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A Growing Hysteria


Lorne Trottier

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 33.5, September / October 2009

Angry citizens’ groups in hundreds of different communities across the United States protest against the location of new cell-phone towers. Larry King airs another discussion on cell phones and brain cancer. The European Parliament passes a motion criticizing the World Health Organization (WHO) and its own science advisory board over these issues. What’s going on here? It’s a growing hysteria over the possible effects of electromagnetic fields (EMF) on health.

Electromagnetic fields are produced by every electrical or electronic device, including power lines, computers, microwave ovens, and wireless technologies such as cell phones, WiFi, and radio and TV broadcasting. Radio waves, visible light, and X-rays are all forms of EMF and are part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Electromagnetic waves cover a vast frequency range from extremely low frequency (ELF) of 30 Hz (cycles per second) or less up to hard gamma rays at over 300 EHz (an EHz is 1018 Hz).

There are only three scientifically established mechanisms where EMF is known to cause health effects. These are: induced voltage gradients and/or electric currents in the body, thermal effects, and ionizing radiation effects. The relative importance of each mechanism varies with frequency. Extensive scientific testing has been used to measure these effects and to establish safe limits. Induced voltages and/or current effects occur at low frequencies in the range of 0–3 KHz. Thermal effects in the frequency range of 30 MHz to 300 GHz occur when living tissue absorbs enough EMF power to cause heating. This is the principle of a microwave oven. Ionizing radiation can break the electron bonds that hold molecules like DNA together and is carcinogenic. Ultraviolet light, X-rays, and gamma rays are the only forms of ionizing EMF. In the U.S., FCC regulations set limits on permitted exposures for the public at 1/50 the level at which harmful heating effects may occur. Actual exposures are hundreds to thousands of times lower. The photon energy of cell-phone EMF is more that 10 million times weaker than the lowest energy ionizing radiation.

How do we know that these mechanisms are the only harmful effects of EMF? In its 2004 document “What are Electromagnetic Fields: Health Effects” the WHO said: “In the area of biological effects and medical applications of non-ionizing radiation approximately 25,000 articles have been published over the past thirty years. Despite the feeling of some people that more research needs to be done, scientific knowledge in this area is now more extensive than for most chemicals. Based on a recent in-depth review of the scientific literature, the WHO concluded that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields.”

Yet in a recent motion passed in April 2009 by the lopsided margin of 559 to 22, the European Parliament called upon its Commission “to launch an ambitious program to gauge the electromagnetic compatibility between waves created artificially and those emitted naturally by the living human body with a view to determining whether microwaves might ultimately have undesirable consequences for human health” and “calls for particular consideration of biological effects … especially given that some studies have found the most harmful effects at lowest levels … and developing solutions that negate or reduce the pulsating and amplitude modulation of the frequencies used for transmission….”

Aside from the nonsense about “artificial waves” and “lowest level amplitude modulation,” the Parliament’s own scientific advisory body the SCENIHR had just released a comprehensive new report (January 2009) “Health Effects of Exposure to EMF.” One of its key findings (p. 4) was: “It is concluded from three independent lines of evidence (epidemiological, animal, and in vitro studies) that exposure to RF fields is unlikely to lead to an increase in cancer in humans.” It also echoed the findings of the WHO (p. 25): “Although new exposure sources such as mobile phone base stations, cordless phone base stations or wireless networks are relatively recent, exposures from these sources are generally lower than the ones investigated in these studies on broadcast transmitters. Thus, there appears to be no immediate need for further studies related to these sources.” Most of the world’s major national public health organizations, including the FDA and the CDC, have come to similar conclusions.

But in its motion, the European Parliament not only ignored the findings of its own scientists, it even called into question their scientific integrity! It is as if the U.S. Congress had voted by an overwhelming margin for more research on UFOs and had questioned the integrity of mainstream scientists who say there is no good evidence that UFOs exist. What’s going on here?

Alarmist groups are fueling a growing mass hysteria over supposed health risks from EMF. These “health risks” range from general complaints, such as fatigue and headaches, all the way to brain cancer. The fact that EMF is also referred to as electromagnetic “radiation” and is becoming more pervasive yet cannot be seen adds to the alarm. A minority of scientists, some of whom have published an alarmist document called the Bio-Initiative Report, have helped fuel the hysteria. Yet the Bio-Initiative Report has been widely criticized in the scientific community for promoting only poorly conducted studies that support its alarmist views while ignoring far more rigorous and comprehensive studies that show no danger.

A growing industry of fraud artists is taking advantage of the fact that many of the supposed symptoms of EMF appear to be psychosomatic. They are offering a broad variety of quack remedies that will absorb “harmful” EMF or otherwise shield the user. These products range from pendants worn around the neck to a patented $727.50 “i-H2O activator” that “structures all the water you use.”

To support their concerns, alarmist groups point to the fact that insurance companies are excluding coverage for health risks of EMF from liability coverage. The position of Swiss Re, one of the world’s largest reinsurers, is quite revealing:

We assess the risk of change as being extraordinarily explosive not because weak electromagnetic fields might, contrary to expectations, prove to be hazardous after all. We consider the risk of change to be so dangerous because it is evident that a wide range of groups have great political and financial interest in electrosmog being considered hazardous by society. (“Electrosmog—A Phantom Risk”)

One example of this is Lennart Hardell, a leading alarmist scientist, who was an expert witness in an $800 million liability lawsuit against a cellular-phone provider for a single brain cancer patient. His scientific testimony was resoundingly rejected by the judge for lacking in scientific credibility. However, as Swiss Re has stated, the minority group of scientists along with an armada of lawyers, consultants, and alarmist groups are likely to continue their pseudoscientific crusade. There are huge fortunes to be made from successful liability lawsuits. In bowing to pressure from alarmist groups, the European Parliament has just given them a giant boost. It has also set a shocking precedent by questioning the integrity of mainstream public-health science.

A new Web site has been established that provides a wealth of information about EMF and Health using evidence-based science. Go to

Lorne Trottier

Lorne Trottier is a co-founder of Matrox, a company known for its specialized computer graphics and imaging products. He holds an M.Eng. degree in electrical engineering from McGill University and an honorary science doctorate from the same university. Trottier is a member of the board of a number of science outreach organizations, including the Montreal Science Center and the NCSE.