Royal Society of Canada and Safety Code 6

volcow et al pic skeptic north

This week, the Royal Society of Canada released a report by their Expert Panel on Safety Code 6.  Safety Code 6 is the Health Canada standard that sets recommended exposure limits for radio-frequencies. The last update was in 2013, and Health Canada wanted the RSC’s advice on the updates to make sure they were up to scientific snuff.  Many news outlets reported the fact that the panel recommended that “more research was needed” but the media downplayed the stronger message in the report: SC6 meets international standards and is agreement with the science as it now stands.  “More research is needed” is a misunderstood phrase in the public form and needs some discussion, as does the findings of the RSC’s new report.

“More research is needed” is an almost automatic phrase in the conclusions of most scientific studies.  It is not only there to justify a continuation of a scientist’s research programme, it also reflects the current understanding of our knowledge. Einstein’s revolutionary concept of relativity caused scientists to admit almost a century ago that our knowledge of the world is not absolute.  Newton’s laws had been considered universal and absolutely true up until the end of the 19th century.  Einstein’s update proved this wrong and since then we have been forced to change our thinking of the world.

This does not mean, however, that science is just an opinion like a movie review or sports commentator: science has rules. Granted, they change from time to time based on new information, but these rules help us decide what facts to accept as knowledge: facts that are true, or connected to the real world.  We have relied on these rules to push our society forward and solve many problems and it is a pretty good solution, one of the best we have, really.  But it is flawed, and it is at these stress points where attacks on science occur.

Scientists have ceased giving black-and-white answers since then.  In our current method, we make a guess called a hypothesis and try to answer the question about its truth.  If we gather enough evidence, through calculation or observation, we turn our guesses into theories: models of the world.  Therefore a scientific theory, rather than giving us a collection of facts, points in the direction of a conclusion about the truth of the real world.  Sometimes that conclusion is strong, like the conclusions of the theory of evolution.  Sometimes the conclusions are weak, like the notion that coffee causes cancer.

While we rarely find changes in direction of the theory of evolution, we seem to change our mind often about things like what causes cancer.  The question is hard, and complicated, and is affected by many different factors.  In both these situations it is obvious why more research is always needed: we are never at our destination, we are only looking at the sign pointing there.

That is why we have “more research is needed” in the RSC paper on SC6. Causes of cancer are hard to discern, and it is still inconclusive as to whether the weak association that has been seen between cell phone use and cancer is real, or if it is just a result of “noise” in a study that is difficult to conduct.  Even in the area of IEI-EMF or electromagnetic-hypersensitivity, we have very conclusive evidence that RF does not cause the symptoms, but we don’t have a reason why we have a group of people who report sometimes debilitating conditions.  The RSC recommended that we need more research to help answer both of these questions and we may always need more research; that is the constant state of science.

We are therefore left in the difficult position to draw conclusions anyway using the information we have.  Humans need answers, and we have developed short-cuts in thinking to draw conclusions despite having incomplete evidence. One common cry among critics is that they want definite assurance that a technology is safe before allowing its general use.  One look at our fallibility statement above and it becomes obvious why this question can never be answered by science. Science makes a guess then tries to find evidence that it is true.  We will never be able to say 100% that a tech is safe; it just is not possible, so more research will always be necessary to continue to look for unwanted effects; to human health or otherwise.  It’s along the same lines that the SC6 panel was considering “established adverse health effects” defined here:

The Panel considered an “established adverse health effect” as an adverse effect that is observed consistently in several studies with strong methodology.

Not surprisingly, the panel found none.  Using very high evidence standards, represented by the several pages of references (including the bad science of the Bioinitiative report), the panel found that the overwhelming evidence is that RF does not cause any adverse health effects.  All the signs point toward cell phones and other wireless devices being a safe technology as long as they operate within the SC6 standards.  This does not mean that we should not pursue adverse effects in the future. Rather, we should encourage those researchers trying to identify any changes that cells and organs undergo in the presence of the low level RF capped by SC6.  What is most likely, given all of the evidence, is that these effects are going to be very small and the risks low.

The report also recommends that Health Canada develop a better communications strategy to tell the Canadian public about the effects and any risks associated with this tech.  In a society that is increasingly risk-averse, we obsess about an unsubstantiated risk of cell phones for cancer while ignoring the risks of other technology, like cars (there were 2000 pedestrians killed between 1988 and 2002 in Ontario). These fears are being inflamed by groups who ignore the balance of evidence in favour of a few studies that agree with their ideology.  They have the ear of media, and we need to counter their conspiracies.

When pondering the risks of cell phones, consider this: we have all been bathed in the emissions from radio and television for close to a hundred years, and in that time our life expectancy has continued to increase.  Even more, since the dawn of life on the planet we have been bathed in the constant radiation from the sun including radio-waves. Since the dawn of time we have even been awash in the radiation from the Big Bang: the cosmic microwave background.  We need to take a step back from the rhetoric and let science be our guidepost to the truth, not our fears.

11 Responses to “Royal Society of Canada and Safety Code 6”

  1. Robert Quickert says:

    This is great news, and one can be hopeful — if not certain — that it will take some of the wind out of the sails of anti-RF groups like C4ST.

  2. Chris says:

    I would personally appreciate it if a pro-wifi group of naysayers (let’s say 20 subjects) would volunteer to participate in an experiment whereby they would be required to live and work in a completely wireless environment 24/7 with radiation levels jacked up to perhaps just 50% of the “safe” SC6 standard for a period of at least one year, possibly two. A complete pre and post physical (including lab work and a live blood analysis) would be required as would a daily self-assessment of perceived mental and physical well-being. Results would be examined by a panel of INDEPENDENT scientists who have never been on the payroll of a industry (unlike some of the conflicted RSC members) and then released to the general public.

    Since you are so very confident that the standards are completely safe, perhaps you would like to volunteer for such an experiment. Admittedly, 50% of the standard would be higher than radiation levels currently found in most homes. However, given the fact that children have thinner skulls and their bodies absorb so much more radiation than do adults, I would argue that 50% of the standard would be appropriate for the adult subjects in an experiment such as the one I am suggesting.

    And don’t bank on this sham of a report doing anything to take the wind out of the sails of anyone opposed to the forced exposure of children and families to non-ionizing radiation emitted by cell towers, routers in schools, and smart meters. This, quite frankly, is just the beginning. The bubble of truth ALWAYS rises to the surface.

    • Biron says:

      I agree, the report will do little to stop the relentless anti-wireless bots in their war against science — they have too much at stake. Some of them have made full time careers out of this.

      I’d like to know what they define as “INDEPENDENT” scientists. Would that include Dr. Lennart Hardell — who served as an expert witness for plaintiffs against the wireless industry? Dr. Hardell, who faithfully served lawyers in an $800 million lawsuit against Motorola, is the source of research that led to the IARC Group 2B classification of cell phone emission as a “possible carcinogen.” Take away the litigator-allied Hardell and there is NOTHING!

      Now let’s look at some of the institutions who claim that evidence does not support a causal link between cell phone radiation and caner:

      Mayo Clinic
      Sloan Kettering
      CDC
      American Cancer Society
      National Institute of Health

      Even the WHO, which encompasses the IARC working group, states:

      “A large number of studies have been performed over the last two decades to assess whether mobile phones pose a potential health risk. To date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use.”

      This similarly the opinion of EVERY respectable medical institution.

    • Allen says:

      “Sham of a report”? Please list your medical and scientific qualifications. What studies have you done or reviewed that contradicts the RSC?

      Do you have any evidence that any members of the panel were not completely unbiased? If you do, please publish it immediately.

      Unsupported allegations are usually summarized by two letters, B and S.

  3. DMG says:

    Chris, I don’t think you realise that your proposed study poses no intimidation to anyone up to date on the science.

    I imagine you intended this comment as a “oh yeah, but would you put *your* neck on the line?” – but the answer is an easy “yes”

    Human beings have been bathing in vastly more energetic EM fields for our entire evolutionary history, and every one of us here surround ourselves with wireless devices daily.

    These things instill no fear in us at levels within the range of the SC6 standard.

    So sure, if you’ll pay for the tests and equipment and expert panel, sign me up. I have every confidence that such an experiment would once again demonstrate no significant risk.

    The transmitters would have to be portable though, as I doubt you’d find many who would consent to be locked in a test chamber for a year (and that would horribly bias any psychological measurements…) ;)

    Give us a call when you have your funding ready.

  4. Alan says:

    Your article fails to mention the other recommendations to Health Canada.
    Weird if they were so sure of their findings..

    The Panel recommends…

    Health Canada should pursue research to expand our current understanding of possible adverse effects of exposure to RF energy at levels below SC6 (2013).

    Health Canada should aggressively pursue scientific research aimed at clarifying the RF energy-cancer issue.

    Health Canada should encourage inclusion of basic education on non-ionizing radiation in the curriculum of Canadian Medical Schools.

    Health Canada should consider studies in which additional data has been collected on child exposure, postured adult and postured child exposure, pregnant female and newborn exposure under grounded and isolated conditions.

    Health Canada should continue to monitor the literature for emerging evidence and that it aggressively pursue scientific research aimed at clarifying the RF energy-cancer issue and at further investigating the question of electromagnetic hypersensitivity, in particular.

    Health Canada to investigate the symptoms of IEI-EMF individuals with the aim of understanding the etiology of their condition, developing criteria for differential diagnosis of the condition, and finding ways to provide effective treatment for such individuals.

    Health Canada should develop a procedure for the public to report suspected disease clusters and a protocol for investigating them.

    Health Canada should expand their existing risk communication strategy to address consumer need for more information around RF energy, the types of devices that use RF energy and the levels emitted.

    Health Canada should incorporate additional suggestions into their recommendations on practical measures that Canadians can take to reduce their exposure around cell phone use (for example, limiting use in areas with low signal strength, and using an earpiece).

    Health Canada continue to improve its efforts to inform the public regarding this issue and provide practical advice to concerned consumers on how to reduce their personal or their children’s exposure.

    • Discussing these points is the thrust of Michael’s article. As he says above:

      “One common cry among critics is that they want definite assurance that a technology is safe before allowing its general use. One look at our fallibility statement above and it becomes obvious why this question can never be answered by science. Science makes a guess then tries to find evidence that it is true. We will never be able to say 100% that a tech is safe; it just is not possible, so more research will always be necessary to continue to look for unwanted effects; to human health or otherwise. ”

      Basically the report is saying that there is no evidence to suggest, at this time, there are any adverse effects to EMF exposure, but we’ll keep an eye on it.

      Basic science.

  5. Alan says:

    The Canadian Medical Association Journal, and two of the peer review scientists of the report also disagree with your article…

    http://www.cmaj.ca/site/earlyreleases/16april14_federal-Wi-Fi-safety-report-is-deeply-flawed-say-experts.xhtml

    • Robert Quickert says:

      No, the CMAJ Journal item was a news item written by one of their freelance contributors based on a Citizens for Safe Technology — an RFScare group — press release. It is hardly an investigation by the CMAJ or an editorial on their part.

  6. Alan says:

    You guys are a complete joke. You report what your readership wants to hear and ignore the real story. Where are my comments from yesterday showing the recommendations of the RSC panel to Health Canada..? Or the CMAJ article..?
    Talk about curbing the science…

    • Skeptic North is set up so that only the author of an article can approve comments. For some reasons, yours were caught in moderation while Michael was on vacation. He approved them as soon as he returned.

      Nothing was ignored or suppressed. Perhpas you’d care to withdraw your accusation.

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  • Michael Kruse

    Michael is an advanced-care paramedic in York Region, just north of Toronto, Ontario. A semi-retired theatrical lighting designer as well, he re-trained in 2005 as an EMT-PS at the University of Iowa and as an ACP at Durham College, and is currently working towards a B.Sc at the University of Toronto. Michael is a founder and the chair of the board of directors of Bad Science Watch. He is also the recipient of the first annual Barry Beyerstein Award for Skepticism. Follow Michael on twitter @anxiousmedic. Michael's musings are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employer or Bad Science Watch.