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Mobile phones and health: what do we know?

Yanar Alkayat

21st July, 2009

In a matter of months, an Irish mobile network will launch 'Firefly' - the mobile phone for kids. With even official Government advice against such a move, Yanar Alkayat takes a timely look at what we know for certain about mobile phones and health

A decade of investigation has consistently shown that using a mobile for one hour a day over ten years could increase your chance of getting a brain cancer by at least 100 per cent

'I am seeing more patients than I would expect in their twenties and thirties with diagnosis of brain cancer,' says Australian neurosurgeon Dr. Vini Khurana, who is concerned that a relatively rare but life-threatening disease is on the rise.

The disease causes seizures, blindness and cripples coordination, and involves a build-up of abnormal cells in the brain. It can take between 10 and 20 years to develop and diagnose. While the risk factors are yet to be confirmed, an increasing body of evidence is linking mobile phone usage with certain brain tumours.


Khurana hit the headlines earlier this year with the publication of a study that concluded mobile phones could be just as harmful, if not more so, than asbestos or smoking. He reviewed over 100 papers from brain specialist Dr. Lennart Hardell, a leading oncologist and researcher from Sweden’s Orebro University Hospital, and a multinational study into mobile phones and brain tumours, known as the Interphone project.

Hardell is renowned in the field of brain cancer research, and while some critics claim his epidemiological evidence is insufficient to establish a link between mobile phones and health effects, his decade of investigation has consistently arrived at the same conclusion: that a ten-year usage of mobile phones, for one hour every working day, could increase your chance of getting a brain cancer by at least 100 per cent.

Having examined Hardell’s work, Khurana is inclined to agree with him. But he believes that only ‘an inexplicable increase in rates of brain cancers and other neuro-behavioural disorders,’ would nudge governments into action.

So what are governments doing currently? In the UK, the Government has been involved in a huge 13-country study since 1999, to discover if exposure to low-level radio frequency (RF) radiation exposures could affect brain tumours (acoustic neuroma, glioma, meningiona and tumours of the parotid gland). The task has been mammoth, drawing on hundreds of studies on over 14,000 people and costing a whopping $30m but the world is still waiting patiently for results.

The study was set to be released in 2005, but has been stalled due to controversy and confusion, and is now scheduled to appear later this year. There is division amongst the group’s researchers over how to interpret the data, as well as heated debate over the accuracy of results. Charges of ‘recall bias’ (the faults associated with asking participants about past behaviour and relying solely on their recollection) are bandied about, though these could arguably lead to both over and under-estimation of the impacts.


The safety precautions

The limits on RF radiation to which most countries adhere are set to ensure an electronic device does not heat up body tissue by more than one degree, classified as a ‘thermal effect’, during six minutes of use. What scientists, doctors and experts fear is that biological effects are occurring at levels below the guidelines, which could possibly lead to adverse health effects in the long-run.

The UK’s Health Protection Agency (HPA), which advises on government policy, and the Mobile Phone Operators Association (MOA) that represents the mobile phone companies, feel the guidelines set by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), are sufficient for protecting public safety.

‘ICNIRP has stated quite clearly that in developing guidelines it undertakes “a critical, in-depth evaluation of the established scientific literature using internationally accepted quality criteria”,’ says Mike Dolan, Executive Director of MOA. ‘ICNIRP keeps its guidelines under regular review and reporting of experimental biological effects does not imply that such effects cause disease - walking up stairs will produce a biologic effect but no harm results.’

But this doesn’t seem to tally with recent remarks by the Chairman of the setting standards agency ICNIRP, Paolo Vecchia. At a conference in September 2008, he pointed out that his organisation’s guidelines are not ‘mandatory prescriptions for safety’, nor are they ‘the last word on the issue’, or ‘defensive walls for industry or others.’

ICNIRP limits are set to protect against a small number of known and ‘established’ effects of using mobile phones, but do not take into consideration any ‘non-established effects’. So when it comes to protecting the public from say, an increase in cancer risk, the guidelines simply say: ‘available data are insufficient’.

Whatever the effects are eventually proven to be, it is highly likely that, like many other biological processes, children’s reaction will be more pronounced than in adults. Although the HPA believes there is no clear scientific evidence yet that public health is adversely affected by mobile phone use, it already advises precautionary action, particularly for children.

‘If adults are affected by mobile phone radiation it’s possible that children might be affected much more because we know they react more severely to other external factors such as lead pollutants, radiation or UV light,’ says Dr. Lawrie Challis, an emeritus professor of physics and ex-chairman of the government’s mobile phones and health research programme.

Whether this is due to their still developing immune systems or not, Challis says, he would need ‘a lot of persuasion that a child really needs a phone, especially under age of eleven.’ His comments come just months before Firefly, ‘the mobile phone for mobile kids’ is set to launch in Ireland on a major network later this year, targeted at four to 12 year-olds.

Worryingly, the teen and pre-teen market has experienced a phenomenal rise in mobile phone usage. A recent report in The Times claims that half of five to nine year olds now own a handset.

The Department of Health warns that under-16s should use their mobile phones ‘for essential purposes only’ and to ‘keep all calls short’ but this is a single line in a mostly unread leaflet (Mobile Phones and Health leaflet, written by UK’s Chief Medical Officers). Compared to the resources dedicated to tackling teen smoking or sexually transmitted infections, the emphasis on avoiding mobile phone use is minimal.

Is the government doing enough to communicate this precautionary message? ‘Possibly not,’ says Challis. Charities like Wired Child in the UK have been set up to try to bridge this gap.

The government advisory body the HPA says it will highlight the message further when there is ‘definite, clear, and scientific consensus’ on the issue.
‘We have to be sceptical all the time as it is part of the scientific process,’ says the agency’s Science Spokesperson, Michael Clark. ‘We realise this can be irritating for people who believe there is an effect but evidence has to be hard and clear.’

What constitutes ‘hard’, ‘clear’ or ‘sufficient evidence’ has been central to the war of words brewing over the past decade. Clark agrees that there is not yet enough evidence for further action but enough evidence to implement some level of precaution.

What is being done?

Diverse organisations across the world are expressing concerns over the potential risk to children and adults of widespread wireless blanketing.

According to The International Commission for Electromagmetic Safety, ‘epidemiological evidence is stronger than before to conclude there is risk,’ calling for standards to be more precautionary.

Earlier this year, on April 2nd, the European Parliament adopted a report on health concerns associated with electromagnetic fields. MEPs voted 559 to 22 for more reliable information to be made available to the public and called for tighter safety standards and more funding into research for long-term exposure risks.

The Bio-Initiative Report is a key study that has sparked and supported many of these concerns. A large pool of international scientists, researchers and public health policy professionals came together to study over 2000 peer-reviewed publications on the effects of electromagnetic fields and health.

Recommendations from the report have led some governments such as German neighbour, Liechtenstein, to carry out their own studies and pledge to lower safe exposure limits to almost one tenth of the ICNIRP levels by 2013, to 0.6 Volts per metre (V/m), as opposed to ICNIRP’s 61 V/m. Belgium has already reduced its exposure limits to 3 volts per metre (V/m).

The French Secretary of State for Ecology plans to run a pilot study in certain towns to reduce mobile phone mast emissions to 0.6V/m and several Parisian libraries have suspended wireless connections in line with Bio-Initiative findings. And when the Versailles Court of Appeal ordered one of its largest telecommunications operators, Bouygues Telecom, to dismantle its mast in a town in Lyons on grounds of uncertainty to public health, 135 lawsuits around the country followed against mobile phone companies, triggering a ‘ministerial crisis’ in France.

Here, the UK Government has pumped £3.1 million into investigating any links between mobile phones usage and long-term health effects such as brain cancers, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, through a cohort study. This will involve tracking 200,000 mobile phone users, 90,000 of which will be in the UK, over 20 - 30 years and capturing any adverse health effects.

Waiting that long for results however, could result in delayed action.
‘We desperately need funding in the shorter term as the potential cost of a health epidemic in 20 years time is too great,’ says Graham Philips spokesperson for Powerwatch. ‘Money should urgently be invested into replications of existing case-control, cellular and animal studies that can be published within the next three or four years.’

The future

Things are changing. Five years ago, health protection agencies would have denied any notion of risk but there is now enough evidence to say the possibility of risk cannot be ruled out. Action will inevitably be slow, as was the case with asbestos or smoking: wireless technologies are highly lucractive and are deeply ingrained within our lives.

In addition, government recommendations come from a limited pool of electromagnetic field scientists who belong to little-known committees, such as Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) that advises the European Commission and the Advisory Board for Non-Ionising Radiation (AGNIR), which in turn advises the HPA.

This sharing of members can result in an imbalance of viewpoints, an issue recently raised in the European Parliament by MEP, Christel Schaldemose, which could mean that certain avenues of research are left unexplored. 
‘ICNIRP has been criticised both by researchers and organisations for setting limits too high to the advantage of the telecommunications industry and military sector. Does the commission consider SCENIHR experts as impartial and independent?’ he said. 



Opponents worry however that while the debate over impartiality and ‘weight of evidence’ rumbles on, the general public has welcomed wireless technology into the most private and intimate areas of their lives, without even being aware that any suspicion over safety exists. We are, in effect, unwitting subjects in an experiment many do not even realise is occurring. Many may never know.


Five things to do to reduce your exposure to RF radiation:

1. Replace your cordless landline phone with a corded version to avoid the constant radiation emitted from its base. If you can’t let go of the convenience, try Orchid phone - a low radiation cordless phone that is only active when in use.
 
2. Bluetooth and hands-free kits still transmit a radiation, although not as powerful, and definitely recommended on longer calls. For optimum safety try an air-tube headset, which operates on an acoustic exchange principle, so that only sound is transmitted to your body (so far only available in the US).

3. Limit calls to essential use, turn phone off when not needed, avoid sleeping with your handset by your head and hold the phone away from the head immediately after dialling as the phone uses maximum power until the call is connected.

4. Swap wireless internet routers with dLan plugs that uses cable wiring system and switch wireless router off when not in use.

5. When carrying a mobile phone avoid placing it in front trouser or breast pocket to minimise exposure to sensitive internal organs and avoid using a laptop on the lap as the transmitter, which is constantly communicating with the router, may be in the base and in contact with the body.

Useful links:

www.brain-aneurysm.com
www.hpa.org.uk
www.icems.eu
www.mobilemastinfo.com
www.powerwatch.org.uk
www.voicetheunion.org.uk
www.wiredchild.org

Yanar Alkayat is a freelance journalist specialising in health issues.

 

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Users Comments

Re: Mobile phones and health: what do we know?
Posted By EC019863 1 December 30, 2009 11:43:16 AM

I am concerned about the phrase "increase your chance of getting a brain cancer by at least 100 per cent". Ask youself what you understand by this before reading on. ~ ~ ~ If the normal risk of something happening is 0.6 (or a 60% chance), if it is increased by 100% you get a risk of 1.2 (or 120%), which is nonsense. Mathematically, this way of expressing an increase in probability does not work. I am assuming that the normal risk of brain cancer is something in the order of 1 in 100,000 (or 0.00001, or 0.001%). Increasing the risk by "100%" means it becomes 2 in 100,000 (or 0.00002, or 0.002%). The problem with the way it has been expressed in the article is that a) I wasn't sure I understood it, and b) it had "100%" in it, which kind of shouts at you and drowns out the context. If this had been marketing material or a national newspaper article I would be smelling a very big rat! Probabilities are a very difficult concept for human beings, I observe. I would expect more care from The Ecologist when communicating probabilities. PS: I do not represent a vested interest. I feel uncomfortable when I find myself on a long mobile phone conversation, and worry about sitting in an office all day every day, bathed in a wireless network sea.
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