Rachel's Precaution Reporter #70
Wednesday, December 27, 2006

From: Grand Haven (Michigan) Tribune ......................[This story printer-friendly]
December 21, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: As the governments of the U.S. and Canada begin to revise the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, environmental groups around the lakes are calling for policies that prevent harm, rather than manage harm after it has occurred.]

By John Flesher, AP Environmental Writer

Traverse City, Michigan -- About five years before zebra mussels launched their invasion of the Great Lakes in the mid-1980s, Canadian researchers warned it was coming.

But neither Canada nor the United States took steps to stop the tiny mollusk from hitchhiking to the lakes from Europe inside ballast tanks of oceangoing freighters. Now, controlling the pest costs taxpayers hundreds of millions a year.

"We're paying many times the price we would have had to pay if we'd taken a preventive approach," says Cameron Davis, executive director of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

"The entire history of the Great Lakes is like that -- suspecting a threat but not heeding the warning signs."

As both countries ponder the first significant update of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in nearly two decades, a coalition of environmentalist groups has developed a wide-ranging set of proposed improvements.

Among them: adding to the agreement's list of bedrock principles the "precautionary approach," or trying to head off potential threats before they materialize instead of waiting to clean up the mess afterward.

"It means paying attention to scientific research and listening to the early warning bells," says Davis, whose group crafted the wish list with Great Lakes United, the Canadian Environmental Law Association and the Biodiversity Project. Numerous other organizations have endorsed it, he says.

Their 65-page paper is among a flurry of recommendations offered to an executive committee of U.S. and Canadian officials since it began a review of the water quality agreement last year to decide whether changes are needed.

Davis says the report, "Promises to Keep; Challenges to Meet," advocates building upon the successes of the water quality agreement while fixing its shortcomings.

While the agreement already calls for shielding the lakes from new sources of toxins, it should have a policy of identifying and preventing a broad range of chemical, biological and physical threats, the report says.

Climate change is among the emerging dangers, it says, with the potential to cause more precipitation and heavier storms even as it drives water levels lower by boosting temperatures and evaporation. Possible consequences include more pollution from runoff, sewer overflows, wetland shrinkage and wildlife habitat loss.

The report calls for a board of experts to keep track of developments in global warming research and recommend ways to minimize the damage by acting early.

Another part of the precautionary approach could be controversial: requiring people to demonstrate their actions wouldn't harm the lakes instead of placing the burden on regulators to prove otherwise.

Even so, some business interests say the precautionary principle -- a fixture in many international declarations and treaties on the environment -- can be acceptable. The key is to base preventive rules on good science and make them proportionate to the risk involved, says the Ann Arbor-based Council of Great Lakes Industries.

The water quality agreement is "a vision document," says the group's president, George Kuper. "What I'm anxious for is that people not take that vision to outrageous extremes," such as demanding that industry prove it won't put any toxins in the water instead of showing the amounts won't be harmful.

"There is not a thing in this world that is risk free," Kuper says. "The question is how to balance the risk against the reward."

In addition to preventing new problems, the agreement should push for stepped-up cleanup and restoration of polluted sites, the environmentalists' report says. And it should demand accountability from both countries, urging them to set timetables and benchmarks and put specific agencies in charge.

"The governments are not keeping their promises under the agreement, in part because the political climate has changed," says Reg Gilbert, senior coordinator of Great Lakes United, a Canadian-U.S. advocacy group.

People have grown more hostile to regulation and government since the initial agreement was signed in 1972, he said. And the nature of today's threats to the lakes, while just as serious, are less apt to stir public outrage.

"There was a clamor for change back in 1972. People saw the fish kills, smelled the dirty water. Those things got better and people started to think the lakes weren't in trouble any more."

Copyright 2006 Grand Haven Publishing Corp.


From: Canadian News Wire .................................[This story printer-friendly]
December 11, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Canada is reviewing its basic environment law, known as CEPA. Now more than 700 scientists and physicians have urged their government to insert more prevention and precaution into Canada's chemicals policies.]

Edmonton -- As the [Canadian] federal government launches its new strategy for dealing with toxic substances, and as Parliament enters the final phase of its review of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), a letter signed by 721 Canadian scientists and doctors released today calls on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to amend CEPA to ensure it reduces Canadians' exposure to toxic substances.

The list includes 19 Canada Research Chairs, 25 Royal Society members, 4 Order of Canada recipients, and 2 Herzberg gold medalists. Dr. David Schindler, Killam Memorial Chair and Professor of Ecology at the University of Alberta, helped organize the initiative through a web site, www.scientistsforahealthyenvironment.ca, which is still collecting signatories.

"This letter reflects a remarkable breadth of scientific opinion. Canadian doctors and scientists are calling on the federal government to fix the problems in CEPA, and reduce toxic pollution in Canada," he said.

CEPA is Canada's overarching federal pollution law. The House of Commons Environment Committee began a mandatory review of the law in the spring, and is hearing from its last witness panel today. A parallel review is taking place in the Senate's Standing Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources. Witnesses appearing before the committees have highlighted many weaknesses in the law that have resulted in a lack of effective action to reduce pollution in Canada.

"Canada has a growing pollution problem that is a threat to both human health and the quality of our environment," the scientists' letter states. "CEPA requires significant improvements in order to deal with the emerging challenges of harmful substances in our environment."

While the federal government last Friday announced an action plan to move forward on key toxic substances, this plan does not address deficiencies in the overall regulatory system. The letter focuses on four areas that need improvement in CEPA:

1) Protecting vulnerable ecosystems, such as the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin;

2) Requiring deadlines for each stage from assessment to management of potentially harmful substances;

3) Employing the precautionary approach by shifting the onus on to industry to show that products are safe, rather than the current system, under which the government must generally prove that a substance is harmful before taking regulatory action; and

4) Providing the authority to regulate potentially harmful substances in consumer products.

"We hope this letter will encourage parliamentarians to make improvements to CEPA so that it better protects our health and our environment," said Dr. John Smol, Canada Research Chair in Environmental Change at Queen's University, editor of the Journal of Paleolimnology, and one of the co-signatories of the letter. "Future generations will thank us."

The scientists' letter, and the list of signatories, is available at www.scientistsforahealthyenvironment.ca.

Dr. David Schindler, University of Alberta, Tel. (780) 492-1291 or (780) 325-3770; Dr. John Smol, Queen's University, Tel. (613) 533-6147

Copyright 2006 News Provided by Comtex.


From: Le Monde ...........................................[This story printer-friendly]
December 14, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: The French newspsper, Le Monde, says that the essential point of the new European chemicals policy, REACH, is "the inversion of the burden of proof," which transfers to chemical producers the responsibility to say under what conditions their products can be used without risk.]

At the dawn of the third millennium, humans living in developed countries are more contaminated by synthetic chemical products than they have ever been before. The scientific controversy is far from over, but the impact on health of this massive chemical contamination is certain. The environmental cause of a number of cancers is proven, and the drop in fertility correlates with exposure to certain synthetic molecules. One must therefore commend the European Parliament's Wednesday, December 13, adoption of the Reach regulation - an unprecedented body of law on the danger of chemical products.

Regulating an industry that is at the heart of our model of economic development was urgent. Although chemistry has brought undeniable benefits to modern societies, its dark side could no longer be obscured and denied. Once it is fully applied in July 2018, the Reach regulation will allow us to understand the effects on health and the environment of some 30,000 substances used to make common consumer products.

This result was very nearly never-to-be-achieved, so fiercely had it been fought by the chemical lobby and European management. At the heart of the European Commission, as well as in the Council of Ministers -- where Germany, premier European chemical producer, led the revolt -- and then in the European Parliament, the attempts to torpedo the measure persisted up until the last moment.

However, Parliament's rapporteur, Guido Sacconi, a former Italian trade unionist exhausted by the negotiations, did not concede on the project's essential point: "the inversion of the burden of proof," which transfers to producers the requirement to say under what conditions their products can be used without risk. At present, the public authorities -- supposed to do this work, but swamped -- have only been able to evaluate, according to Mr. Sacconi, some "400 molecules in twenty-five years." With Reach, producers will have to make tests and prove harmlessness. These evaluations will cost between 2.8 and 5.2 billion Euros between now and 2018, or less than one percent of the chemical sector's total sales.

Although imperfect, this text constitutes a step in the right direction, toward a "green chemistry" that would progressively eliminate those products harmful to health. The European chemical industry argued with good reason about the threat to its competitiveness, given that other continents are subject to lighter constraints. But it is arming itself for the future, since, by developing clean products, it will get ahead of the competition. Behind Reach, an economic model Europe should count on is becoming apparent: industry and activities that, as a matter of principle, respect the environment and health.


From: The Times (London) .................................[This story printer-friendly]
December 11, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: For several years, the Times of London has been reporting on emerging evidence that some people feel effects from electromagnetic radiation produced by cell phone towers and wireless computer networks (wi-fi). Will anyone heed these early warnings?]

By Nicki Daniels

Concern about the safety of wireless networks is mounting, with people blaming everything from headaches to cancer on the technology

It started as a low murmur, and has now risen to a persistent hum. Thanks partly to a lively correspondence in the pages of The Times, the debate about the safety of wireless networks is gathering momentum. Is this new technology a threat to human health comparable to smoking -- as some campaigners claim -- or an electric storm in a teacup?

Wireless networks -- known as wi-fi or wLAN (wireless local area network) -- are increasingly used in schools, offices and other public places to connect computers and laptops to the internet using radiofrequency transmitters with no need for complex cabling. In future, whole town centres will be transformed into wi-fi "hot spots", enabling people to access the internet wherever they are through hand- held devices, including mobile phones. Indeed, Milton Keynes, Norwich and the borough of Islington, in North London, already have this WiMax technology.

It has taken the public a while to wake up to the idea that wireless transmitters could be less than benign. As with mobile phones, we first embrace the liberating new technology and only later ask the awkward questions. Perhaps, as with pharmaceuticals, the order should be reversed. The official line on the health implications of wi-fi is that exposure to low level electromagnetic radiation from wireless networks is well below recommended levels and that there is no evidence of risk. But despite these soothing words, the groundswell of concern is mounting, with some people blaming everything from headaches to cancer on exposure to radio-frequency fields.

As reported in this newspaper, a number of schools have dismantled their wireless networks after lobbying from worried parents, and others are under pressure to follow suit. In Austria the public health department of Salzburg has advised schools and kindergartens not to use wLAN or cordless phones. Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada, which has 7,400 students, has removed wi-fi because of what its Vice- Chancellor, Dr Fred Gilbert, calls "the weight of evidence demonstrating behavioural effects and physiological impacts at the tissue, cellular and cell level".

Some experts have also expressed concerns. In September, 30 scientists from all over the world signed a resolution calling for a "full and independent review of the scientific evidence that points to hazards from current electromagnetic field exposure conditions worldwide." Closer to home, the Irish Doctors Environmental Association (IDEA) has asked its country's Government to carry out "a full assessment of the health impacts of electromagnetic radiation".

"There has been no research specifically looking at the effects of wireless networks on human health," admits Alasdair Philips, the scientific and technical director of the lobby group Powerwatch. "But I have seen enough anecdotal material to be convinced that some people are affected by them."

David Dean, 43, a councillor in Merton, South London, and the managing director of a publishing company, describes himself as a human antenna. "The moment I go into people's houses I know whether they have wi-fi because my head starts to buzz. I had to leave my last job because I couldn't stand up for more than ten minutes in the office and my boss would not remove the wi-fi. My heart raced, I had double vision and really bad headaches. It felt as though my head was in an arm lock. Twice I have been into homes where the children were screaming monsters. After I suggested to the parents that they turn off the network for two days, the kids were transformed."

Anxiety about wi-fi has focused on the effect of electromagnetic radiation on children because they have thinner skulls, less fully developed nervous systems and will undergo a lifetime of exposure to cellphone technology. In his report on mobile phones, Professor Sir William Stewart, the chairman of the Health Protection Agency (HPA), acknowledged that radiation below guideline levels, while thought to be safe, may have effects on the body. He therefore advocated a precautionary approach, including close monitoring of radiation from masts near schools and a recommendation that the beam of greatest intensity from a mast should not fall within the grounds of a school.

"The emissions from wireless networks are very similar to those from mobile phone base stations in terms of frequency and signal modulation," says Philips, who, it must be said, runs a company selling electromagnetic radiation detectors and blockers. "Many published reports have shown ill-health affects apparently associated with living and working close to mobile phone masts. In a Latvian study of 966 children, motor function, memory and attention were significantly worse in the group exposed to radiation from a pulsed radio location station. The exposure levels were low, but similar to those that children in classes with wLANs will be exposed to."

Dr Michael Clark, of the HPA, says published research on mobile phones and masts does not add up to an indictment of wi-fi. "All the expert reviews done here and abroad indicate that there is unlikely to be a health risk from wireless networks," he says. "The few studies on mobile phone masts that have appeared in peer-reviewed journals claiming to observe health effects are not at all conclusive. The real problem is deciding what level of precaution is appropriate.

"When we have conducted measurements in schools, typical exposures from wi-fi are around 20 millionths of the international guideline levels of exposure to radiation. As a comparison, a child on a mobile phone receives up to 50 per cent of guideline levels. So a year sitting in a classroom near a wireless network is roughly equivalent to 20 minutes on a mobile. If wi-fi should be taken out of schools, then the mobile phone network should be shut down, too -- and FM radio and TV, as the strength of their signals is similar to that from wi-fi in classrooms."

Philips is not reassured: "Electromagnetic radiation exposure guidelines in the UK are designed to protect against gross heating effects. They are not meant to protect against long-term exposure to low levels of pulsing microwaves, such as laptops emit when downloading. We believe that these interfere with the body's own normal internal electrical and electro-chemical signalling systems, leading to serious health problems, and growing children may be more affected than adults, whose cells are not changing as rapidly."

One of the problems in conducting research is that not everybody is affected by electromagnetic radiation in the same way. "A growing, consistent body of literature demonstrates that a subgroup of the population appears to suffer distressing symptoms when exposed to this type of radiation," says Dr Elizabeth Cullen, of IDEA. Sleep disturbances, depression, blurred vision, heart and breathing problems, nausea and headache are among the most common symptoms.

Up to 5 per cent of the population is thought to have this sensitivity, which is recognised in Sweden as a disability. In Stockholm sufferers can have their homes adapted to remove or screen out sources of electromagnetic radiation. If this proves ineffective, they can even rent council-owned cottages in areas of low radiation.

However, Dr Clark is not persuaded that electromagnetic fields are the cause of sensitivity. "While we accept that some people experience genuine symptoms, which can be distressing, what causes them is another matter. Most scientists are very sceptical because of the published laboratory investigations of electrosensitivity. People who are convinced that they can tell when they are in the presence of electromagnetic radiation cannot detect the fields in double-blind laboratory conditions."

An important study by the University of Essex, due to be published next year in a peer-reviewed journal, may settle the matter. During the trial, 55 people who believe that they are hypersensitive and 120 non-sensitive controls were subjected to tests of concentration and memory while signals from second and third generation mobile phone masts were switched on and off. The trial was double blind: neither the researchers nor the subjects knew when the signals were firing.

Some believe that sensitivity symptoms are not the only threat posed by electromagnetic radiation. A Swedish study suggests that there is an increased risk of acoustic neuroma (an auditory nerve cancer) in people who have used mobile phones for more than ten years. Conversely, last week the results of the largest and longest-running study on mobile phones and the risk of cancer, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, found that there was no link.

A literature review conducted by the International Commission for Non- Ionising Radiation Protection concluded: "Results of epidemiologic studies to date give no consistent or convincing evidence of a causal relation between exposure from radio frequency fields (RFs) and any adverse health effect. On the other hand, these studies have too many deficiencies to rule out an association. Despite the ubiquity of new technologies using radio frequency fields, little is known about population exposure from RF sources, and even less about the relative importance of different sources."

And here lies the nub of the problem. Not enough research has been done over long enough periods on the effects of various levels of exposure on different populations to draw any firm conclusions about the dangers, if any, of wireless networks. As to whether the convenience is worth the risk -- only you can decide.


Sidebar: 'I Felt Dizzy and Nauseous'

By Poppy Rhodes

"Electrosensitivity" is a rather misleading term. I'm fine around electricity. But put me next to a BlackBerry or a wireless laptop accessing the internet and I feel dizzy, slightly nauseous and my flesh tingles as if it's being scrambled. It sounds bonkers I know. But after years of denial I have had to come to terms with the fact that aspects of this fantastic new technology do not agree with me.

We installed wi-fi in our house two years ago. We loved it. The whole family could be online at the same time. I imagined myself working in the garden during the summer (although I never did), and I could work in bed. But from the moment wi-fi arrived I felt peculiar.

I mentioned casually to my husband that I could tell when he was sending an e-mail, but he dismissed that as laughable: I must be imagining it. So I put the idea out of my mind. But as the weeks and months passed I began to feel iller, overwhelmed at times by intense giddiness, headaches and a sense that I was moving through a dense fog. Sleep was fitful and I seemed to feel constantly at a low par.

Then we went away for the Easter break to stay with friends in the depths of remote countryside. I felt great as you tend to do when you're on holiday. But the moment we walked back into our house I felt giddy and nauseous again and then I knew. I wasn't neurotic. This was real.

I changed our router back to wired internet access. I had the computers reconfigured so that they no longer sent out signals searching for wi-fi and we binned the dect phones (digital cordless phones) just to make doubly sure. My husband began to notice the change in me within days and, finally, he believed me.

The trouble is that you can't talk about this without people thinking that you're mad. My symptoms are minor compared to others I have heard of. Sometimes I notice wi-fi in the wider world when it's heavy -- my local bookshop, the Apple Mac shop, airports and an expensive hotel we recently went to stay in. Other times I feel this scrambled fog only when I'm near a device using this technology -- the hand-held machine in restaurants that you tap your pin number into and laptops surfing the web.

After months of monitoring, I'm happy knowing that it is wi-fi that makes me feel this odd and not some other unknown disease. I avoid it when I can. I don't see much difference between someone smoking a cigarette or shouting into a mobile phone next to me in a public place. If anything I think I'd prefer the cigarette.


Copyright 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.


Rachel's Precaution Reporter offers news, views and practical examples of the Precautionary Principle, or Foresight Principle, in action. The Precautionary Principle is a modern way of making decisions, to minimize harm. Rachel's Precaution Reporter tries to answer such questions as, Why do we need the precautionary principle? Who is using precaution? Who is opposing precaution?

We often include attacks on the precautionary principle because we believe it is essential for advocates of precaution to know what their adversaries are saying, just as abolitionists in 1830 needed to know the arguments used by slaveholders.

Rachel's Precaution Reporter is published as often as necessary to provide readers with up-to-date coverage of the subject.

As you come across stories that illustrate the precautionary principle -- or the need for the precautionary principle -- please Email them to us at rpr@rachel.org.

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