This is a critique of an article by Levitt and Lai entitled "Biological effects from exposure to electromagnetic radiation emitted by cell tower base stations and other antenna arrays" that was published by the Canadian NRC.
Note: The NRC issued the following disclaimer: "The authors of the study are not affiliated with or employed by the National Research Council of Canada. The views of the authors in no way reflect the opinions of the National Research Council of Canada. Requests for commentary about the contents of the study should be directed to the authors. The NRC Research Press is a not-for-profit company operating under the new name of Canadian Science Publishing. Canadian Science Publishing publishes peer-reviewed international research which is intended to reflect the views of the authors. Inquiries about the health effects of electromagnetic radiation emitted by cell tower base stations and other antenna arrays should be directed to Health Canada".
The Levitt & Lai article is supposed to be an exposé of the myriad health risks from cell phone towers and WiFi. But in reality it is little more than a repackaging of an old set of arguments and studies from the discredited BioInitiative Report (BIR). The BIR was self published in 2007 by a well known group of alarmists to promote their claims about the harmful effects of EMF. See our web page on the BIR. Henry Lai is one of the authors of the BIR. The BIR has been roundly criticized by a number of mainstream scientific organizations such as the EMF-NET Committee of the European Union, the COMAR Committee of the IEEE, the Heath Council of the Netherlands, and several others.
Levitt & Lai's article revives this old material. Levitt is a free lance "science" journalist, not a scientist, who has written other anti EMF tracts. Henry Lai is the author of a number of papers on the biological effects of EMF which were rejected by mainstream scientists, because his results could not be replicated by other scientists. For example his papers of 1995 & 1996 which purported to find that EMF causes damage to DNA have been widely criticized. Other scientists have failed to reproduce his results (Malyapa et al. 1997 *1 and Lagroye et al. 2004 *2). The Levitt & Lai article includes Lai's own discredited study of DNA breaks, but it does not include the studies that refute it. This is true for the virtually all the studies cited in the article.
The fact that Levitt & Lai, who are American, arranged for the publication of this article by the National Research Council of Canada at this time, rather than in a scientific journal, is an indication of the likely purpose of their article, which is to influence the political debate on WiFi in Canada
Levitt & Lai's article opens with a review of basic cell phone and WiFi technology. They cover some of the history of this technology and its growing mass market penetration. Their summary is very simplistic and contains some basic technical errors on issues such as why cell towers are more closely spaced than in the past (because there are many more users, not because of "shorter wavelengths"). It is full of highly suggestive and alarmist language. The article goes on to provide commentary on an extensive list of impressive sounding studies that purport to show harmful biological effects from low level EMF exposure - the kind produced by cellular telephone base stations and WiFi devices.
The most glaring oversight by Levitt & Lai is that they ignored the existence of numerous objective assessments of the scientific literature on EMF by mainstream public health authorities. These assessments are based on a balanced approach and look at ALL studies, both positive and negative based on criteria established by the WHO: "All studies, with either positive or negative effects, need to be evaluated and judged on their own merit, and then all together in a weight-of-evidence approach. It is important to determine how much a set of evidence changes the probability that exposure causes an outcome. Generally, studies must be replicated or be in agreement with similar studies. The evidence for an effect is further strengthened if the results from different types of studies (epidemiology and laboratory) point to the same conclusion."
Using this approach, mainstream scientists have determined that studies showing harm, such as the ones cited by Levitt & Lai, used a poor methodology and/or have not been replicated in follow up studies. In fact, most have been strongly refuted by far more comprehensive and rigorous studies. In many cases, serious flaws have been found with studies that show harm. An excellent example of such an assessment is a 2009 report by the SCENIHR Committee of the European Commission entitled Health Effects of Exposure to EMF. It stated (P 4) that: "It is concluded from three independent lines of evidence (epidemiological, animal and in vitro studies) that exposure to RF fields is unlikely to lead to an increase in cancer in humans." The science advisory bodies of virtually every industrialized country including the WHO, the American Cancer Society, and Health Canada, and similar organizations in Australia, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Sweden have published similar assessments with analogous conclusions: the is no credible evidence of health effects from EMF.
The failure by Levitt & Lai to provide a balanced assessment is an exercise in alarmism designed to bamboozle the public and is totally contrary to an objective scientific approach. The public is not equipped to understand hundreds of highly technical studies. The public health authorities are constantly reviewing the scientific literature looking at all new studies. In fact Health Canada recently released a statement about the Levitt & Lai article saying that "No new data is presented" and "…the conclusions made by the authors are not based on a full examination of the scientific evidence".
Levitt & Lai then go on to describe a laundry list of non specific symptoms that have come to be grouped under the label of electrohypersensitivity or EHS. These symptoms include headache, fatigue, depression, hyper activity, skin rashes, heart palpitations, etc. These are common symptoms that many people experience as a result of the stresses and strains of modern life. He suggests that this grab bag of symptoms may be due to the alleged harmful biological effects ascribed to EMF according to his selected studies.
There are two main problems with this leap of illogical deduction. First, as has already been pointed out, the poorly done studies quoted by Levitt & Lai have been roundly rejected by mainstream scientists. If harmful biological effects from EMF do not exist, it seems impossible for this to cause EHS symptoms. Second, virtually all double blind studies that been conducted on individuals who claim to be electrosensitive have shown that EMF does not cause any symptoms. Rubin et al have done a systematic overview of all (46) double blind studies. They consistently show negative results. Levitt & Lai are honest enough to mention a few of these double blind studies, and not a single one supports their electrosensitivity claims. Double blind testing is the gold standard of evidence in science.
Yet somehow Levitt & Lai manage to ignore the obvious conclusions of these key studies and insist that the beliefs of EHS individuals cannot be wrong. They cite a number of non double blind studies such as surveys of people living near cell phone towers. These "studies" amount to little more than opinion polls of people who associate their EHS symptoms with their proximity to these towers. They state: "It makes little sense to keep denying health symptoms that are being reported in good faith". This is the illogic of the children's fable about the sky is falling where Chicken Little whips up the populace into a state of mass hysteria. This is not science.
The alarmist community, which includes a small but very vocal group of scientists such as Lai, is engaged in a campaign to actively disseminate their pseudo-scientific studies to the public. They even have their own self appointed organization with the impressive sounding name: International Commission for Electromagnetic Safety (ICEMS). They are attempting to do an end run around the mainstream scientists responsible for public health standards. Their goal is to alarm enough members of the public to believe that the "sky is falling" with respect to EMF, and use this to sway politicians to do their bidding.
An excellent recent example of this was a recent flair up in Barrie Ontario, where a group of parents alleged that their kids where getting sick in school due to the presence of WiFi. This included all the usual non specific EHS symptoms such as heart palpitations. This got carried to the point where Rodney Palmer, a spokesman for the parents, in testimony before a Canadian Parliamentary hearing, claimed that a couple of children had suffered "heart attacks" due to WiFi in their schools. He cited a recent "study" written by Dr. Magda Havas, one of the leading alarmists to back up his claim. The Havas study is so fatally flawed that a first year medical student could debunk it.
This tactic has already achieved some "success" in Europe and a few other countries where politicians have ignored the advice of their own scientists to impose new restrictions on EMF. This is also similar to the tactics of the anti-vaccine movement, and climate change deniers. The motivations of the individuals in these groups varies, but one of the most harmful effects on society that they share is similar. This is the growing distrust of science and rationality by the public. In a society that is totally dependent on science and technology, such irrational beliefs can have devastating consequences.
It is beyond the scope of this document to comment on every "study" that is cited in the Levitt & Lai article. We have refuted a handful of examples such as some of the DNA studies conducted by Lai himself. We could have discussed and refuted many others, but this is not the point. Full and ongoing assessments of the scientific literature for any possible threats to public health are the responsibility of publicly appointed health science bodies throughout the world. Virtually all these bodies are unanimous in their conclusion that EMF within current limits poses no threat to health. When the public and politicians start paying attention to charlatans with a pseudoscientific agenda while ignoring their own science experts, we are treading on dangerous ground.
1. Malyapa RS, Ahern EW, Straube WL, Moros EG, Pickard WF, Roti Roti JL. Measurement of DNA damage after exposure to 2450 MHz electromagnetic radiation. Radiat Res 148:608-617; 1997.
2. Lagroye I, Anane R, Wettring BA, Moros EG, Straube WL, Laregina M, Niehoff M, Pickard WF, Baty J, Roti Roti JL. Measurement of DNA damage after acute exposure to pulsed wave 2450 microwaves in rat brain cells by two alkaline comet assay methods. Int J Radiat Biol 80:11-21; 2004.
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