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Ontario Opposition Parties Resort to Radiation Fear Mongering

April 13, 2011 Leave a comment

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty was criticized for not releasing details of increased radiation levels in Ontario. - Photo: Joshua Sherurcij

It keeps happening, and it keeps blowing my mind.

However, this time it is not the media that is the culprit of radiation fear-mongering, but the opposition parties in the Ontario provincial government.

A story today from The Globe and Mail details how Premier Dalton McGuinty and the provincial Liberal party have come

under fire from opposition members on Wednesday for failing to tell the public about elevated levels of radiation detected in the province following Japan’s nuclear disaster.

The problem with this though, is that the increased radiation levels in Ontario are negligible.

I wrote a post a few weeks ago about increased radiation levels being detected in British Columbia, on the west coast of Canada. The media, of course, jumped all over the story, even though the increase in radiation detected was less than the increase seen when it rains.

And it rains A LOT in BC.

The increase seen in Ontario is even smaller. In fact, as Leslie Meerburg, spokeswoman for Health Canada, pointed out:

A five-hour airplane flight from Montreal to Vancouver exposes an individual to 50,000 times more radiation than the level detected in Canada as a result of the earthquake in Japan

Let me give you some more numbers to show you just how ridiculous this complaint by the opposition parties really is.

Radiation dose absorbed in a biological system is calculated in units of Sieverts (Sv). This unit takes into account the radiation type, amount of radiation absorbed by your body, as well as the sensitivity of various organs to radiation exposure.

On average, you get about 10 micro-Sieverts (1.0 x 10-5 Sv) of radiation dose per day. That five-hour flight from Montreal to Vancouver gives you about 40 micro-Sieverts (4.0 x 10-5 Sv).

The increased amount of radiation in Ontario is roughly 0.00008 micro-Sieverts (8.0 x 10-10 Sv).

This is an increase of about 0.0008 %.

Need a visual? Here is a bar graph comparing a normal day’s worth of radiation dose in Ontario, compared to a day with the “increased levels” of radiation dose.

In other words, there is absolutely no danger associated with this increased level of radiation.

So why did the NDP give the Liberals a hard time?

New Democrats questioned government ministers for the second straight day on why they have not been more transparent with the public by publishing information on radiation levels in the air, water and food supply.

“This government totally dropped the ball,” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said in Question Period.

I generally support the NDP, but it was the NDP in this case that dropped the ball. I’m very disappointed by this.

Turns out, the Ontario government had already increased testing all food, milk and water in the wake of the Japan nuclear crisis. The NDP was upset that they didn’t tell anybody.

But I feel this was the right call. Why cause undo fear and panic  when there is absolutely no danger? I’m glad the government increased their testing rates, just to be on the safe side, but telling the public would have been a mistake.

Refusing to understand the science behind an issue and using fear to further a political agenda is distasteful and shows a lack of judgment. Frankly, it is something more akin to American politics.

Happy New Year!

January 5, 2011 Leave a comment

Well I’m back. After a nice long break and a whole lot of slacking I’ve returned to good ole’ Calgary and my place of employment.

The holidays were a lot of fun, if busy. When you live in a different part of the country than all your friends/family, coming home for a week or so is quite an ordeal.

An awesome ordeal, though.

Over many beers, pints, shots, and chocolates I caught up with most of the people I wanted to see. A successful trip indeed.

But now I have returned to real life, my cubicle at my office overlooking downtown Calgary and it is good to be back. Travelling is stressful even when on vacation and I’m glad to have a little down time.

I realize the irony that coming back to work seems like “down time”, but I think many of you know exactly what I mean.

So over the coming weeks expect me to be back to full blogging form. My enthusiasm for science/skepticism has not wavered, though my diligence in posting everyday has in the last few weeks.

So Happy New Year to all, hope your hangovers have subsided by now and you are as ready as I am to start a great new year of scientific discovery!

When Do Students At My University Drink Most?

December 31, 2010 Leave a comment

The University of western Ontario

A study published in the Journal of American College Health did a study of 415 students at a “large University in Southwestern, Ontario, Canada”. Which, of course, means the University of Western Ontario.

What did the results show?

Findings indicated that alcohol consumption varies considerably as a function of time of the academic year. Overall trends indicate that students drink more heavily at the beginning of each semester and less during exam periods. Daily patterns indicate that most drinking occurs on weekends. The highest drinking days in the first academic year included Halloween, New Year’s Eve, and St. Patrick’s Day.

Surprising? No. Nostalgic? Yes.

Happy New Year’s Western!

Got My Flu Shot!

December 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Army recruit receiving vaccine. Via Wikimedia Commons

Yup, in a couple weeks I will be immune to 3 forms of the flu virus, including H1N1. Jealous?

My work set up an in-house vaccination clinic today. I had a nice chat with the Nurse (Helen) about how much snow there is back in Ontario where I went to school (close to 1 meter, about 40 inches!).

She also told me that quite a few people in my office have made appointments to get the shot, which made me happy, since if you read this blog at all you know that vaccines have gotten a bad rap lately.

But in Canada, the flu sends over 20,000 people to the hospital every year, and between 2000 and 8000 people die of the flu every year.

Since I am a healthy 26 year old, even if I got the flu I should be fine within a week. But if I were to give the flu to a child or elderly person, or someone who could develop complications due to the flu, I would be putting their life at risk.

So I could be saving myself a few days of feeling like crap, or I could be saving someone’s life. And it only took a few minutes of my time.

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

Canada Will Command Space in 2013! No, its not William Shatner

September 3, 2010 Leave a comment

Although Captain Kirk is Canadian as well.  

 (Update: I just realized that some of my non-Canadian readers may not get that William Shatner is spoofing a Molson Canadian beer commercial. Here it is so you don’t feel lost :) 

But congratulations are in order for Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, who was recently awarded the command of the International Space Station for a period in 2013.  

Chris Hadfield

Even though Canada has made some big contributions to the exploration of space , to be awarded command of the ISS is quite a big deal.  

So way to go Chris, this is quite an accomplishment.  

That moustache is pretty sweet too.  

Hurricane Earl and My House in the Same Photo!

September 2, 2010 Leave a comment

I know I’ve done a post about hurricane Earl already, but this is just too cool not to mention.

This visible light photo was taken by the Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) satellite yesterday, and boy is it cool.

You can see the hurricane (obviously) but what makes it so cool to me is that you can see all of southern Ontario and the great lakes. Right where I grew up!

Never thought I’d seem my hometown and a hurricane in the same picture before. Awesome!

Photo: NASA/JPL – CalTech Click for High-Res Version

Wi-Fi the New Danger to Children…Apparently

August 16, 2010 2 comments

Well, as if we didn’t have enough to be afraid of in the pseudoscientific world, now we have to be afraid of our wireless internet connection.

Parents in Barrie and other northern Ontario towns have called the public school board to remove its recently installed Wi-Fi system because, they claim, it is making their children sick.

The symptoms include memory loss, trouble concentrating, skin rashes, hyperactivity, night sweats and insomnia.

These are extremely non-specific symptoms, and most of them can describe pretty much every young child I know at some point in their lives.

Said one of the parents:

“I’m not saying it’s because of the Wi-Fi because we don’t know yet, but I’ve pretty much eliminated every other possible source.”

Really? You’ve eliminated EVERY possible source? Thats quite a bold statement when it comes to environmental factors.

Now, its hard to blame these parents for looking out for their kids, but this is a clear cut case of poor understanding of technology and media hysteria.

Oh yes, I’m talking about YOU CBC!

For example, take the “expert” they got to comment on this story, one Professor Magda Havas from Trent University (in my hometown of Peterborough, Ontario, incidentally).

So what does this professor say? From the CBC article:

Claims by Health Canada that Wi-Fi is safe provided exposures to radiation are below federal guidelines are “outdated and incorrect,” based on the growing number of scientific publications reporting adverse health and biological effects, Havas wrote.

Havas did her Ph.D in Botany, so what makes her an expert electromagnetism, I have no idea. But from her website (note the advertisement to her book at the bottom), it seems she is involved in fear mongering for just about every junk science theory about electromagnetism affecting humans, including the dangers of power lines and cell phones (all these technologies have repeatedly been shown to be safe).

It amazes me that they couldn’t find an actual expert in electromagnetism to comment on this story. But then, it wouldn’t increase readership would it?

But shall we interrupt this exercise in bad science and bad science reporting for some REAL science?

The energy deposition from a typical wireless signal is roughly 100 times less than exposure to a cell phone (which remember, has been shown to be a perfectly safe level). It is also thousands of times less than current government regulated safety levels, AND is less than normal background radio frequency radiation. Maybe that rat-bastard Ryan Seacrest and his Top 40 crap is making us all sick!

Now how about a bit of logic? The parents claim that these symptoms go away on the weekends. This makes no sense as children are exposed to wireless signals at their home, at the mall, the airport, restaurants, pretty much everywhere. If it was the Wi-Fi and these children are truly sensitive to it, they should be sick virtually all the time.

And what about children living in an apartment building, where there are literally dozens of wireless signals in their vicinity. Shouldn’t they be affected at home as well? Shouldn’t this be more widespread?

Ok, so when I start freaking out about stuff like this, my lovely girlfriend invariably asks “So what COULD it be, if not the Wi-Fi?”

My Lovely Girlfriend. Yes, I have one!

Well, remember these symptoms: trouble concentrating, hyperactivity, insomnia, night sweats. This sounds like me when I was a kid. I was always having trouble sleeping and running around like a madman. These tended to go away on the weekend though, when I could just relax and play video games. Also, kids don’t like school; they could get stressed out and cause these symptoms, which would of course go away on the weekends and in the summer. They may be staying up too late on weeknights, so sleep deprivation could easily cause some of these symptoms.

Want to know what I really think is happening? I think a child got sick with something, and an over-zealous parent read something about Wi-Fi being dangerous on the internet. They heard that the school had recently installed Wi-Fi and BAM! you got yourself the perfect storm of fear.

If you take nothing else from my blog, please take this: Correlation does NOT equal causation.

Just because these children got sick after (several months after, which is kinda weird. Shouldn’t they have gotten sick right away?) the school board installed wireless networks, does NOT mean wireless networks made these children sick.

I could just as easily say the sun rose after my alarm clock went off this morning, therefore my alarm clock caused the sun to rise. It is a logical fallacy and stories like this are riddled with them.

So don’t worry folks, your internet is just fine. Continue using your laptop (to read this blog, hopefully) and your cell phone without fear. With every new technology there will be those who try to convince you its bad. And unfortunately, there will also be protective parents to make a fuss over it.

My Awesome Trip to Ontario or Why I Haven’t Written Posts in Awhile

August 10, 2010 Leave a comment

I’m back everyone!

I hope you enjoyed my Top 10 Sci-Fi movie countdown while I was away on vacation. I got some great comments and nobody has told me I was way off base with my picks (yet).

So what have I been up to? While I currently reside in Calgary, Alberta, I grew up in Ontario. I made a 10 day trip back home to visit friends and family.

I had a fantastic time too!  I made it back to London, Ontario where I went to the University of Western Ontario.

There, I visited the lab where I did my M.Sc and had drinks at my favourite pub Molly Bloom’s.

Molly Bloom's Irish Pub, London, Ontario

I felt totally sick in the morning, thanks in large part to my lab buddies sneaking Vodka shots into my beers without my knowledge. I had a great time though.

I then headed north to visit friends in Port Elgin.

Port Elgin, Ontario

There I had some great BBQ, saw great friends and had great times.

Beer Can Chicken

After that, I travelled to Ontario’s capital, Toronto. There I stayed for a few days going out for dim sum and drinking at the Bier Markt downtown.

Good Times Being Had

I also had a great time on a patio the following night along Bloor Street.

After partying it up on the streets of Toronto, I headed northeast to my hometown of Peterborough.

Peterborough, Ontario

There I got to see a whole whack of my family, as it was my Mom’s 50th Birthday and we had a big party for her. It went really well and I had a great time.

The following day, I got to see two of my best friends from high school get married!

The ceremony was beautiful, the location was fantastic, and the party afterward, well…I don’t quite remember. But I have some blurry photographic evidence which leads me to believe it was awesome.

More Good Times Being Had

After 10 days of this, you can imagine I am pretty exhausted. I need to get back to work to actually relax.

But thats what I was up to while I was gone, but of course science never takes a holiday, and I got some great stuff to write about in the coming days. Stay tuned…