Limit Cell Use: Health Officer
Toronto Star, July 12, 2005
by Tyler Hamilton and Robert Cribb
Long-term phone risks aren't yet known, says agency head WHO conference looking at global `precautionary' approach
The country's top public health officer says Canadians should consider moderating their use of cell phones — and their children's — until science overcomes nagging uncertainties about long-term health effects.
Dr. David Butler-Jones, in opening remarks yesterday to a three-day conference hosted by the World Health Organization, told more than 100 academics, public health officials and scientists from around the world that constantly changing technology has created a moving target, leaving scientists playing a game of catch-up.
"Our technology has passed our ability to understand what biological effects are positive or negative," said Butler-Jones, who heads the new Public Health Agency of Canada, often described as the Canadian equivalent to the United States Surgeon General.
"What would be the message? The message would be that moderation is a good thing," he said in an interview after his presentation. "Talking for two hours every night on cell phones, would I advise that? No."
Butler-Jones said use of the devices in childhood could also have an impact on obesity and the way children interact socially with family and friends.
His comments, the first he has publicly made on possible health risks related to cell phones, follow a weekend Toronto Star investigation into the wireless industry's new marketing focus on children and what some scientists view as potential health effects that might take decades to prove or disprove as a problem.
Among the new crop of child-targeted phones already on store shelves or on their way are devices branded with such popular images as Barbie, Disney characters and Hilary Duff.
The conference, held in partnership with the University of Ottawa, is looking at the merits of what's often called a "precautionary approach" to public health policy.
The idea is to develop an international framework that member countries can adopt in cases of scientific uncertainty about potential health risks, such as cell phone frequencies or radiation from power lines.
"It's just good public hygiene to be precautionary," said Dr. Michael Repacholi, head of the radiation and environmental health unit of the World Health Organization. "Is there something we should be saying that we're not?"
Health Canada has remained quiet on the issue of children and the potential health risks of cell phones even as several European health experts and authorities have issued precautionary statements and messages to parents.Magda Havas, a professor of environmental studies at Trent University who has studied the impact of low frequencies on human health, said many in the scientific community outright dismiss studies that have shown biological effects on lab animals and cell cultures, effects that may hint at possible health risks.
"I think once again the health authorities aren't looking at the science, the same way they didn't with tobacco and asbestos," she said at the conference yesterday. "My concern is that this is actually going to hurt the cell phone industry. If they don't clean up their act ..., they're going to produce a generation that's so sensitive to these frequencies they won't be able to use the product."
She said evidence is already growing that certain people have "electrical hypersensitivity."
Joel Tickner, a research professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and an international expert on the precautionary approach, was scheduled to speak at the conference but backed out, saying the agenda has been watered down.
"Precaution is controversial; the cell phone industry doesn't want to hear about it," said Tickner, adding the industry doesn't want to be constrained from marketing its products. "As long as there's uncertainty in the science, we wait and don't do anything, which is unfortunate."
Peter Barnes, chief executive of the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, says his industry's products are safe, and no links have been proven between the devices and health effects. He says all cell phones sold in Canada "meet or exceed" all emission standards set by Industry Canada, which acts on the guidance of Health Canada experts.
The overwhelming majority of readers who contacted the Star in connection with the series said Health Canada should publicly state the potential risks to Canadians, and industry should back off from its new marketing focus on children.
"Health Canada's minister and bureaucrats should be in the business of protecting the health of us taxpayers who pay their salaries rather than nesting in the hip pocket of the cellular communications industry, whose primary business is selling mobile phones," said Jane Holmes, who lives in Brighton, Ont.
Peterborough resident Matt Keefer said the wireless industry is "crossing the line" by marketing to children.
"Government needs to step in and protect the interests of our youngsters by making it illegal for companies to qualify them as consumers."