Monday, March 7, 2016

Open Letter to Media Watch concerning their attack on Catalyst and Dr Maryanne Demasi

This letter was originally signed with four of my colleagues, all academics (i.e. 5 in total); it was sent to Media Watch on March 7, 2016.

To ABC staff at Media Watch

We are writing as a scientists (one a parent of children of the generation born into wi-fi) with expertise in medicine, public health, epidemiology, environmental studies and the “Precautionary Principle” to express concern about the tone and content of the broadcast of Media Watch on February 23, 2016, concerning the Catalyst programme, presented by Dr Maryanne Demasi on Feb 16, 2016. This broadcast concerned the safety of mobile phones and radio-frequency radiation (including “wi-fi”).

Media Watch used phrases such as “supposed dangers of wi-fi and mobile phones”, “Demasi’s so-called ‘investigation’, “scorned in this way”, “Demasi’s program was shockingly one-sided” and “the scientific consensus weighs heavily in the opposite direction”. We bring together our expertise to make the case (below) that such claims are patently wrong, in so doing adding to and supporting Dr Demasi’s own defence.

As stated in the Catalyst programme, by Dr Bruce Armstrong, Emeritus Professor of Public Health at the University of Sydney, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2011 classified radiofrequency radiation as a Group 2B possible human carcinogen. Prof Armstrong also stated that more recent “studies do suggest rather more strongly than the body of evidence available to IARC at the time of its evaluation that there is an association between heavy mobile phone use and brain tumours.” Furthermore, as Catalyst also stated, “mobile phone manufacturers themselves are aware of the potential risks which is why they recently put warnings in each device.”

We believe that to promote the public good, science needs an informed media. The issues raised by Catalyst in Demasi’s investigation are highly complex and uncertain, and there is insufficient space in the letter format here to review the scientific considerations involved.

Instead, we write in the hope that this letter will bring perspective in its support of exactly what Demasi produced and aired, leading to a more nuanced consideration by your programme, Media Watch, of the “Precautionary Principle”. This term, coined a few decades ago, restates ancient wisdom expressed in sayings such as “play it safe” or “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”, or a “stitch in time saves nine”. But, of course, as also long recognised, one can have too much caution leading to “s(he) who hesitates is lost”. This is the conundrum for those of us working at the interface of research and policy.

In our view, there are good arguments to promote the use of mobile phones and wi-fi, but there are also well-documented safety concerns. We recognise, at the moment, that social consensus in Australia accepts that the benefits of mobile phones and wi-fi exceed their risks, although there are insufficient data to conduct a meaningful risk-benefit evaluation. Catalyst provided a valuable service in not only reminding the public of these risks, but of describing several practical ways to lower them, including reduced exposure of the head to mobile phone use (eg a hands-free kit, speaker phone use) reduced body contact during mobile phone carriage, and the thoughtful placement of routers with the additional suggestion to turn them off during sleep.

Contrary to the assertion in Media Watch, our view is that programmes such as Catalyst should not necessarily follow formulae that give equal time to the dominant view, often sponsored by vested interests, especially when it is based on limited relatively early data. In scientific papers (other than reviews) this is rarely the case. Scientists seek to advance knowledge. Hypotheses are tested and literature interpreted in ways that explore our theories. Over time, good science discards false theories and approaches truth. Rather than balance, science seeks knowledge. Catalyst is a mix of science and media; we did not find its presentation to be unfair, but refreshing and a valued public service.

In this case, Catalyst provided a forum for the expression of the activist scientist, Dr Devra Davis, who, like us, advocates judicious use of the precautionary principle.

Finally, we note that evidence for widespread public concern about the issues raised here by Catalyst is also shown in many of the 256 comments on your website (as of March 1, 2016), the vast majority of which also called for more appreciation of the precautionary principle (albeit using a variety of synonyms).

We congratulate Dr Demasi for both the insights conveyed and the accuracy of her message vis รก vis the state of the art in radio-frequency radiation health effects. It is an example, in our view, of responsible science journalism in the public interest.

Yours sincerely

Professor Colin D Butler BMed, BMedSci(Hons), DTM&H, MSc(epidemiology), PhD (epidemiology and population health)
Faculty of Health and Health Research Institute, University of Canberra, Australia;, Canberra
Visiting Fellow, National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia
Founding co-chair: Health-Earth
Co-Founder: BODHI and BODHI Australia

Associate Professor Mark Diesendorf  BSc (Hons), PhD
Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies
School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences UNSW
Australia Sydney NSW 2052 Australia


Dr Murray May BSc (Hons), DipEd, MEd, PhD
Visiting Fellow, School of Physical Environmental and Mathematical Sciences,
UNSW Canberra

Em Professor Colin L Soskolne PhD
University of Alberta;
Adjunct Professor, University of Canberra
Fellow, American College of Epidemiology;
Fellow, Collegium Ramazzini Chair, International Joint Policy Committee of the Societies of Epidemiology (IJPC-SE)

Plus one colleague to be confirmed

PS As of today (May 16, 2016) our letter has not been acknowledged.

As of today (Jan 21, 2018) still no acknowledgement. The BMJ has been reviewing our article for almost 7 months. No decision as yet.

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