A close call: Why the jury is still out on mobile phones

Is a rise in brain tumours linked to the radiation sources we hold so close to our heads? Experts can’t agree on the answer

Allegations of lobbying, bad science, not enough science, conflicts of interest, political inertia, scaremongering and lawsuits: the debate surrounding the safety of mobile phones has it all. With more than 5 billion users worldwide, mobile phones have undoubtedly become central to modern life in just two decades, but could they be a health hazard?

Scientists at the Children with Cancer conference in London this week will advocate that governments adopt the ‘precautionary principle’ – advising phone users to take simple steps to protect themselves and their children from potential, not proven, long term health risks of electromagnetic fields - especially head cancers.

They will call for urgent research into new Office of National Statistics figures that suggest a 50 per cent increase in frontal and temporal lobe tumours – the areas of the brain most susceptible to the electromagnetic radiation emitted by mobile phones – between 1999 and 2009.

Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion and Green Party leader, will next week table an Early Day Motion calling for mandatory safety information at the point of sale, and for widely publicized advice, for young people in particular, to text, use headsets or corded landlines for long calls.

But the Health Protection Agency’s new report on the “potential health effects” on mobile phone technologies on Thursday is likely to conclude that there is only one established risk, and that is crashing the car if people talk and drive.

The scientists cannot agree, so what should the public be told?

The Department of Health currently has a confusing online-only leaflet which states that there is no immediate concern but under-16s should be encouraged to minimise phone use and if concerned about risks, choose hands free kits or texting.

In stark contrast France has banned phones from primary schools and advertising targeted at children, and companies must provide headsets with every phone.

Israel recently became the latest of a very small, but growing number of governments to introduce legislation requiring all mobile phones and adverts to come with a health alert: “Warning – the Health Ministry cautions that heavy use and carrying the device next to the body may increase the risk of cancer, especially among children.”

The law, which last month passed its first reading, also seeks to ban, like with tobacco, companies from marketing to children.

An attempt by San Francisco’s lawmakers to require similar health warnings is being vigorously fought by the industry on the grounds it would violate the companies’ first amendment rights.

Professor Darius Leszczynski, from the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority in Finland, has warned about possible health hazards of mobile phones for more than a decade. He was one of 30 experts at the International Agency for Research on Cancer [IRAC], the global authority on cancer risks, who last year concluded mobile phones radiation is “possibly carcinogenic”. (Other scientists disagree entirely.)

Leszczynski will tell conference delegates that there is enough laboratory evidence to support an even stronger classification of ‘probably carcinogenic’.  He said: “Since 2001 I have continuously spoken about the need for precautionary measures, especially for children. We have had enough evidence to call for that for a long time.”

Dr Annie Sasco from the Epidemiology for Cancer Prevention unit at Bordeaux Segalen University is at the conference discussing the 1 to 2 per cent annual increase in childhood cancers.

“It’s not age, it’s too fast to be genetic, and it isn’t all down to lifestyle, so what in the environment can it be? We now live in an electro-smog and people are exposed to wireless devices that we have shown in the lab to have a biological impact. It makes sense that kids are more sensitive – they have smaller heads and thinner skulls, so EMFs get into deeper, more important structures.

“It is totally unethical that experimental studies are not being done very fast, in big numbers, by independently funded scientists. The industry is just doing their job, I am more preoccupied with the so called independent scientists and institutions saying there is no problem.”

The rate of frontal and temporal brain tumours has risen from two to three per 100,000 people in a decade. Denis Henshaw, Emeritus Professor of Human Radiation Effects at the University of Bristol, said: “The public have a right to know this information. We cannot and do not say there is a causal link between brain cancer and mobile phones, but we are right to consider them as one possible explanation for the increase and the public have the right to expect that this is properly investigated.”

He added: “Even if the risk is still only one in a million, with 5 billion phone users, it means a lot of extra brain cancers.”

The UK’s Mobile Operators Association says that most health agencies agree that there is “no credible evidence of adverse health effects from mobile phone technology.”

Yet buried in the small print, companies issue precautionary advice.  

For example, BlackBerry’s booklet states: “use hands-free operation if available and keep the BlackBerry device at least 0.98in (25mm) from your body (including the abdomen of pregnant women and the lower abdomen of teenagers) when the BlackBerry is turned on and connected to the wireless network... reduce the amount of time spent on calls.”

The iPhone4 guide says: “…when using the iPhone near your body for voice calls or wireless data transmission over a cellular network, keep it at least 5/8inch (15mm) away from the body, and only use carrying cases, belt clips or holders that do not have metal parts and that maintain at least 5/8inch (15mm) separation between iPhone and the body.”

And in 2009 the European Parliament said it was “… greatly concerned that insurance companies are tending to exclude coverage for the risks associated with EMFs from the scope of liability insurance policies, the implication clearly being that European insurers are already enforcing their version of the precautionary principle.”

The research is split almost 50:50, on whether mobile phones pose a health hazard or not. But the balance changes if funding sources are considered, with around three quarters of the ‘negative’ studies - no health risks - funded by industry, according to analysis by Joel Moskowitz, director of the Center for Family and Community Health at the University of California, Berkley.

Anthony Swerdlow, professor of epidemiology at the Institute of Cancer Research and chair of the HPA’s Advisory Group on Ionizing Radiation – behind next week’s report, said: “Individual results from particular studies have shown there is a link but in order to believe there is an established effect, it needs to be shown consistently across the literature.

“There are no established ill-effects from cell phones other than the genuine and serious hazard of driving while talking due to poor concentration. I don’t think any causes of cancer have been established. If there are very long term effects we don’t know it yet. Long term effects from childhood use are also largely unknown, but we don’t have reason to believe there are ill-effects.”

Most current studies are at least part funded by industry, or involve researchers with industry links.

Moskowitz said: “The mantra that ‘we need more research’ is true, but there is already enough evidence to warrant better safety information, tighter regulation, mass public education and independently funded research carried out by teams of specialists who are not beholden to industry.

“This is the largest technological experiment in the history of our species and we’re trying to bury our head in sand about the potential risks to cells, organs, reproduction, the immune system, behaviour, risks we still know next to nothing about.

Campaigners had hoped that IRAC’s “possibly carcinogenic” classification in 2011 would trigger public health warnings.

Instead, most governments emphasised the need for more research, largely without committing any funds, even though simple steps like texting, using hands free devices, better phone design and not carrying phones next to the body, significantly reduce exposure to EM radiation.

Campaigners claim that the mute response can partly be blamed on industry successfully spinning the message as good news, a claim which the Mobile Operator’s Association vehemently denies.

In December 2010, MP Tom Watson said in parliament: “It is my view that the more an industry or organisation wishes to hide something unpleasant or do something unpopular, the more lobbyists it employs to talk to MPs. The $1 trillion telecoms industry hires a lot of lobbyists.”

Industry has been accused of trying to discredit and marginalise scientists who produce ‘unfavourable’ results for almost 20 years.

In 1995, Professor Henry Lai, a bioengineering researcher at the University of Washington, accidentally discovered that exposing rats to microwave radiation, the same type emitted by phones, damaged the DNA in their brain cells. He has publicly described industry efforts to discredit his work and stop him working in the field as “scary”.

A decade later the EU funded Reflex study found that EMF radiation had the potential to cause genetic damage in human cells, at much lower levels than considered safe by regulators.

High-profile efforts to discredit the study by one scientist alleging scientific fraud followed, and despite being dismissed by an ethics committee, the smear campaign stuck, according to Professor Franz Adlkofer, coordinator of Reflex.

Adlkofer said: “The poor state of knowledge is due to selective funding of research through governments and telecommunication industry combined with the willingness of hired scientists to adjust their findings to the needs of the awarding authorities, while the governmental blindness is the result of lobbyism in the antechambers of political power. National governments and international industries have in common that they only trust the false messages of scientists they co-operate with, and not the contradicting data of researchers like me.”

Despite the controversies and disagreements, the European Environment Agency suggests governments learn from previous public health failures such as tobacco and asbestos where better regulation came decades after the first medical warnings about lung cancer.

John Cooke, Executive Director Mobile Operators Association, disagrees: “There is no evidence to suggest that warning labels for mobiles are warranted. In fact, there is good evidence that the proliferation of warnings about risk, where there is no good evidence for such risk, is counter-productive and is bad for public health. Industry funds research. It’s morally the right thing to do and governments ask us to do it… industry does not set or control the research agenda. Alleging undue influence and conspiracy theories impugns the integrity of scientists, and is the last refuge of the desperate who have lost the argument based on the facts.”

Vicky Fobel from campaign group MobileWise said: “This latency problem is what caused so many unnecessary deaths from smoking and asbestos. We need to learn from those mistakes and take steps now before it’s too late. That more research is needed shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction.”

A DH spokeswoman said: “As a precaution children should only use mobile phones for essential purposes and keep all calls short. We keep all scientific evidence under review.”

Facts

5 billion Number of mobile phones in use around the world

50% The 10-year rise in tumours located in areas of the brain most vulnerable to mobile phone radiation

25mm Distance that BlackBerry recommends keeping its phones away from the body

16 The age under which people are advised by the NHS to keep mobile use to a minimum

Always read the small print: Official advice

Research is split on whether mobile phones pose a health hazard or not. Buried in the small print, companies already issue precautionary advice.

BlackBerry

BlackBerry's booklet states: "Use hands-free operation if available and keep the BlackBerry device at least 0.98in (25mm) from your body (including the abdomen of pregnant women and the lower abdomen of teenagers) when the BlackBerry is turned on and connected to the wireless network... reduce the amount of time spent on calls."

iPhone

The iPhone4 guide says: "...when using the iPhone near your body for voice calls or wireless data transmission over a cellular network, keep it at least 5/8inch (15mm) away from the body, and only use carrying cases, belt clips or holders that do not have metal parts and that maintain at least 5/8inch (15mm) separation between iPhone and the body."

UK Department of Health

A spokeswoman says: "As a precaution children should only use mobile phones for essential purposes and keep all calls short. We keep all scientific evidence under review."

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