• Screenshot from ABC's science program Catalyst, 16 February 2016 (ABC Online)Source: ABC Online
Science and health experts are slamming the latest episode of ABC's Catalyst on the potential health dangers of wireless devices, calling it "scaremongering" and "incorrect."
Signe Dean

17 Feb 2016 - 12:30 PM  UPDATED 19 Feb 2016 - 1:03 PM

ABC's science TV program Catalyst has drawn severe criticism from scientists and audience members for its treatment of the question on whether wireless devices could be harming our health.

"Australia's safety agency says there's no evidence of harm, but that's not the same as saying its safe," was the argument put forward in the show's description on ABC's website, and echoed throughout the report, which aired last night on ABC.

"Of course it is impossible for science to demonstrate that anything is absolutely safe, and so regardless of whether we’re talking about Wi-Fi or orange juice, science cannot demonstrate absolute safety," says Professor Rodney Croft, director of the NHMRC Centre for Research Excellence in Electromagnetic Energy.

Criticised for sowing fear

The half-hour special, presented by Dr Maryanne Demasi, featured experts and researchers from various fields, in particular focusing on the work of US cancer epidemiologist Dr Devra Davis. 

"I was particularly disappointed to see “Wi-Fried” air yesterday in the guise of science journalism, and felt it important to reassure other viewers that the fringe position provided by Dr Davis and associates is merely that, a fringe position that is not supported by science," says Croft.

"Davis’ work itself has been subject to criticism before, but these criticisms were not presented at all," says Dr Alex Russell, psychology lecturer and research fellow at Southern Cross University. "About the only time she was confronted was when Dr Demasi asked Davis if she had cherry-picked the data, and Davis said she had not. Was anyone expecting her to say that she had?" 

In an opinion piece by Demasi published yesterday in The Guardian, she asserts that "[m]ore and more parents are concerned about their children’s cumulative exposure to Wi-Fi." 

But Dr Darren Saunders, senior lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine at University of New South Wales, describes the program's approach as "scaremongering".

"In terms of the way the story was reported, there was very selective reporting of existing data, sensationalist headlines, and experts with potential conflicts of interest," says Saunders.

"I’m sad and angry that our only science TV show has dropped the ball so badly," he adds. "Scaremongering and pseudoscience have plenty of other outlets on TV, and there are so many amazing science stories to be told locally and internationally. The really frustrating thing is that all the rebuttals and facts in the world won’t undo the damage that train wreck created."

Scientists assert program made erroneous claims

Experts have also addressed some of the specific claims presented by Davis in the episode, calling them incorrect or misleading.

"Devra Davis asserted in the program that it was too early to see any rise in brain cancer and argued that brain cancers after the Japanese A-bombs did not appear for 40 years. This is simply incorrect," says Emeritus Professor Simon Chapman in the School Public Health at the University of Sydney.

He indicates a 2004 paper published in the journal Cancer which shows that over 50 per cent of central nervous system cancers in those exposed to atomic bomb radiation in Japan occurred well within the 40-year range, and in 27 cases people died within 13 years of the bombs.

"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," says Chapman.

"Devra is arguing that we would see a sudden rise 40 years later. That is not what we see with cancer — we see gradual rises moving toward peak incidence, which can be as late as 30-40 years (as with lung cancer and smoking for example)."

Dr Darren Saunders also points out that there is an "absence of a plausible biological mechanism for how this kind of radiation can cause cancer."

"There was one point where a direct inference was made between microwave oven radiation and mobile phones," says Saunders. "Comparing a microwave to a mobile phone is like comparing a Saturn V rocket to your lawnmower."

Viewers have been criticising the report as well. As the program was airing, many audience members took to social media to express their dismay, and even call for the show's cancellation.

This is not the first time ABC's Catalyst has drawn widespread criticism for a controversial approach to a subject.

In October 2013 Demasi produced and presented two Catalyst episodes which questioned the usefulness of anti-cholesterol drugs in heart patients. Amongst widespread criticism, the National Heart Foundation published a lengthy rebuttal of the claims presented in the program, and in May 2014 ABC removed the episodes from its website, citing breached standards of impartiality.

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