Scientist replies to Quebec opinion on RF health impacts

Translation of Nouveau rapport de l’INSPQ sur les effets des radiofréquences : le point de vue d’une chercheure, by Hélène Vadeboncoeur, PhD, May 2016, originally published by An abridged version was also published by the Quebec  daily newspaper Le Devoir on September 3rd, 2016. Both the article and its quotes were translated by Hélène Vadeboncoeur.

Ten years ago, in 2006, a report from the Quebec National Institute of Public Health (Institut national de santé publique du Québec – INSPQ) recommended “to set up a task force grouping  the main organizations concerned with this issue (…)” in order to evaluate and propose, if deemed  necessary, reasonable and proportionate electromagnetic fields (EMFs) mitigation measures in Quebec.

The 2006 report states : “The proposed approach will be based on the terms of reference in the management of health risks of the INSPQ which advocates the reduction and elimination of risks both in a context of relative uncertainty and one of scientific uncertainty” (bold type is mine). I don’t know if the task force was created, but ten years later, the INSPQ  released another report entitled Évaluation des effets sur la santé des champs électromagnétiques dans le domaine des radiofréquences (Evaluation of the health effects of the electromagnetic fields in the radio frequency field). This report includes  reviews of scientific studies and  individual studies, along with positions of international agencies regarding standards of exposure to electromagnetic fields. The authors, Mathieu Gauthier and Denis Gauvin, clearly relegate to oblivion the precautionary principle which the 2006 report highlighted: “The Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ) also considers that the Government of Quebec should develop a policy that ensures the application of the  precautionary approach regarding exposure to EMFs.”

What logic led to the choice of the included studies?

The report published in the Spring of 2016 includes literature reviews and studies mainly published between 2009 and 2013.The authors conclude that “even if the limits of current research do not exclude any possibility of risks, no harmful effects on health in the short or long term have  been shown for exposure to radiofrequencies (RFs) within the established limits” (bold type is mine)

The authors mention, however, that they have revised some “important publications produced until 2015”. The list of references shows they also retained some studies published prior to 2009, including several co-authored by Denis Gauvin (first author of the 2006 report). The logic behind the choice of texts is really not obvious, and this reference list leaves me unsatisfied. Being concerned by EMFs health effects for the last two years, particularly with respect to possible biological effects related RF exposure from mobile phone antennas, I have noted an increase in the number of studies on the effects of EMFs published in recent years in peer-reviewed scientific journals. About half of the documents retained by the authors of the INSPQ  report comes from international organizations such as the WHO (World Health Organization) and the ICNIRP (International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection), including some from government agencies such as Industry Canada, the wireless industry, the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association and the International Communications Union. The other half is composed of reviews or individual studies that are, again, a small sample of what has been published own this field since 2009.

Moreover, I find it strange that instead of including a larger number of  studies, which would have given their report more weight, the authors preferred including several articles by the same authors, for example Frei, Baliatsas, Joseph, Röösli, Rubin, who generally deny the existence of harmful biological effects from RFs. I also noticed that these authors often co-author the same articles (ex: Röösli and Frei, Röösli and Joseph, Joseph, Frei and Röösli, Baliatsas and Rubin). The INSPQ report does not specify the selection criteria for the studies, merely saying: “This report analyzes primarily studies published between 2009 and 2013.” No details on the type of studies selected, for instance. It’s up to the readers to judge!

The thermal effect of microwaves: not the only type of effects to consider!

However, I liked the second chapter of the report, which explains what are radio frequencies, how we measure them, etc. I found explanations clear because this chapter helps to understand what it is. But the good news ends at this point. If the rest of the report is well written and well structured, it remains that the entire argument is built in reference to organizations such as Health Canada that totally deny that RFs can have harmful biological effects, with the exception of the WHO, which  remains very cautious, however. This argument is based on the studies selected, which do not reflect the overall state of science on the subject.

When an international body such as ICNIRP, which establishes guidelines to limit RF exposure, relies on the sole basis of thermal effects (heating of tissue), it is an aberration. This is notably denounced by several scientists and Canadian Physicians concerned  by the biological effects of RFs and also, in 2015, by the Canadian Legislature’s Standing Committee of Health,  whose report is not mentioned by Gauthier and Gauvin. This aberration, which leads to deny the bioeffects RF exposure levels well below limits recommended by Canada’s Safety Code 6, is also endorsed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.

Countries taking precautions ignored or ridiculed

In addition, the authors of the report hardly mention that in 20 countries (especially in Europe), various levels of governments have adopted measures based on the precautionary principle, particularly to limit the RF exposure of vulnerable populations or the general public. France, for example, recently banned the use of Wi-Fi connections in daycares and kindergartens, and limits their use in elementary schools. 

The authors of the INSPQ report prefer mentioning only two countries that adopted a more cautious approach than ours: Russia and Italy. They point out, though, that the research carried out in Russia on the immune system was published a long time ago (20 to 40 years) and that studies were made in ‘medieval’ times (the term is mine) with respect to laboratory techniques and standards of quality in experimental research. It’s a harsh judgment to make about a country where scientists pioneered studies on the bioeffects of microwaves in the 1960s.

As well, Gauthier and Gauvin quote ANSES, the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety, which stated that Italy’s stricter RF exposure limits lack any scientific basis. They also claim that this cautious approach gives Italians cause to worry, and that the adoption of such an approach undermines “public trust in scientifically established standards.” So much for the precautionary principle! It seems that neglecting this internationally-recognized principle is preferable to considering it!

Studies linking RF exposure and cancer criticized or ignored

While the INSPQ report also includes some studies linking exposure to RF to biological effects, it hastens to downplay their results and scope, and forgets to mention other studies establishing the same link. For example, the authors write about a Brazilian study  that compares, for the city of Belo Horizonte, the location of cancer deaths and those of mobile phone base stations (towers/antennas). The authors discovered a strange similarity between the two: the location of “cancer clusters” reveals a much higher mortality rate within 500 meters of cell towers. Gauthier and Gauvin downplays these findings by saying “methodological weaknesses of this study limit its conclusions”. What methodological weaknesses? They don’t specify. And they make sure to omit studies revealing similar results, for example a German study published in 2004. Its authors examined the medical records (dating between 1994 and 2004) of 1,000 patients of four physicians practicing in the same municipality, or 90% of its population. They found cancer rates triple among people living within  400 meters of base stations during that decade, compared to those living further away. On average, the patients living in the 400 m zone developed cancer eight years younger than the control group. The increase in cancer cases appeared only five years after the base stations were commissioned, and the authors believe the true cancer rate is probably underestimated because theeir study excluded older patients.

Scientists the report did not like

I don’t understand why the INSPQ report excluded papers from scientists such as Martin Pall, a professor emeritus of biochemistry and sciences at Washington State University (United States). Pall explains an important mechanism involved in microwaves’s biological effects. I also wonder why studies published in 2013, 2014 and 2015 by a prominent Swedish scientist Lennart Hardell, who authored several pioneering cell phone/cancer studies since 1999, were also excluded. Could it be because Hardell and his colleague Carlberg, in their most recent analysis, confirmed the link between cell phone or cordless phone radiation and gliomas (a rare but deadly type of brain cancer)? Or is it because, in a very detailed letter dated August 4th 2015, Hardell and Carlberg explained to WHO why it should update the current classification of RFs to include them in Category 1, ”Carcinogenic to humans”?

Several individual studies and pooled analyses have been published on the noxious effects of mobile phone base stations. For example, a cohort study that followed subjects for 6 years concluded that RF exposure affects the pituitary and adrenal glands by decreasing levels of hormones (ACTH cortisol, thyroid hormones, prolactin in women and testosterone). For its part, the paper by Abdel Rassoul and colleagues, published in 2007 in Neurotoxicology, concluded that people living in the vicinity of cell towers/antennas are significantly more at greater risk of developing neuropsychiatric problems (headaches, dizziness, tremors, symptoms of depression, memory problems and sleep disorders). This study concludes that their neurobehavioral performance was poorer than that of the control group.

Noteworthy is a review of ten epidemiological studies by Khurana and colleagues, published in 2010 by the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health. The authors concluded that eight out of ten studies on the long-term effects of RF exposure within 500 m of cell phone base stations showed an increase in neurobehavioral symptoms or in cancer. Yet it was also excluded from INSPQ’s report!

While some papers published after 2013 were mentioned in the INSPQ report, it overlooks a French study of 727 subjects (Dominique Belpomme, 2015) which found that patients diagnosed as bona fide electrohypersensitive had abnormal blood and urine marker levels (histamine, melatonin, stress proteins, vitamin D, etc.) and poor cerebral vascularisation in ultrasound imaging. 

INSPQ must value the precautionary principle once again!

I could quote several other studies highlighting RF bioeffects that were ignored by Gauthier and Gauvin, including research on cells and animals. But I will conclude by saying that globally denying such effects based on a limited study sample invalidates the results of the report, even if it concludes that scientific “uncertainty” persists in this area.

If the question of RF health effects was only controversial, one might wonder if “the reduction and elimination of risks both in a context of relative uncertainty and one of scientific uncertainty” (INSPQ 2006 report) was truly considered by the authors of the 2016 report. I doubt it was because, in the few recommendations they make, there is no mention of the precautionary principle which is the main focus of the 2006 report.

It would be wise to adopt this principle regarding the use and development of wireless equipment, notably because in their 2016 report abstract, the authors admit that there is still “some scientific uncertainty about long term exposure to cell phones”. A change of attitude by INSPQ is urgent. It is the health of our population that is at stake here.

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