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Please Don’t Build a Cellphone Tower Because We’re “Afraid of the Unknown”

May 23, 2011 3 comments
File:Cell Phone Tower.jpg

Photo by Joe Ravi

The CBC reports that residents of Surrey and Port Coquitlam, BC are petitioning against the construction of two new cell phone towers in the area.

There is a proposal on the table to build two cell phone towers in the area of Cloverdale, as people often complain of losing their cell phone signal in this area.

Some residents oppose the construction mainly due to fear of health effects from the radiation emitted by the towers.

The CBC interviewed a Coquitlam resident, Andrea Gretchev, and asked what she thought the tower construction would do and why she opposed its construction,

“I can’t say that this causes anything in particular, because I don’t know,” Gretchev said. “But because I don’t know, I don’t want to live next to a cell tower.”

Fear of the unknown is a natural human response and I can’t begrudge the residents this natural instinct.

But for comparison, lets look at the situation of me being afraid of the dark when I was a child.

I was afraid of the dark because I didn’t know what was out there. I was afraid of the unknown. As soon as my Dad turned the light off, there could be monsters, or aliens, or giant-ass bugs waiting to attack me.

Periodically, I would race to the light-switch and turn on the light, exposing everything in the room to electromagnetic radiation (in the visible range, of course).

At once, I realized nothing was there. I was safe. I didn’t have to be afraid anymore.

Eventually, I learned that there really was nothing to fear when the lights went out. Just because I couldn’t see the rest of my room, didn’t mean I had to be afraid of it.

So is there a similar “light-switch” in this situation that we can flip on so the residents of southern British Columbia don’t have to be afraid of cell phone radiation anymore? Why yes there is. And its scientific data.

Seeing as I’ve written on this issue many, many times before, I won’t rehash all my past arguments. But the scientific data is quite clear that there is absolutely no credible evidence that cell phone radiation causes adverse health effects.

You would think that this information would be enough, but I’ve had enough experience debating this issue that I know this is not nearly enough.

“Science has been wrong before,” is the counter-argument I most often hear.

“Well,” I reply, ” should we then also be afraid of broccoli?”

“What do you mean?” my opponent asks.

“Science has shown that broccoli is quite healthy for us. But if science has been wrong before, should we therefore avoid broccoli completely? Just in case?”

So when debating the issues, lets stick to the facts and not logical fallacies.

I know its tough. There are a lot of quacks out there trying to convince us that cell phones and power lines and Wi-Fi are dangerous, in complete opposition to all of the credible scientific evidence.

Hell, if you do a Google search for any of these topics, no doubt you will find more fear-mongering websites talking about the “possible” dangers with electromagnetic fields than references to scientifically valid papers.

Scientists may not have the Search Engine Optimization teams that these fringe websites do, but they have the truth on their side. And the truth continues to indicate that we have no reason to fear our phones.

Still not convinced? Have a look at this map showing all the cell phone towers in the lower British Columbia area (also available as an iPhone app):

Map of all cellular phone towers in the lower British Columbia area.

In this sea of towers already in existence, and all those near your house that you have been living peacefully beside for the past several years, will two more really make a difference?

More than that, with the explosion of cell phone use and cell tower construction in the last decade, isn’t is odd that no increase in cancer rates have been seen?

We should have at least seen a small effect by now if there were any health risks associated with these towers or cell phone use.

But again, I’ve had this argument enough to know that data and common sense won’t convince anybody. Anything new and widespread will inevitably cause people to be afraid. Much like microwave ovens did in the 1950s and 60s.

By the way, no adverse health effects have ever been reported with the proper use of a microwave oven. I guess we will have to wait about 60 years before people will start chilling out about their cell phones.

Enough Griping. Time For Some Active Skepticism

January 12, 2011 Leave a comment

I started this blog to talk about poor science reporting and try to put some good information out there. Usually though, it comes off as complaining.

This has been true a number of cases, and recently because of the Wi-Fi scares going on in Canada.

There have been a number of stories, mainly on the CBC, about parents from 2 communities in Canada who do no want Wi-Fi installed in their children’s schools for fear of adverse health effects.

It is quite clear from a large body of scientific evidence that Wi-Fi is completely safe, and these fears are unwarranted. However, the fears are given credence because of a few crackpot “scientists” and poor media coverage.

It isn’t much, but I wrote an email to the CBC asking them to provide more accurate information in their reporting. Here is the email in its entirety:

I am writing in regards to the CBC’s recent reports regarding Wi-Fi technology in schools.

In recent months, there have been several news items written on the CBC news site regarding the health effects of wireless internet technology. These have mainly consisted of stories from Ontario and Alberta in which a group of parents has approached its local school board and requested that Wi-Fi not be installed in their children’s schools.

While I agree that it is important to report on these issues, I strongly disagree with the lack of background information and tone of the articles themselves. They give the average reader very little sense of the current body of scientific evidence, which overwhelmingly indicates that wireless technology is safe for both adults and children.

The articles fail to show this large disconnect between the mainstream scientific community and the views of a very a small fringe group. Blanket statements such as “Health Canada and the World Health Organization have said Wi-Fi is not dangerous” are simply not adequate to provide readers with an accurate picture. This is of concern to me since it may cause undo panic to parents across the country that are only looking out for the well-being of their children, and may be frightened by the poor representation of the scientific consensus in these articles.

Microwave radiation, at the powers and frequencies used by wireless systems has been thoroughly researched and the evidence is clear that it is quite safe. I respectfully ask that in future news items you provide more information on the research done on Wi-Fi which shows it is safe in order to put the minds of parents at ease.

I decided to write directly to the CBC because I generally respect its reporting and it is my primary source for news. However this issue has troubled me as I’m sure it has troubled many other readers.

Thank you.

Will I get a response? Probably not. Will it make a difference. Ha, probably not. But it is DOING something rather than just complaining, so maybe the skeptic gods (?) will smile down on me and make a difference.

 

Ontario Says “No” to Cell Phone Warning Labels

November 5, 2010 1 comment

And it’s the right call. For two reasons:

  1. There is no conclusive scientific data to support any adverse health risks associated with short, moderate, or long-term cell phone use.
  2. A warning label would serve no purpose, other than to instill fear into the users.

The bill proposed to put a sticker on all cell phones indicating that there could be an increased risk of cancer from using a cell phone. Not only is this unnecessary, but it’s also wrong.

The scientific data overwhelmingly shows that there is no increased risk of cancer associated with cell phone use.

And what purpose would a warning sticker on a cell phone serve anyway? Would any of us stop using our cell phones? Would we hold it further from our head while we talk on it?

Of course not. Eventually we would get over our initial shock and fear of the warning sticker, read all the buzz-word containing media-frenzy stories about the evils of technology, and then settle back into our normal routine. All in all, this was a bad idea to begin with.

But my oh my, look who turned up to give her opinion on this issue. Our old friend Prof. Magda Havas from Trent University. She turns up in just about every story that involves cell phones, wireless internet, power lines, dirty electricity, and many other stories trying to convince us that technology is bad.

So I want to get something straight about why she keeps showing up. Is it because she is an expert? I would argue not. Her Ph.D. is in botany (the study of plants) so I don’t see how this qualifies her to study electromagnetic fields and their interaction with the human body. The list of publications on her website has very few peer-reviewed articles. Instead, it’s littered with “Letters to the Editor” and other opinion based writing. Not a lot of scientific credibility there.

No, she shows up because media outlets try to get both “sides” of the story, even if one side is way off base. Enter Magda Havas, who is one of very few people in the world who believes in electrosensitivity and kids getting sick from wireless internet. There are so few people who think this way, that they keep going to one person on the fringe to get her opinion. It is sloppy reporting, and not indicative of the evidence.

On CSI, Grissom (who was the best character but left, and now I am sad) always tells us to “follow the evidence” because the evidence will lead us to the truth. If we follow the evidence about cell phones, we see overwhelming evidence that cell phones are safe. Why then, do we continue to read about how evil they are?

William Peterson as Gil Grissom. From Wikipedia

Happy Retirement to the Best Satellite Mission Ever!

October 7, 2010 Leave a comment

If you have even a passing interest in science or astronomy, you have probably seen this image:

Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Point a radio telescope in any direction, and you will detect microwaves which are not associated with any celestial object. They are just there.

First discovered in 1964, it was a huge mystery what this radiation was. In fact, the astronomers who first detected the background radiation cleaned the bird poop out of the telescope before they investigated further, in case it was messing up their instruments, because they had no idea what else it could be (true story!).

But fortunately, it was not fecal matter, but an amazing discovery!

This is the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR). It is radiation leftover from the creation of the universe, roughly 13.75 billion years ago.

When the universe was first created, it was a hot, opaque cloud. But as the universe cooled, it became transparent, and photons were able to travel freely without being absorbed. These photons have been travelling lo these last 13-14 billion years, and are what comprises the CMBR. Only in the last few decades, however, have we truly been able to study it in detail.

Image Credit: WMAP Science Team

So in 2001, a satellite called the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) was launched to study the CMBR. Their results are the picture you see above. See how it’s not quite uniform? There are flecks of yellow and red and green. That is because matter did not spread out uniformly after it was created. It clumped together a bit here and there, and that’s how eventually atoms were able to eventually clump together and form gas clouds, stars, and planets.

Portrait of WMAP satellite. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

And now, after 9 years of study, WMAP is shutting down. It is now sitting in a nice retirement village in orbit around the sun.

For a satellite only designed to last 2 years, WMAP went well beyond its original lifespan, and is a big success for NASA. It has increased our understanding of the universe and how we were created more, I would argue, than any other mission NASA has launched before it.

Cell Phones and Cancer: The Globe and Mail’s Epic Fail

September 26, 2010 3 comments

So I wake up around 8:30 on Saturday morning. I’m enjoying a nice coffee and watching a “Hell’s Kitchen” episode that I’ve PVR’d.

Then I open my laptop to read the news, and right there on the home page of The Globe and Mail I read the headline: “The Disturbing Truth About Cell Phones”

Here we go…

The author of the article quotes a book newly released called Disconnect. Even though the book admits that there is no conclusive evidence that cell phones are in any way dangerous, the article still manages to come across as fear-laden and lazily researched. The article claims that studies show that the risk of glioma, a rare type of brain tumor, doubles with cell phone use. Funny, that’s not what this review of the literature says.

One thing that I think science journalists are particularly bad at is understanding that you cannot prove a negative. There are a large number studies which show there is little or no evidence that cell phone use is associated with increased health risks. However, when these studies are covered in the press or quoted by those opposed to cell phone use, they simply say that this shows “more study is needed”.

Now, I am all for studying the long-term risks/benefits of cell phone use. However, it needs to be made clear that when a study shows “no correlation”, this is not “inconclusive”. The only thing which will satisfy journalists or anti-cell phone activists is a study saying that “cell phones proved to not cause cancer”. The unfortunate thing is that this will never happen.

It is impossible to prove a negative. It would be like saying “prove to me that the sun won’t rise one day”. In order to prove this, I will have to perform an infinite number of observations, which is of course impossible. I could tell you that all the evidence suggests that the sun will rise every morning that the Earth continues to rotate on its axis and the sun continues to burn. But I cannot conclusively say “the sun will always rise”.

The Globe and Mail article also performs a common fallacious argument, which is cherry-picking data. Even though there is a large body of literature on RF radiation and cell phone use, the small number of studies which suggest a negative health effect of cell phones are often touted as proof that they do, in fact, cause negative health effects. This is wrong.

You have to look at a whole body of literature, not just a few isolated studies. For example, here is a study which not only shows no negative health effects of cell phones, but actually shows it may help fight Alzheimer’s disease. This is an isolated case which demanded further study, but no other lab showed similar results. So you can see why you need to look at a large amount of literature to get an accurate picture. This is something The Globe article fails to do.

The article also talks about a study in which rats were bombarded with microwaves and found that they had damaged DNA. Not only that,

The rats also had brain-cell alterations, memory lapses and fluids leaking from their brains into their blood, indicating a breach of the blood-brain barrier.

Where do I start with this one?

Well the reference to the study is not given, so that’s a big problem. It is not stated at what powers or frequencies of microwaves the rats were exposed to. Big problem there, since it is not fair to compare different powers or frequencies than those used in cell phones. And the final problem is rats are not people. This may seem obvious to most of us, but results from a rat-based study do not always translate to humans. Many drug studies test drugs which helped disease models in rats, but failed to do the same thing in humans, the physiology is different. To tout this study as evidence that cell phones hurt humans is wrong. It may warrant further study, but it doesn’t prove anything.

So lets not start throwing out our cell phones in favour of tin-can phones or telegraphs just yet. The literature shows that there is no conclusive evidence linking cell phone use to negative health effects.

Lets remember to keep these things in perspective too. A study which was just published estimates cell phone related deaths in the United States over the last decade. Not from microwaves, but from talking or texting while driving. In 2005, there were 4572 deaths related to cell phone use while driving. In 2008, the number was 5870. The study also estimates that from 2001 to 2007, texting resulted in an additional 16 000 deaths.

These numbers are only for the United States, not worldwide. This is a problem that is more dangerous than RF radiation will ever be, even if it did cause damage to humans.

Even though I am not a huge fan of Oprah, she has the right idea with her “No Phone Zone” pledge.

You can read more about the dangers of using cell phones while driving and sign the pledge on her website.