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Coquitlam-PoCo MP authorizes petition that says cell towers could hurt children, trigger cancer

The petition, which seeks to ban installation of cell towers and antennas within 305 metres of all schools and playgrounds, cites questionable science, according to experts, and has been promoted by 5G and WiFi conspiracy theorists in several countries.

Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam Liberal MP Ron McKinnon is authorizing an official petition to the House of Commons questioning whether cellphone towers — and their installation near schools and playgrounds — puts children's health at risk.

The petition has gathered nearly 4,000 signatures since it was opened in late February and cites questionable science in its call to ban “installation of cellular towers/antennas within 305m of all schools and playgrounds.”

Launched by a Port Coquitlam resident, the appeal has been picked up and shared by a number of conspiracy groups online, some using the petition as part of a campaign to block the development of 5G technology, others to keep Wi-Fi out of schools for fear that it negatively affects children’s development.

“There’s no science behind them at all. The science is very clear on that,” said Steven Salzberg, a professor of bioengineering at Johns Hopkins University, who regularly debunks poorly researched science for the publication Forbes.

As of Thursday, May 7, McKinnon had not walked back his support of the petition, telling the Tri-City News in a written statement that while he does not “personally believe that cell phone towers pose a risk to human health,” he wanted to ensure his constituents, who expressed interest in the petition, had their views heard. 

“I have always believed in the absolute importance of evidenced-based policy-making. I’m confident the government will examine all relevant technical and health data in their response. I encourage all Canadians to follow the health advice from our scientists and public health experts both locally and nationally,” added McKinnon in the statement.

But MPs are not obliged to authorize the publication of an official petition on behalf of his or her constituents. As part of his duties as MP, McKinnon is chair of the Commons standing committee on health, the body tasked with studying issues that relate to public health. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, that's meant receiving evidence related to the government's reponse. Having sponsored the petition, his name is now attached to a bill being spread by 5G conspiracy theorists across Canada, among Amish and Mennonite groups in the U.S. and to the 47,000-plus members of an anti-RF radiation Facebook group Australia, among others.

The Australians for Safe Technology Facebook group is one of several places where petition e-2424 ha
The Australians for Safe Technology Facebook group is one of several places where petition e-2424 has been promoted as an antidote to what's framed as 'dangerous' wireless technology. - Screenshot/Facebook

The petition cites a study published nearly six years ago in the Journal of Microscopy and Ultrastructure, which claims children absorb more radiation than adults, before detailing the implications.

“It’s embarrassing that they published this. They cherry-picked the studies. This was a really terrible paper,” said Salzburg, who reviewed the paper and the literature it relies on not long after it came out.

More recently, the International Commission on Non‐Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), an international body in charge of setting limits on exposure to radiation, updated its guidelines in March, stating 5G technology produces radiation levels significantly below that harmful to humans. 

And on its website, Health Canada states that "Based on available scientific evidence, there are no health risks from exposures to low levels of radiofrequency EMF emitted by cell phones and antenna installations."

In an update, the department added: "Misinformation and opinions on the health risks from exposure to radiofrequency EMF are increasing on social media and on the internet.  Most recently, there have been claims linking the deployment of 5G networks to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). There is no scientific basis for these claims."

Radiation from cellphone towers, Salzburg explained, drops off with the square of the distance from them. In other words, “really fast,” he said. 

Non-ionizing radiation — that which is given off by cellphone towers, but also AM/FM radio and TV broadcast signals — cannot penetrate the human body like X-rays or the radiation given off by the nuclear reactions in the sun, he added. And while there are multiple studies that have found no correlation between cell technology and negative consequences to human health, science is also not in the business of proving impossibilities. 

“That’s not how science works. You’re the one who has to prove it. And that’s generally hard to do that with a good theory,” he said.

“The only thing that we have to worry about is people acting on these conspiracy theories.”

Technicians repair a cell tower after a fire that police are calling suspicious, Monday May 4, 2020, in Piedmont, Quebec. Quebec provincial police say they've arrested two people in connection with a spate of cell phone tower fires in recent days. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

But where in the past conspiracy theories associated with cellphone towers rarely bled offline and into the real world, the ongoing global health crisis has changed that.

Anti-5G activists in several countries have concentrated their campaigning since the COVID-19 pandemic began, torching dozens of cellphone towers in such countries as the United Kingdom, Ireland and the Netherlands, citing bogus evidence that the technology spreads the novel coronavirus.

This week, suspicious fires at three cellphone towers in Quebec caught the attention of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who in a Tweet yesterday warned anyone vandalizing cellphone towers that the act is a criminal offence which carries severe penalties. 

But in authorizing petition E-2424, such conspiracy theories have faced a more open audience with MP McKinnon’s sponsorship to the House — and not for the first time.

Last fall, a group of Port Coquitlam residents opposing cellphone antennas on the roof of their apartment building brought a petition to Port Coquitlam council and MP McKinnon making allegations that the safety of electromagnetic waves has not been fully addressed by the government. They also said they were worried that the antennas put children attending nearby Mary Hill elementary at risk, and passed out handouts to parents in an effort to spread their message.

“Just because they say it’s safe, doesn’t mean it is,” said Cheryl Sanftleben, a resident of 1955 Western Dr., where the cell antennas were planned.

School District 43 also opposed cell towers close to schools in the past, but this past fall took no action in response to the residents’ request. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that the Commons standing committee on health was tasked with studying legislation and bills related to COVID-19. The committee, in fact, has only received evidence relating to the government response to the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, the COVID-19 response has been dealt with in the house by the committee-as-a-whole.