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Radiation report rehashes dodgy science

A new BioInitiative report warns that even minor exposure to radio frequencies is dangerous.

Read time 6min 20sec

Here's something that ought to scare you to death. According to BioInitiative 2012, the latest report from a previously discredited group of alarmists, some scientific studies of the effects of radio frequency radiation show that even minor and brief exposure is likely to cause severe health effects. On the list are scary hazards ranging from "pathological leakage of the blood-brain barrier", "double-strand DNA damage" and a "doubling of leukaemia", to the rather less scientific condition described as "loss of well-being".

The dangers of ionising radiation are well-known. We all know prolonged, cumulative exposure to X-rays or nuclear waste comes with some risk.

So are the thermal consequences of high-power non-ionising radiation. We all accept that microwave ovens work, solar flares have consequences, and electromagnetic pulse weapons exist.

However, the BioInitiative report claims severe risks exist even for low-level non-ionising radiation, such as the frequencies emitted by radio and television antennae, WiFi transmitters, mobile phones, and your baby monitor. Children (because think of the poor little children!) are exposed even on the street, in cars, in schools and in playgrounds.

Worse, these terrifying consequences are evident, the report authors claim, even for one-thousandth of the safe public exposure limits recommended by such respected bodies as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the US Food and Drug Administration, the American Cancer Society, the Federal Communications Commission, the World Health Organisation (WHO), and expert groups from dozens of countries around the world.

Why such startling differences of opinion? To constitute credible science, studies have to be replicable, consistent with similar studies, and methodologically sound. The papers the BioInitiative group claims to have reviewed are, despite their apparently high number of 1 800, in the minority. Just the IEEE database alone has three times more studies, and as early as 2004, the WHO claimed to have reviewed 25 000 papers and studies in depth to conclude "that current evidence does not confirm the existence of any health consequences from exposure to low level electromagnetic fields".

The BioInitiative claims contradict the thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers and studies that health expert groups have reviewed to reach their own, less alarmist, conclusions. Experts such as those linked to the above have criticised the studies this group uses as inadequate in their methodology, and lacking in replicability.

There's a word for such science: junk. Several features of the BioInitiative report act as tip-offs to its quality.

In its preface, it cites the popularity of its Web site as evidence for the level of public concern. Besides the ordinary pitfalls of measuring page hits, the fact that I (for example) downloaded the report does not indicate my support for its position. On the contrary. I downloaded it because it is junk.

The report runs to 1 479 pages. This is a transparent attempt to drown the opposition argument in impenetrable paperwork. Lawyers know this technique well.

The table of contents does not agree with the actual contents. Being a revision of a previous report, one would expect it to be less sloppy. The Hobbit, the Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion combined, for example, are of similar length, are more internally consistent, and require less suspension of disbelief.

It purports to "debunk" what its authors call "fallacies", in a rather curious way.

The content frequently veers towards the wildly emotive and alarming. It appeals to our protective instincts towards children, our guilt complexes about future generations, and our innate fears of deadly maladies.

It explicitly denies that public policy decisions ought to be based on scientific evidence, saying: "Traditional scientific consensus and scientific method is but one contributor to deciding when to take public health action; rather, it is one of several voices that are important in determining when new actions are warranted to protect public health. Certainly it is important, but not the exclusive purview of scientists alone to determine for all of society when changes are in the public health interest and welfare of children."

In their "summary for the public", they rely on speculative worst-case scenarios, anecdotal evidence, and contextless claims of "increased risk" to make the case for hazards, without quantifying or substantiating the real risk.

The report periodically invokes unrelated fears, discussing for example the "synergistic effects of toxic chemical exposure and EMF [electromagnetic frequency] exposure", and warning of the risks of "second-hand radiation, like second-hand smoke".

It purports to "debunk" what its authors call "fallacies", in a rather curious way. On page 1 390, one discovers that it is incorrect to claim that "the risk is low", because the risk is unknown, which rather contradicts pages one through 1 389. It is wrong to claim "there is no animal evidence", because, and I quote, "It is correct that there is no adequate animal model system that reproducibly demonstrates the development of cancer in response to exposure to EMFs at the various frequencies of concern."

The report regularly cites the routine, conservative scientific caveat that "more research is needed" to cast doubt on existing conclusions. This sort of rhetoric raises red flags in any scientific discussion, but then, they've already unburdened themselves of the rigours of the scientific method.

It further demands that government and industry demonstrate the safety of radio frequency radiation, which amounts to requiring science to prove a negative. This is, of course, logically impossible, but it is an effective rhetorical antidote for the inability to prove the corresponding positive: that harm from low-level electromagnetic radiation is a significant risk.

The authors claim there are "vested interests" that prevent adequate safety standards from being set. Presumably, the same global scientific community and government bureaucracy that banned a widely used, inexpensive and effective refrigerant to save the ozone layer, imposed expensive pollution control measures on industry to reduce acid rain, and remains determined to impose expensive carbon mitigation measures to combat climate change can't be trusted to take equally strong measures against what these people claim is the equally serious threat of electromagnetic radiation.

Frankly, they're idiots, and they're peddling lies. And I can say that without fear of being sued for defamation, because if they believe their own report, they'll be hiding in Faraday cages, safe from the sort of electromagnetic hazards that would expose them to the grave dangers of the Internet. Therefore, if they do object to a little name-calling, it will constitute an admission that they indeed are idiots, peddling lies. QED.

The real danger is that neurotic worrywarts like the BioInitiative will harm people by convincing weak-minded politicians to enact regressive, costly regulation, raising the cost of living. Not to mention the risk that their fear-mongering will cause stress-induced heart attacks.

Just because it claims to be "science" doesn't mean the BioInitiative 2012 report has any merit.

Related story:
Cellphone radiation: only the facts

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