Health Canada should "aggressively" research the possible link between wireless airwaves and cancer and should inform Canadians how they can limit their exposure to such electromagnetic fields while using cellphones, an expert scientific panel recommends.

However, the panel found that Health Canada guidelines for human exposure to wireless airwaves from cell towers, radio and TV broadcast antennas and other wireless technology provide enough protection from the two established health effects from high-powered exposure to those frequencies:

  • Heat damage such as burns.
  • Electrical shocks or nerve stimulation.

While the panel looked at studies about other health effects, those effects could not be confirmed because they were not consistently observed in multiple rigorous studies.

The expert panel, assembled by the Royal Society of Canada, was asked by Health Canada to do a scientific analysis of the department's latest update to Safety Code 6, which sets safety limits for exposure to radiation from radiofrequency fields emitted by wireless devices and transmitters. The panel released its report Tuesday.

Kenneth Foster, a bioengineering professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the expert panel, noted that "radiation" in this case is simply electromagnetic waves travelling through the air, like the light from a flashlight, and are too weak to break chemical bonds, unlike more powerful radiation such as X-rays.

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An expert panel found that Health Canada limits for human exposure to wireless airwaves from cell towers, radio and TV broadcast antennas and other wireless technology provide enough protection from known health effects. (Getty Images)

The eight scientists on the panel, led by cancer epidemiologist Paul Demers of Cancer Care Ontario and the University of Toronto, pored through evidence in scientific literature to figure out if the new limits do a good job of protecting both people who work with equipment such as cell towers and the general public.

Based on the evidence about known hazards, the panel doesn't recommend any changes to Safety Code 6, Demers said at an embargoed press briefing organized by the Science Media Centre of Canada.

"However, we did have a number of other recommendations to Health Canada about precautionary measures that can and should be taken," Demers said.

  • The report said Health Canada should: "aggressively pursue scientific research aimed at clarifying" whether there is a link between radiofrequency energy and cancer.
  • Give consumers more information about wireless radiation including "recommendations on practical measures that Canadians can take to reduce their exposure around cellphone use (for example, limiting use in areas with low signal strength, and using an earpiece)."
  • Investigate and figure out what is causing the debilitating symptoms of people who say they are hypersensitive to radiofrequency radiation – a condition known as idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF).
  • Develop a way for the public to report suspected disease clusters and for those suspected clusters to be investigated.

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Studies have suggested a possible link between radiation from cellphones and cancer, but the results have been inconsistent, 'so this is an area that definitely deserves further scrutiny,' says epidemiologist Paul Demers. (Associated Press)

Establishing a scientific link between wireless radiation and cancer "would allow the government to develop protective measures if the risk were substantiated," the report said.

When asked to clarify, Demers said limited human studies have suggested a possible link between radiation from cellphones and cancer, but the results have been inconsistent.

"So this is an area that definitely deserves further scrutiny."

Mixed message?

Demers was asked by a reporter why the panel recommended giving consumers information about how to limit their exposure to radiofrequency fields if there is no clear evidence of health effects from cellphone use. He acknowledged that "it's a bit of a challenge … in terms of sounding a bit like a mixed message." But he said the panel heard from many Canadians at a public hearing who felt they had no control over their exposure because radiofrequency devices are now everywhere.

"The idea was for people who were concerned, to give them some tools that would at least put things a little bit more in their own control," he said.

Similarly, the other recommendations also addressed concerns voiced by Canadians at public hearings.

"Some parents were concerned there was no investigation when they reported problems they believed were associated with Wi-Fi in schools," he wrote in an email to CBC News. " Clusters, no matter what type of disease, are difficult to investigate (and, to be honest, often leave everyone unhappy), but the panel felt there should be some process in place to follow up."

With respect to those who reported suffering from IEI-EMF, Demers said there is so far no scientific evidence linking their symptoms to measurable radiofrequency fields.

"On the other hand, there are people who are seriously ill and seriously concerned about that," he said at the media briefing, "and we believe that this should be a priority area for research to identify just what is causing their symptoms and ways to properly prevent those symptoms."

The panel's attempts to address public concerns were not enough for Canadians for Safe Technology, a group that wants lower limits in Safety Code 6. The group said in a news release that it was "disappointed" in the report and accused the panel of ignoring some "published peer-reviewed science warnings of related health risks."