Maychai Brown

Does Health Canada adequately protect Canadians from electromagnetic fields? Should we worry about the extremely low frequency (ELF) electromagnetic fields generated by power lines, interior wiring and appliances? And what about the higher frequency fields in the radiofrequency (RF) range associated with cell phones, Wi-Fi and other wireless sources?magda

We asked Canadian expert, Dr. Magda Havas of Trent University’s Environmental and Resource Studies Program, about Canadian regulations. She offered a discouraging assessment, “The guidelines we have in Canada are much worse than those in most other countries.”

Extremely Low Frequency
The unit of measurement used to describe ELF magnetic fields is the milligauss (mG). According to the Health Canada website, “... there are no Canadian government guidelines for exposure to electromagnetic fields at ELF.” However, Dr. Havas has discovered there is a working guideline: Canada allows exposures of 833 mG over a 24-hour period. This is far higher than more progressive countries which limit average long-term exposure to 3 mG.

In Israel, it is illegal to sell a house that has more than a 10 mG magnetic field. Dr. Havas argues that the Canadian limit should be lowered because of evidence that miscarriages during the first trimester increase at levels above 16 mG, breast cancer risk is elevated at long-term average exposures between 2 and 12 mG, and a risk of childhood leukemia has been documented at exposures of 2 to 4 mG.

Microwaves occupy the highest frequency in the radiofrequency spectrum. In the U.S.A. and some other countries, EMFs associated with microwaves are deemed to be safe as long as they are incapable of raising the temperature of the body within 30 minutes. Canadian regulation is much looser, setting six minutes as the safety limit. This means that it’s acceptable if body temperature increases after seven minutes of exposure.

Radiofrequency has been implicated in risks of brain tumour and acoustic neuroma (tumour on a nerve related to hearing). Again, Dr. Havas asserts that Canada falls far short of the ideal. The most progressive regulation is in Salzburg, Austria, where the allowable limit of RF power density is 0.1 microwatt per square centimetre. Even at that level, Havas points out, some electro-sensitive people become ill. Canada, by contrast, allows power densities of 1,000 microwatts per square centimetre – ten thousand times above the most progressive limit in the world! And in Britain, even higher densities are allowed – by a factor of ten!

What would be the best limit for RF in Canada? Dr. Havas recommends the Salzburg guideline for most areas except around schools where the limit should be even lower “... because we’re dealing with young children who are likely to have a much longer lifetime exposure and are likely to be much more sensitive.”

Although radiofrequency has not been associated with an elevated risk of breast cancer, the epidemiological evidence linking it to brain tumours and acoustic neuroma is of concern. Elevated risks for both types of tumours have been observed in people who had used cell phones or cordless phones for ten years or longer.

The epidemiological findings are reinforced by laboratory studies showing that radiofrequency can break down DNA bonds. This is an unexpected and surprising phenomenon because, in theory, radiofrequency does not carry enough energy to break bonds. Yet, for some reason, it happens.

More research is needed to understand the initial impact of radiofrequency and particularly the impact of cumulative exposures. Dr. Havas says, “There is absolutely no government funding in North America for this kind of research; the only kind of money available is from industry.” She is astounded by the unwillingness of governments to sponsor research into the effect of this new and burgeoning technology.

Pressing for Change
What would it take to influence the Canadian government to take a more precautionary approach in the regulation of human exposure to electromagnetic fields? In light of the studies linking breast cancer and leukemia to ELF magnetic fields, and brain tumours and acoustic neuromas to RF, Dr. Havas urges us to contact our local Member of Parliament and to insist on scrutiny of government guidelines. A precautionary approach is especially important given the absence of knowledge about effects of long-term exposure to the seemingly endless proliferation of gadgets that depend upon radiofrequency.

In the Meantime…
We asked Dr. Havas what individuals can do to protect themselves from the possible ill effects of EMFs. For sources outside the home, the best we can do is to avoid living closer than 100 metres to a high voltage line or a substation. For cell relay towers, a distance beyond 400 metres is desirable. Buyers who are tempted by the lower prices for homes located near these hydro facilities should realize there is a reason for the lower prices. As Dr. Havas says, “If someone wants to put one in your backyard, oppose it.”

For sources of EMFs inside the home, she has a number of suggestions. The bedroom deserves the greatest protection because the biological restorative functions that take place during the hours of sleep are stressed by EMFs. Get rid of electric blankets, move electric clock-radios beyond arm’s reach from the bed, and remove wireless appliances, especially cordless phones. It is also advisable to turn off your computer’s wireless router at night. Even if not in the bedroom, its RF electromagnetic field permeates the home. (If you live in an apartment, the energy will invade your neighbours’ spaces as well.)

In the opinion of Dr. Havas, the cordless phone and the compact fluorescent light bulb should be banished from the home altogether. Not only are cordless phones implicated in tumour risk, but they are also associated with headaches and sleeplessness. Most cordless phones rely on Digital European Cordless Telephony technology – DECT. “If you have [a DECT phone] in your kitchen; it can radiate your bedroom. It’s that powerful – one reason they’re so popular.” The cordless phone creates continuous strong RF exposure equal to or higher than that experienced by an individual living near a cell relay tower.

Compact fluorescent lights have been associated with a number of illnesses, but also with sleeplessness, headaches, skin rashes, and difficulty concentrating. They emit ultraviolet rays and low-end RF dubbed “dirty electricity.” They also project radiofrequency at intermediate frequencies, which science has shown to be harmful.

Variations in regulations of EMFs don’t make sense; ideally, governments across the globe should agree on universal standards. “Because we’re all human beings and there is no reason why people in Austria should be safe from the higher levels and people in Canada should not.” In time, perhaps there will be wireless-free zones in schools, bedrooms, restaurants, etc. (similar to smoke-free environments) but, until safe standards become universal, individuals need to be aware of the danger and limit their exposure.