Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"Dirty electricity" studies fail to stand up to serious scrutiny

Perhaps you've heard about the so-called "dirty electricity" that's supposedly used by compact fluorescent lamps, among other things, that will make your willy fall off or your body to break out in tumours or something like that. When I heard that story I was immediately suspicious, perhaps because I was reminded on an unconscious level of Andrew Wakefield's allegations about vaccines causing autism. Well, it seems my suspicions were justified:
In an ongoing attempt to keep Canadian politicians informed about the true state of scientific evidence surrounding microwave radiation for communications, the kind used in cell phones and wireless networks, the Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism (CASS) at the Centre for Inquiry (CFI), Canada submitted a brief to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health (HESA) last Monday, November 8th. This year, HESA has been investigating the possible effects of low-level microwave radiation on public health and has deposed many different speakers. The transcripts to two of the interesting depositions can be found here and here, the latter having been conducted just a few weeks ago on October 28th.

Last week, we published a critique by CFI science advisor Lorne Trottier and electronics engineer Harvey Kovsky of the most recent “scientific” study by Magda Havas, promoter of the idea of “dirty electricity” and electro-hypersensitivity syndrome. This week, on the heels of the reportage by the CBC and an article this Saturday in the Montreal Gazzette, we present another critique, this time of an article that appeared originally in a Canadian National Research Council publication the Environmental Reviews. In this review, B. Blake Levitt, a science journalist who has published 2 books on EHS and the supposed dangers of EMF, and Henry Lai, an original author of the now debunked Bioinitiative Report, present a re-hashing of old science and try to make their case that there is such a thing as EHS and that we should be worried about low-level microwave radiation, an idea that has been refuted by Health Canada and several other agencies.

It is suspected , because Lai, Levitt, and Havas have not had much success in promoting these ideas and have been denied legislative change in the United States, that any adoption of changes to the laws in Canada would strengthen their case in other, larger, jurisdictions. CASS is determined to not let this happen in Canada, and copies of the Havas and Levitt and Lai critiques have been sent to HESA in an effort to counter the fallacious claims being made by these purveyors of bad science.

From Skeptic North (h/t Startled Disbelief). I find it fascinating how these things seem to take hold of societies. A conspiracy theorist would suggest that the promotion of this idea is a plot by the coal industry to keep CFL sales down, but I don't think it's anything that complex (and how would you explain the similar phenomenon with Wakefields' claims about vaccines?) I suspect it's the same sort of thing that makes other urban legends thrive; a tendency to want to believe that the experts are wrong. (Of course, sometimes the experts are wrong, but that's another story). The thing is, unlike most urban legends (or even this guy's strange claim to have developed a reactionless drive), these stories have the potential to do real harm. Indeed, Wakefield's nonsense has been blamed for a dramatic drop in vaccination against polio, and according to some may have undermined efforts to eradicate that disease. And scaring people away from CFLs is potentially worse, given how much we're going to have to reduce our energy consumption in the future.

That said, there is one well-established problem with CFLs, and that's the fact that they contain a small amount of mercury. This is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but just to put things in perspective, coal also contains mercury. In fact, even assuming the worst case scenario where the CFL is tossed in the garbage (no, please don't do this), the CFL is still the lesser evil, if coal is a significant part of the power grid:

That said, from a purely selfish point of view, you might prefer the incandescent bulbs, because if you break a CFL it's you who gets exposed to the mercury.

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