, very carefully.”
What follows is the text of my presentation from the Winnipeg Skeptics‘ fourth annual SkeptiCamp Winnipeg, an open conference celebrating science and critical thinking. Many thanks to everyone who attended and participated! We expect to have videos of all of the presentations online within the next little while.
Some of this presentation is adapted from a 2013 position paper my project team wrote for Bad Science Watch last year as part of our investigation into anti-WiFi activism in Canada. Bad Science Watch is an independent, non-profit science advocacy organization that aims to protect Canadian consumers by countering bad science in media and politics. The organisation is always looking for volunteers (and, of course, donations!). You can find out more at BadScienceWatch.ca.
So, cell phones and WiFi: What seems to be the problem?
Well, the problem is in the last few years we have an increasing number of people who are complaining that radiation generated by our modern conveniences (like computers, cell phones, appliances, and power lines) is responsible for a host of debilitating ailments in certain people who are “electromagnetically hypersensitive”. Activists are pushing for stricter government regulation, removal of wireless technology from schools, and radio-free zones.
To make sure that everyone’s on the same page, I’ll start with a bit of basic science.
First of all, what is radiation?
Well, “radiation” can mean a few different things. Generally, it’s the process by which energetic waves or particles travel through space. If you want to classify radiation broadly, there are two main ways you can do it: first, you can ask, “Is it particle radiation or electromagnetic radiation?” and second, “Is it ionizing or non-ionizing?”
Particle radiation occurs when large, unstable elements decay into smaller, more stable elements. Particle radiation often comes in the form of alpha particles (groups of two protons and two neutrons), beta particles (which are free electrons or positrons), or free neutrons. This sort of radioactive decay also results in a little bit of electromagnetic radiation (in the form of gamma rays), which we’ll talk about in a second. Particle radiation is a form of ionizing radiation (we’ll get to that too, but generally speaking that’s the bad stuff). We won’t be talking much about particle radiation today, but when people talk about stuff being “radioactive” this is often what they mean.
The second type of radiation is electromagnetic radiation. This is an energetic wave that propagates through space. Visible light is a type of electromagnetic radiation, and so are radio waves. EM radiation is a particular form of the more general electromagnetic field, which is a field produced by the movement of electrically charged objects, and which affects the behaviour of charged particles. Electromagnetic fields can be natural (the Earth and the Sun, for example, have their own EM fields), or they can be artificial. Artificial fields can be produced intentionally (microwaves use them to cook food, computers and phones use them to communicate), or they can be produced as a by-product of technology (pretty much anything that uses electricity will have an EM field).
Unlike particle radiation (which is generally ionizing), electromagnetic radiation can be either ionizing or non-ionizing. Radiation at non-ionizing frequencies may be sufficiently powerful to cause substances to heat up, but is not powerful enough to strip electrons from molecules (creating ions) and break molecular bonds.
The radio, microwave, infrared, and visible spectra are made up of non-ionizing radiation, while x-rays and gamma rays are forms of ionizing radiation, and ultraviolet radiation sort of straddles the line between the two.
High doses of non-ionizing radiation are known to cause thermal effects (think of putting your hand on an incandescent light bulb, or microwaving a pizza pocket), but low doses are not known to have any deleterious effects to living things. By contrast, high doses of ionizing radiation can result in serious burns and radiation sickness, while low, steady doses can result in genetic damage and cancerous tumours.
So that’s generally what scientific investigations into radiation has found: ionizing radiation causes direct damage to living systems, and non-ionizing radiation doesn’t (although it can heat stuff up). So what’s electromagnetic hypersensitivity?
Electromagnetic hypersensitivity (or EHS) is a term used to describe the adverse, subjective medical symptoms that some people report experiencing after exposure to certain frequencies of non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation (generally, the weak fields produced by WiFi hotspots, cell phones, or power lines). The symptoms associated vary from patient to patient, but often include fatigue, inability to sleep, headache, stress, muscle aches, and rashes. Sufferers report that their symptoms are worse in the city than in the country, and that they’re especially bad when they’re in close proximity to a device (such as a mobile phone) that emits a wireless signal.
Determining the prevalence of EHS is difficult, and estimates vary wildly depending on who’s asking the questions, with the World Health Organization reporting a few individuals per million, while surveys conducted by support groups peg the number as high as one in thirty. But the effects of this syndrome are not limited to those who describe themselves as hypersensitive. Because these symptoms can compromise quality of life, parents groups and teachers unions in Ontario and British Columbia are pressuring schools to remove all WiFi installations (with some success), a group called Citizens for Safe Technology is calling for BC Hydro to suspend its Smart Meter program, and according to news reports some sufferers taken to the hills, moving as far beyond the reach of cellular signals and power lines as they can.
So what’s the deal? Are these symptoms real or is it “all in their heads”?
First of all: What I just did? Don’t do that. While psychogenic illnesses certainly do exist (and we would do ourselves a great disservice to deny that), framing the issue in terms of diseases that are “real” or “all in your head” is, at best, unhelpful, not to mention wildly inaccurate.
So, let’s try that again: Are these symptoms really caused by a sensitivity to electromagnetic fields, or is something else going on?
Well, in 2004 the World Health Organization held a workshop on electromagnetic hypersensitivity. The working group proposed that we should no longer refer to “EHS”, because “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” implies a causal relationship between the reported symptoms and electromagnetic fields, and that relationship hasn’t been established. Because the actual cause of these symptoms isn’t known to be EMF, the WHO suggested that the syndrome be referred to as “idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields” (or IEI-EMF) instead. Catchy, isn’t it?
So that’s where things stood in 2004: causality hadn’t been established, and many scientists were skeptical, as there was no known mechanism by which non-ionizing radiation could result in these symptoms. How have things progressed since then?
Well, there’s been a fair amount of research: some of it good, some of it not so good. The highest quality papers that we were able to identify involved double-blind, controlled provocation studies in which individuals who identified themselves as “hypersensitive” were exposed either to a source of EMF or to an inactive control. Subjects were asked to report on the severity of their symptoms, which allowed researchers to determine whether symptoms differed depending on whether the source of electromagnetic radiation was turned “on” or “off”. While subjects reportedly experienced symptoms of EHS while in the presence of the device, researchers were able to find no consistent correlation between symptom severity and the presence or absence of electromagnetic fields. In addition, while many hypersensitive individuals claimed to be able to perceive the presence of EMF, it turned out that the majority were unable to do so under double-blind laboratory conditions. Is it just me, or does this remind anyone else of the JREF’s million-dollar challenge?
While these and similar studies have fared well in replication and peer review, studies do exist purporting to show that EHS symptoms are correlated to EMF. However, they tend to exhibit basic methodological problems not present in the provocation trials. The body of the literature suggests that the symptoms of EHS are not caused by exposure to EMF, and several systematic reviews, including those published by Röosli in 2008 and Rubin et al. in 2010, concluded that the nocebo effect (the placebo effect’s evil twin) played a significant role in the onset of EHS symptoms.
A 2006 study investigating several treatments for EHS symptoms, including “shielding” devices, “filters”, supplementation, cognitive behavioural therapy, and even acupuncture, found that only cognitive behavioural therapy outperformed placebo. The body of available evidence suggests that electromagnetic hypersensitivity is a psychogenic disorder. EHS is frequently compared to other controversial idiopathic conditions such as chronic Lyme disease.
Rather than addressing the methodological problems identified in their research or investigating plausible alternative causes of EHS, activists in Canada have generally focused on limiting access to WiFi, Smart Meters, and other devices that they claim (without evidence) to be the cause of EHS. One of the most prominent promoters of the link between EHS and EMF in Canada is Dr. Magda Havas, who teaches environmental studies at Trent University. She’s published many papers on the subject, including one that claims to show that EMF (somehow) increases blood sugar. Dr. Steven Novella points out that this particular paper is actually nothing more than a four-patient case study (a series of well-documented anecdotes). Additionally, exposure to EMF was often guessed-at instead of measured, and no blinding was employed at all.
Another Havas study (which apparently did not pass peer review) purported to show that use of cordless phones resulted in huge spikes in heart-rate on an EKG; however, when Lorne Trottier and Harvey Kofsky investigated, they were able to replicate the spike on the EKG when it wasn’t even hooked up to a patient! The best explanation seems to be that the EKG was experiencing electrical interference from the cordless phone—something that is specifically warned about in the heart rate monitor’s user manual.
Okay, enough about EMF. Don’t cell phones and WiFi cause cancer? I remember reading about something about the WHO classifying cell phones as a carcinogen a few years ago, don’t I?
No. Well, that’s not actually true. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields in Group 2B, which means that they are “possibly carcinogenic”. While this puts radio waves in the same category as DDT, it also puts them in the same category as coffee, pickles, and “being a carpenter”. It’s worth pointing out that beer, wine, and other alcoholic beverages actually fall under group 1 (the “definitely known to be carcinogenic” group).
There’s a lot of nuance here, but I’ll try to break it down. First of all, the categories aren’t divided up by how carcinogenic we think they are; they’re divided up by how sure we are that they’re at least a little carcinogenic. If we’re quite positive that they’re a little bit carcinogenic (like alcohol), they go in Group 1. If the evidence shows that something is probably carcinogenic, it goes in Group 2A. If the evidence is quite muddled (as is the case with radiofrequency EMF), regardless of how carcinogenic we think it might be, it goes in Group 2B. So saying that cell phones are in the same category as DDT (or carpentry) can be misleading. It has nothing to do with how dangerous we think it might be, it has to do with how sure we are that it might be dangerous (in this case, not sure at all). Several large, randomized, controlled trials have found no link between cell phone use and cancer, while others have found a correlation. I don’t have time to delve deep into the details today, but so far I’m not convinced.
Several companies market products aimed at “protecting” customers from the putative harmful effects of EMF, including “Stetzer” filters and cellphone cases designed to block electromagnetic radiation. These devices offer no demonstrated health benefit, and as for the cases, to the degree that they may indeed block EM radiation, they would also interfere with the functioning of your device: that “radiation” is how mobile phones work. But that won’t stop companies from making a quick buck at the consumer’s expense.
I want to talk specifically about Smart Meters for just a moment. Is anyone familiar with these? They record your electricity usage, like any other meter, but they report readings back to the utility automatically. The thing is, they do so wirelessly, which is apparently the chief cause for concern, and the data that they gather is much more temporally specific, opening the door for pricing that differs by time of day or season. I want to point out that there are potential concerns related to these devices that do not relate to health. I think that making this distinction is important, and it’s one I harp on quite a bit whenever I’m asked to talk about genetically engineered foodstuffs. Whether or not I sympathize with criticisms of Smart Meters that relate to privacy, market forces, or information security, I want to stress that using bad arguments (like EHS) to support a potentially just conclusion is intellectually dishonest, and it’s a good way to alienate potential allies, particularly if those people take critical thinking seriously.
It’s important to point out that, given the balance of the available evidence, removing sources of EMF (such as WiFi or Smart Meters) is very unlikely to have any effect on those suffering from this EHS. Not only will these efforts inconvenience many people and incur substantial monetary costs, they’re not actually going to get us any closer to helping anyone. And that, in my mind, is the biggest problem.
The WHO released a fact sheet on the subject of electromagnetic fields and health. I’ll quote their conclusions here:
“The symptoms [of EHS] are certainly real and can vary widely in their severity. Whatever its cause, EHS can be a disabling problem for the affected individual. EHS has no clear diagnostic criteria and there is no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to EMF exposure. Further, EHS is not a medical diagnosis, nor is it clear that it represents a single medical problem.”
To physicians, they further recommend: “Treatment of affected individuals should focus on the health symptoms and the clinical picture, and not on the person’s perceived need for reducing or eliminating EMF in the workplace or home.”
So, cell phones and WiFi: Should you be worried? I’m not.
Thanks to Catrina Duffy, Adrian Powell, Ryan Gray, and Jason Locklin, who joined me in spending countless hours poring through the literature on this project.
In this episode of Life, the Universe & Everything Else, Richelle McCullough, Gem Newman, and Donna Harris discuss local and international news of interest to skeptics, including an investigation of anti-WiFi activism in Canada, a new study examining the negative impact that personhood amendments have on women, a governmental report in Québec endorsing the right to euthanasia, and more.
Bad Science Watch is an independent non-profit activist organization dedicated to improving the lives of Canadians by countering bad science. The group is driven by a vision of a safer, healthier, and more prosperous Canada where critical thinking and sound science are paramount in the making of important societal decisions.
December saw the completion a project investigating anti-WiFi activism in Canada. The project committee (which I chaired) presented its findings to BSW, and the full report is now available on Bad Science Watch’s project page.
I’ll quote here from the conclusion of the paper:
We have been unable to identify any high quality reproducible evidence that any symptom of idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF) is caused by exposure to nonionizing electromagnetic radiation. Systematic reviews of both provocation studies and purported treatments for IEI-EMF support the conclusion that EMF is not the cause of the syndrome.
Despite the claims made by the authors of one review paper and the aforementioned anti-WiFi groups, Bad Science Watch was unable to locate any compelling evidence of legitimate scientific debate about WiFi induced illness, or the safety of low-level EMF exposure in general. While fringe groups continue to present flawed arguments and promote poorly designed experiments, the preponderance of research on the matter robustly dispels the connection between WiFi and IEI-EMF. For those tasked with making decisions about the inclusion of WiFi technology in their organization, school, or home, we can find no reason to ignore the advice of health organizations worldwide. The benefits of WiFi are numerous and varied, and there is no compelling evidence that any health effects arise as a result of this technology.