ABC's Catalyst program is under attack for a controversial "scare" program Wi-Fried? linking Wi-Fi and mobile phone use with brain cancer.
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Footage from the controversial episode of 'Catalyst' earlier this year linking Wi-Fi and mobile use to cancer. Vision: ABC Catalyst
Prominent scientists have attacked the program as incorrect and unscientific. According to the Australian government's radiation safety agency ARPANSA, there is "no established evidence" that the low levels of radiofrequency radiation from these devices causes health effects.
The program was reported by Dr Maryanne Demasi whose 2013 report questioning the role of cholesterol in heart disease and the use of statins, which lower cholesterol, in treating it also attracted controversy.
That program was withdrawn from ABC websites after an internal review found it breached standards of impartiality, and it was slammed by health experts for misrepresenting evidence and scaring people away from potentially lifesaving medications.
After the program, more than 60,000 Australians cut back on, or stopped taking, statins, a later study revealed.
Rodney Croft, a global authority on the health effects of radiation and professor of public health psychology at the University of Wollongong, said the program had given weight to "a fringe position that is not supported by science".
"I was particularly disappointed to see Wi-Fried aired yesterday in the guise of science journalism," he said.
"Given that radiofrequency emissions are one of the most heavily researched agents that science has ever assessed, and given that (contrary to Catalyst's claims) no substantiated health effects have emerged, we can be very confident that the emissions are indeed safe," Professor Croft said.
Reaction on social media also expressed dismay that ABC TV's flagship science show had given credence to a well-trodden public health conspiracy.
Tonight on #ABCCatalyst - Will wifi kill you? Do we need a wifi commissioner? And can Pete Evans cure your wifi cancers? We ask Pete Evans.— ABC Catalyst Not (@Catalyst_not) February 16, 2016
Demasi's reportage relied extensively on Devra Davis, a US cancer epidemiologist and campaigner, who said the lack of increase in brain cancer rates since the adoption of the new technologies merely reflected brain cancer's "long latency".
"When the bombs fell at the end of World War II in Japan, we followed every person who survived. Forty years is how long it took for brain cancer to develop after that exposure," Dr Davis said.
This drew a strong response from Simon Chapman, emeritus professor of public health at the university who has studied health conspiracy theories extensively.
"That is just complete rubbish. It is just crap."
Professor Chapman referred to a 2004 study of cancers of the central nervous system, including brain cancers, among atomic bomb survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Of 187 cases diagnosed after 1958 and 1985, 110 or nearly 60 per cent were before 1985, or in the first 40 years. A further 27 were diagnosed before 1958 - within 13 years of the bombs - but not included in the study.
"We have had mobiles in Australia since 1988 - some 90 per cent of the population use them today and many of these have used them for a lot longer than 13 years, but we are seeing no rise in the incidence against the background rate," Professor Chapman said.
"Brain cancer incidence has all but flatlined" across the years for which data are available, he wrote in an article for The Conversation. The age-adjusted incidence rate of brain cancer in Australia per 100,000 people was 6.6 in 1987 and 7.3 a quarter of a century later in 2011.
This from Catalyst presenter. By this standard, literally nothing can ever be declared safe pic.twitter.com/VuVr0n0rnB— Ben Pobjie (@benpobjie) February 16, 2016
Physicist Ken Karipidis of ARPANSA, who was quoted on the program, said that, while the evidence was not good enough to say mobile phones cause cancer, some studies showed a possible association between prolonged mobile phone use and certain brain tumours. He said those who wanted to reduce their exposure should limit holding their mobiles against their heads.
"We do recommend that parents limit their childrens' mobile phone use," Dr Karipidis added.
"When it comes to children, there's not enough evidence in this area, so our recommendation is slightly stronger," he said.
Veteran ABC health reporter Norman Swan, who was highly critical of the 2013 program, said he did not believe Tuesday's program showed enough scientific rigour.
"It's a legitimate debate; however, there is no proven biological mechanism for electromagnetic waves to cause cancer," Dr Swan, who presents Radio National's Health Report, said.
"The program did not take into account that young people are not holding their mobile phones to their heads - usually they are texting or Facebooking.
"And I'm not convinced by the argument that there is a 40-year lag in the development of cancer - we often see signs after much less time that that."
Professor Chapman said Dr Davis' argument that there would be a sudden rise in brain cancers from Wi-Fi and mobile phones 40 years later was wrong.
"That is not what we see with cancer. We see gradual rises moving towards peak incidence, which can be as late as 30-40 years, as with lung cancer and smoking, for example."
With Matthew Knott