A pain in the ears?

Should mobile phones carry health warnings? A scientist in Wales thinks so. By Clive Gammon
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The Independent Culture
Next Monday, at the magistrates' court in Abergavenny in South Wales, a tribunal used mainly to dealing with drunk drivers and TV licence dodgers will hear a case that may turn out to be the first shot in a legal fight of global dimensions.

On one side stands Roger Coghill, 57, researcher in bio-electric magnetics; on the other Wayne Morgan, of The Telephone Shop, Cwmbran.

A few months back, Coghill walked into his shop, asked to look at a mobile phone, then said to Mr Morgan: "Would you mind sticking a health warning on this one if I buy it? Because there's a problem with mobiles."

Morgan, a reasonable man, thought about this, then said he couldn't do it.

"I don't mind putting up a warning notice in the shop," he said, "because that's under my control. But if I start interfering with the phone packaging by putting my own label on it, then the manufacturers will no longer supply me."

So Coghill went to his local Trading Standards Office to ask them to take action. But they told him: "We can't be seen using public money to go to court unless we have an almost certain chance of winning."

"OK, I'll do it myself," he said.

So now he is bringing a private criminal action under an Act that says that only safe products should be sold to the public. And, although the defendant will be Wayne Morgan, in reality Coghill is taking on an awesome enemy: the international corporations that are making mega-millions from the boom in mobile phones. (Both Orange and Siemens have told Morgan that their legal resources are at his disposal.)

At 57, Coghill's the wiry, wispy-haired model of a research scientist. Meanwhile, he is no hater of mobile phones. "I think mobile phones are wonderful," he says. "We all want them. I use one myself. But if you are on a mobile phone for 15 or 20 minutes continuously, then the chances are that you are running a higher risk of cancer."

His discipline is bio-electric magnetics, the interaction between the physical energy of electricity and magnetism with organic life.

"A mobile phone is a powerfully radiative device," he says. "The signals have to travel seven kilometres, sometimes, to reach a base station. And what we are doing is putting this right next to the human brain, the most sensitive organ in our body."

Now, there is nothing new in saying that mobile phones are hazardous to health. There are major investigations in train. The EU has just set aside pounds 20m for a study. The Australian government is investing A$5m in one. And the World Health Organisation is holding an investigation.

Time, though, is a problem if absolute proof of danger is required. Mobile phone use is so recent that its effects may take decades to be fully appreciated. Asbestos, for example, was proved to be a killer back in 1970, but it could be 2020 before the full damage it has done shows up in deaths from cancer.

"Meantime," Coghill claims, "very quietly, in response to this, all the major phone companies have now filed patents for designs of mobile phones that minimise the amount of radiation to the head. They are conceding there is a risk."

As, indeed, is an array of institutions in Britain that have ordered protective phone covers for their employees from Microshield, a company in Enfield that makes a transparent, heavy-duty condom to fit over a mobile. They include - this is a mere sample - the Greater Manchester Police, the Royal Mail, Islington Borough Council and Asprey's, the royal jewellers.

Last June, at a symposium of specialists in bio-electric magnetics in Florida, Coghill reported to his peers that he had discovered a direct link between body cells and natural radiation from the brain. He had demonstrated this by isolating white blood cells in radiation-proof containers and discovering that their viability improved when fed with signals from the body of the donor from which the cells had come, and that when these signals were disturbed by alien fields - from mobile phones, for instance - then those white cells were damaged, even when the foreign radiation was very low.

He goes on to explain the consequences of such damage to the body's white cells, which are, of course, its first line of defence. "Now, there's a hormone made in the brain, called melatonin. Can't make it anywhere else except in the brain. And what the hormone is known to do is act as a very powerful antioxidant which stops you getting cancer. And so, if you don't get enough melatonin, then your risk of getting cancer is increased.

"Overuse is what we are now trying to quantify, and we're talking in terms of minutes. Now, is this scaremongering? To point out known facts? I'm not saying mobile phones are going to kill us all. I'm saying let's take a closer look at them and, while we're doing that, wouldn't it be sensible to use a warning label that doesn't say, `don't use a mobile phone', but simply, `don't use it for a long spell'?

"I can't take on massive, multinational corporations, of course. So I had to box clever. I thought the best way to do it would be at the lowest level, in a local magistrates' court. If there's an appeal, I can't carry on, of course. They will secure a verdict in absentia. But the ball will have started rolling."

It may, indeed, have started to roll already. This week, Britain's National Radiological Protection Board announced the start of a three-year study into radiation, particularly with regard to mobile phones - Coghill believes, as a response to his campaign. Previously, the board had maintained that up to 24 hours of their use was harmless.

"It's very rare for a scientist to take legal action," says Coghill finally. I have plenty of other things to spend my money on. I'd rather buy test tubes than lawyers. But as a scientist, I also have the responsibility of warning people of something that can produce a killing illness on a massive scale. And I now see the opportunity of doing it for a few quid. I would love to have been Mozart, giving pleasure to people for centuries. But if I can save thousands of people from brain tumours, that will be achievement enough."

And he ends with a line I suspect he may have used before. "Anybody who uses a mobile phone for more than 15 minutes at a time," he says, "needs their head examined."