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Residents of a building on Nuns' Island in Montreal believe that cellular antennas on their rooftop are making them sick and are fighting to have them removed, despite the fact that frequency levels are within the parameters of Health Canada’s guidelines that regulate electromagnetic frequencies.
Their panic intensified when a Montreal doctor at the Westmount Wellness Center diagnosed two residents with forms of hypersensitivity — one electromagnetic (EMH) and the other environmental. A professor at McGill University has been egging them on, too.
But EMH is controversial. Symptoms have not been linked to electromagnetic frequency (EMF) exposure, having failed to satisfy multiple double-blind studies. It is not a recognized medical diagnosis.
“I cannot sleep, I have a difficult time working and I am afraid that I am dying. Slowly frying like a lobster, irreversible hypersensitisation to [radio frequency] radiation because I have been exposed for long durations, all the while being told everything was below Safety Code 6,” said building resident and former Montreal city councilor Michelle Daines.
Safety Code 6 is the name for Health Canada's guidelines on radiofrequency electromagic energy. In her mission to have the antennas that she is now convinced are causing her illness removed, Daines has recruited others to her cause and panic has spread through the building.
“You get dizzy. You lose your sense of orientation. It’s like a shutdown. You cannot think anymore,” resident Josée Lacoursière said.
“I cannot work anymore because when I wake up...I’m so exhausted not only because I don’t sleep, I’m exhausted because this is draining all my energy. It’s attacking my brain. It’s attacking my nerves...I feel very bad, I suffer so much. I feel like crying because my head is really hurting and I have those palpitations in my heart."
Some see growing public concern over electromagnetic frequency radiation as rooted in fear of technology.
The World Health Organization notes that the evidence does not confirm any health effects from low level exposure to electromagnetic fields. Yet, armed with a diagnosis and backed by an academic at McGill, residents continue their efforts to have the antennas on their rooftop removed, and have threatened litigation to that effect.
Some continue to argue for tougher regulations despite the consensus that the effects of such exposure are negligible. They want stricter guidelines enacted until any potential health risks can be ruled out entirely, and are calling for a halt to the rollout of 5G wireless technology (which is more powerful than 4G while less penetrating) by the telecommunications industry. Their voices are making an impact.
Barry Breger, who diagnosed the two residents, said that he is seeing an increase in patients who believe that they have EHS. He’s one of the rare doctors willing to diagnose the condition and believes the theory that it is caused by radio frequency exposure.
Breger’s license to practice medicine in Quebec was suspended in 2016 for treating patients in a way that is “not consistent with scientific findings."
But it was reinstated pending Breger’s appeal. “Why would anybody complain if they weren’t having symptoms?” said Breger. “People don’t want to make trouble. They get sick. So when they get sick you listen to them. That’s my job,” Breger continued. “We’re not doing due diligence to find out if it [EMF] affects the human body.”
As claimed health effects of electromagnetic frequencies continue to generate passions, debate and skepticism, Paul Héroux, at McGill University’s Department of Epidemiology, Biostatistics, and Occupational Health, is fuelling the fire.
Having tested radio frequency levels in the Nuns' Island building and confirmed that safety guidelines are being respected, Héroux told residents that he doesn't agree with Health Canada standards.
Héroux, who researches the health effects of electricity and electro-magnetic fields at his lab, said that “the electro-sensitive population” are more vulnerable than the rest of us to these invisible forces and can act as a sort of weathervane on the issue.
“It’s a little bit like the canary in the mine, you know. Some people are more susceptible, and sometimes these people can warn us about a present danger,” he said.
Others such as Anthony Miller, of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, continue to argue in the same vein that EMF causes cancer.
Having stated in a 2018 paper that radio frequency radiation should be regarded as an established carcinogen in humans, Miller agrees with Héroux that health effects of wireless technology deserve further scrutiny.
“We’re playing with fire. We don’t have the human studies yet because it’s not there, but it’s the sort of thing that we should be extremely cautious about,” Miller said.
He is preparing a paper on the subject with the intention to publish once it has passed review. Both Héroux and Miller want Health Canada to implement stricter regulations on the telecommunications industry and postpone approval for 5G antennas.
Joe Schwarcz, director of McGill's Office for Science and Society, disagrees. Schwarcz said that while research on the topic does continue, the established science doesn't support the residents' concerns.
“People who claim that they are electro-sensitive, when they’re put into a blinded situation, cannot detect whether the equipment is on or not,” he said. “There have been numerous trials of that, and no one has been able to do it. So what is the chance that this is an outlier of a case?”
It’s normal for people to look for answers when they are sick and don’t know the cause, Schwarcz said.
“These people really are suffering. There’s no question. The question is, what it is that they’re suffering from?...the nocebo effect is very real. The nocebo effect is sort of the bad cousin of the placebo effect: if you believe that something can do you harm, it can. It’s not because you’re stupid. This can happen to anyone because people make connections.”
Rogers Communications is responsible for the rooftop antennas that residents attribute to their condition. Rogers spokesperson Sarah Schmidt said in a written statement that “the health and safety of local residents is of utmost importance to us, which is why we always adhere to all standards and requirements of Health Canada.”
Health Canada spokesperson Maryse Durette said in a written statement that evidence of a possible link between radio frequency energy exposure and cancer risk remains inconclusive but that the agency would take action if further studies came to light indicating a valid risk.
“With respect to cell phone towers, as long as exposures respect the limits set in Health Canada's guidelines, there is no scientific reason to consider cell phone towers dangerous to the public,” Durette said.