News feature: Citizens advocate for science-based politics

David Bratzer is one of the founders of Scientific Victoria

David Bratzer is one of the founders of Scientific Victoria

Wi-Fi review in schools prompted members to form Scientific Victoria, but group has also lobbied regional district for teen tan ban

Local politics has a new voice that wants decision makers to value science over ballots.

Scientific Victoria was a notable presence at the recent Capital Regional District meeting where, for four hours, emotional presentations were heard about the safety of tanning beds for people under the age of 18.

“Our goal is to encourage, or to advocate for, the consideration of science in local decision-making,” said David Bratzer, founder of Scientific Victoria, a recently-formed citizens’ group that urged the CRD board to base its votes on peer-reviewed medical research.

Bratzer, who is also secretary for the Quadra-Cedar Hill Community Association, launched ScientificVictoria.org two weeks ago.

The organization’s first issue was supporting the bylaw banning underage indoor tanning.

Founding members of the two-pronged group include Karen Dearborn, president of the Quadra-Cedar Hill Community Association. She’ll serve as a strategic advisory board member. Dominic Bergeron, Camosun College biology department chair, holds a PhD in molecular biology and will sit on the scientific advisory board.

Bratzer is recruiting qualified members of all stripes for both boards, including people with masters degrees or higher in hard sciences to join the scientific advisory team as he begins to speak publicly on Scientific Victoria’s second cause, also related to radiation.

“There was credible medical evidence, suggesting that young people are more sensitive to ultraviolet radiation, but the opposite is true with Wi-Fi,” he said. “There is no credible, peer-reviewed evidence showing that long-term exposure to Wi-Fi causes harm.”

Bratzer, who works in law enforcement and gained some notoriety in the past for his stance against drug prohibition, says his motivations for founding the non-partisan organization stem from School District 61’s decision to form a committee devoted to investigating potential health risks of Wi-Fi.

The technology had already been deemed safe by an internal review in the spring. The prospect of completely banning Wi-Fi from schools is both unlikely and potentially very expensive, said school board chair Tom Ferris, who also sits on the Wi-Fi committee.

“I think the fact that someone’s relative is ill is a motivation for wanting to investigate the issue, but it’s not necessarily a reason (to make changes),” Ferris said.

He calls the issue, as with any debate involving children “very difficult,” adding that the board will likely be most interested in scientific studies during its decision-making processes.

Karen Weiss, whose teenaged son has “electromagnetic hypersensitivity,” spoke on Jan. 24 to the school board’s committee on Wi-Fi. She wants Wi-Fi replaced with hardwired alternatives. Plenty of research confirms the risks of Wi-Fi, she says, adding that her son’s symptoms, including powerful headaches that come on when he’s near cellular towers, speak for themselves.

“He’s not a magician; he can feel it,” Weiss said. “We’re not making this up. We don’t want this to be happening.”

Bratzer, quoting potential costs associated with replacing the technology, became genuinely concerned that Wi-Fi may be banned throughout the district – even though agencies such as the World Health Organization, Health Canada and every provincial medical health officer have stated there is no empirical evidence that Wi-Fi poses a risk.

“If it starts in our schools then it may actually spread to other institutions, so there is a bit of a concern here that this may be just the beginning,” he said.

The long-term goals for Scientific Victoria don’t include re-hashing the sewage debate but will likely involve future environmental issues. Through Scientific Victoria, he plans to endorse a candidate for Saanich in the November by-election.

Scientific Victoria isn’t the only organization aiming to bring scientific research to the forefront of policy-making. Last October, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada launched PublicScience.ca, a website devoted to the inclusion of scientific research in federal politics. “They’re doing on a local level, what we’re doing on a national level, so we’re working in parallel here and I think it’s an excellent idea,” said Ray Lauzier, chair of the science advisory committee for the institute. “In one way it’s neat to see that there’s a local initiative but, in another way, it’s distressing to see there’s a need for a local initiative.”

PublicScience.ca was formed in part as a way for scientists in the civil service to share information with the public. In recent years, there has been a movement within government to channel information through communications specialists. That has resulted in some information not being released, creating the perception that politicians are manipulating how scientific work is being made public.

At a local level, Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard is open to hearing more from Scientific Victoria, though issues rooted in science are more likely to concern the CRD, he said, rather than be specific to Saanich. Leonard also points to the often murky boundaries between hard science and social science, as in the debate over recycling in the 1980s. Some residents were strongly opposed to the blue box program, based on what were seen at the time as high operational costs relative to the environmental benefit.

“The community value was that they didn’t want to put their pop bottles and wine bottles into the landfill anymore. So, is that science or economics, and isn’t economics a science?” Leonard said.

nnorth@saanichnews.com

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