• 16 JUL 16
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    A historical perspective on the Catalyst Wi-Fried program controversy

    With the current Media Watch attack on the Catalyst program Wi-Fried and calls for its producer Maryanne Demasi to be sacked, it is worthwhile to note that this is not the first time in Australia that such an attack has happened when questions on the safety of wireless technology have been raised.

    In this other case it was not a reporter or TV program but a senior CSIRO research scientist and his entire research department. Consider……

    In early 1994 the Spectrum Management Agency, forerunner of the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) commissioned the CSIRO’s Division of Radiophysics to undertake a comprehensive review of the available world-wide research on the biological effects of radiofrequency/microwave (RF/MW) exposure on the human body. Funding for the study came from the national carrier Telecom (later Telstra), and the carriers Optus and Vodafone and the resulting report was authored by Dr. Stan Barnett from CSIRO’s Ultrasonics Laboratory, Division of Radiophysics.

    Barnett’s report listed many well-documented adverse bio-effects from exposure to RF/MW at power levels well below the threshold for thermal effects, which the Australian and International exposure standards were based on. It also listed many laboratory studies that reported bio-effects at power levels well below the maximum standard limit of 1mW/cm2, with implications for possible adverse effects on the human immune system. The importance of non-thermal interaction with the human body was a central feature of the CSIRO report. For example, in the Section 9.0, “Mechanisms of Interaction” it is stated (in part):

    The reported effects are unexpected from the existing knowledge on physical interactions since they do not appear to be described by classical intensity or dose-response relationships. It seems to be unlikely that a single bio-physicial interaction mechanism will be adequate to explain all of the reported non-thermal effects of RF and microwave radiation.

    In his report, Barnett pointed out that the research database was inconclusive, and called for the establishment of an effective research program to determine threshold levels for the onset of RF/MW bio-effects. This research was to span from the level of molecular biology to whole-body physiological reactions and included consideration of possible non-thermal low-level bio-effects. CSIRO considered that the creation of an independently verified database was necessary to be able to develop meaningful safety standards and achieve the trust of the public. The report went on to recommend specific areas of research that it felt was needed and called for the formation of an expert committee to oversee such a program.

    Unfortunately, however, Barnett’s CSIRO report was seen as a direct threat to the telecommunications industry as it questioned the industry’s claim that there were no known non-thermal effects from RF/MW. The report also brought into question the credibility of the government’s policy to promote telecommunications while at the same time it was the majority shareholder in Telstra.

    The CSIRO management, at the behest of the govt. then asked Barnett to alter the report’s summery from saying that there was insufficient scientific evidence to claim safety to one saying that there was insufficient evidence of harm!

    Barnett refused to change his report and as a consequence the report was classified “Confidential” meaning that it was withheld from publication. This was the case until its existence was leaked to the magazine Communications Day and the office of Australian Democrats Senator Robert Bell in March 1995. Most importantly, the CSIRO report questioned the government’s credibility in relation to government and industry statements on the safety of telecommunications technology.

    After pointing out research priorities in the report, CSIRO’s Department of Radiophysics applied several times to the National Health & Medical Research Council (NH&MRC) for funding to research the potential effects of mobile phone radiation on DNA and cancer. However, despite the fact that the Division of Radiophysics was arguably well qualified to conduct the research, it was in both instances rejected. This rejection due, not only because the government considered the CSIRO report to be in conflict with government policy, but because various people from government, Telecom (Telstra), Optus and Vodafone had claimed that the CSIRO report was merely a blatant attempt to gain research funding for itself.

    If CSIRO’s Department of Radiophysics had been successful in gaining funding for research it would have been conducted by their own researchers who did not necessarily share government and industry views on the safety of telecommunications technology. The history of CSIRO’s telecommunications policy on standard setting illustrates that they consistently weighed up conflicting viewpoints on safety. The knowledge thus generated by a CSIRO research program would have been considered as an unknown quantity (a ‘loose cannon’ so to speak) with the potential to conflict with both government and industry policy.

    In ‘damage control mode’ the government subsequently removed the CSIRO from any involvement with mobile phone research and also removed the organization from any future involvement with non-ionizing health research altogether in 2003.

    The CSIRO report had called for an expert committee to be established to oversee an Australian research effort that would critically evaluate the dosimetry and bio-effects of published studies, and create direct lines of communication between research, regulatory and political sectors. It would also design research protocols for critical areas of research and collaborate with international organizations to verify research.

    In 1996 The NH&MRC did establish an expert committee along the lines of the CSIRO recommendations, however, when it came to appointing a key expert radiation adviser to its electromagnetic energy (EME) Expert committee, The government insisted that they appoint Dr. Ken Joyner, Motorola’s Director of “Global EME Strategy and Regulatory Affairs”. Dr. Joyner has also represented the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association, an industry group, on the telecommunications standards committee and had also represented the Mobile Manufacturers Forum. This gave the Australian telecommunications industry a direct line of influence in any subsequent Australian research on telecommunications technology.

    In September 2003 Dr. Barnett circulated a letter to announce that he had been forced to accept “involuntary redundancy” from CSIRO and that his division had been told by senior management to cease all further research into the bio-effects and safety of ultrasound and non-ionising radiation.Barnett stated, in part, in his 2003 letter that:

    CSIRO has chosen to stop all involvement in safety of non-ionising radiation in general. It seems that research for the good of the community is not considered a priority area unless it is politically attractive or able to attract funding from industry. Clearly, that is not the case for safety related research in a taxpayer-funded research organisation.

    Henceforth, any research into possible health impacts of mobile phones or other health issues related to telecommunications would be directed solely through the NH&MRC’s EME committee with subsequent research groups (so-called Centres of Excellence!) deeply embedded with industry researchers and fellow travellers who faithfully support the industry line that there are no health hazards to worry about.

    Similarly to what happened with the 1994 CSIRO Barnett report, the recent Catalyst Wi-Fried program was understandably seen as a direct threat to vested interests promoting Wi-Fi technology, which is a multi-trillion dollar rapid growth industry. The industry would also consider the Wi-Fried program a threat to the public’s largely unquestioning acceptance of exposure standards which underpins the entire wireless industry.

    It would be a brave investigative journalist, indeed, who took up the task of investigating the role the Australian telecommunications industry has played and still plays in influencing and controlling the research in Australia – and its long practice of attacking anyone who dares question the industry’s views on the safety of its products.

    Don Maisch PhD

    July 16, 2016

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