As a civilisation we are becoming increasingly addicted to technological gadgets. Mobile phones in particular have expanded far beyond telephony into the realms of photography, the internet and a bewildering array of smartphone apps. As mobiles incorporate more functions, the more indispensible they become in the eyes of their users. A newly-coined word 'nomophobia' refers to a fear of being out of mobile phone contact, a condition that affects about 20% of Australians.
Globally, the number of mobile phone subscribers stands at a staggering 5.3 billion, or 77% of the world's population, and Australia is among the countries where the number of mobiles in use exceeds the total population.
In 1973, the world's first handheld mobile phone, designed by Martin Cooper at Motorola, was unveiled. This original prototype weighed about two kilograms, but as time went on, handsets became less clunky, and evolved from a weight-lifting exercise into the streamlined designs that we are familiar with today.
All mobile phones emit electromagnetic EMF radiation in the microwave spectrum, and the issue of potential health effects from their use remains contentious. As an industry body, the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) predictably refers on its website to 'strict, science-based, safety standards'. In the meantime, many people are choosing to take a precautionary approach by reducing or minimising their exposure.
Mobile radiation is measured according to its specific absorption rate (SAR), a measure of power absorbed per mass of body weight. Each phone has its own SAR rating, with the lowest number indicating the lowest emissions. Among the phones currently on the market, the range extends between about 0.3 and 1.6, which is the upper safety limit in the US and Canada.
For Australian consumers this information is not easy to come by. There is no need for the SAR to be provided on the packaging, and the AMTA expects consumers who want to obtain these figures to do so by contacting manufacturers or by checking on their websites: this is a major inconvenience when making a choice in the store between several different brands. In the US, the Environmental Working Group has been active in this issue, and provides information that ranks models according to their SAR values.
During the 1990s, Australia's mobile phone system changed over from analogue to digital; while analogue involves a continuous wave, digital signals are pulsed, and are considered by many to be more harmful. However, because digital has completely taken over, the debate over this issue has disappeared.
Phones and children
Children are more vulnerable than adults to radiation because their brains and nervous systems are still developing, and their skulls are thinner, allowing EMF fields to pass through them more easily, in turn increasing the exposure dose. While concern has being expressed that mobile phones are being marketed to children of an increasingly young age, the Australian Communications and Media Authority's guide Mobile phones – child safety checklist does not mention the word 'radiation' once.
In contrast, mobile phone use by children under 18 has been discouraged in India, Israel, Germany and Russia, and in France where there is a ban on child-oriented advertising. The UK government has recommended that under-16s should reserve calls for essential purposes only. Unfortunately the social pressures pushing children into using mobiles are immense, and being without one can sometimes lead to ostracism and even bullying. As for teenagers, the chances of their taking on board health warnings from their parents are low, to say the least.
Professor Olle Johansson of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden has linked mobile phone use to a range of different health issues including genetic damage, psychological problems, learning difficulties, reduced concentration, and sleep disturbances. Disturbed brain function may result in people not getting refreshed overnight, and it has been suggested that this could contribute to the incidence of stress and burnout. Johansson sees this collection of symptoms as a major health issue because they affect such a large percentage of the population.
A Danish study has found that the use of a mobile while pregnant correlates with an increased likelihood of behavioural problems among the children later in life, especially where they start using the phone. Pregnant exposure was linked to a 40% increase in behavioural issues, while having access to a mobile by the age of seven was associated with a separate 20% rise.
An important group who can be affected by mobile phones are those who have radiation sensitivity, generally known as electrosensitivity. While it is hard to say exactly what proportion of the population is affected in this way, it could be as high as 5%. Symptoms can include fatigue, rashes, headaches, disorientation, irritability, tinnitus and sleeping difficulties.
Electrosensitives will go out of their way to avoid using mobile phones, but may be affected by the use of mobiles by other users in their vicinity.
Concerns about an increased incidence of brain tumours linked to mobile phone use have been around for decades, and are not going away. In 2009, leading Australian brain surgeon Dr. Charlie Teo went public with a warning that people should avoid using mobiles, except on speaker phone.
In the same year, Swedish professor Dr. Lennart Hardell carried out a meta-analysis of eleven studies and found that mobile usage over a period of at least ten years roughly doubles the chances of developing a tumour on the side of the head where the mobile is used.
Another Hardell study, this time from 2008, discovered that people who started using a mobile before the age of 20 are five times more likely to have developed a brain tumour ten years later than those who did not. As brain tumours take about 10-15 years to form, any clear trend detected now will almost certainly be the vanguard of a far greater problem in the future.
The Interphone study
The largest survey so far undertaken of a possible connection between mobile phone use and brain tumours is the World Health Organization's Interphone study. This involves 123,000 people living in 13 countries who have been using mobiles for ten years or more. However it is industry-funded, and has been criticised by detractors such as the International Electromagnetic Field Collaborative for what they see as biases and errors.
In May, 2010, the media trumpeted headlines telling us that no brain tumour connection had been found by Interphone, but less publicised were the concerns of two dissenting scientists from the project who had picked apart the data and found a noticeable increase in glioma brain tumours among those who used a mobile for an average of at least 30 minutes a day.
However, the landscape shifted abruptly on 31st May, 2011, when an updated UN announcement classified mobile phone use as 'possibly carcinogenic to humans' under International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) criteria. In the heaviest-use category, a 40% increase in the rate of gliomas had been identified.
Smoke and mirrors
An impressive body of evidence is accumulating to further support the idea that mobile phones do cause health problems. Much depends on the design of a trial, and what you find depends a lot on what you are hoping to potentially uncover. When looking at an issue such as brain tumours, most independent studies do identify a connection, and at a far higher level of statistical significance than those commissioned by the mobile phone industry.
Where similar dynamics are at work, in the tobacco and cancer link, and more recently fossil fuels and global warming, industry has tried to sow doubt in the public's mind that there is a problem, often with the help of 'credible' scientific experts. In the case of tobacco, this delaying tactic enabled the industry to maximise profits until the scientific case against it was watertight.
In May, 2011, a Swedish scientist named Anders Ahlbom was removed from an IARC panel evaluating mobile radiation because he had omitted to mention his directorship of the consulting firm Gunnar Ahlbom AB that had been established to help clients in the telecommunications industry deal with certain issues including environmental regulations. In 1998, Ahlbom participated in the setting of controversial global EMF standards under the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (INCIRP.)
Also in May, Ren de Seze, another member of the IARC panel, was accused in a French TV documentary of trying to discredit a study carried out for the carrier Bouygues Telecom indicating that mobile phone radiation can be deadly to chicken embryos. The group to which he belongs, Fondation Santé et Radiofréquences, is half supported by industry.
Sometimes being forthright can have unexpected consequences. Following his groundbreaking research into health effects, in May, 2011, Olle Johansson issued a statement that 'Due to unforeseen circumstances I am now being evicted from my premises', and he has since lost his laboratory space. Greek biophysicist Dimitris Panagopoulos was the first person to scientifically prove DNA damage from mobile radiation, but for his efforts was reassigned a small windowless research space by the University of Athens, and was later blocked by the university from taking up a research post elsewhere.
Are cordless phones better?
Like mobile phones, cordless phones (also known as DECT phones) also use the microwave spectrum, and on the whole, studies tend to indicate that the risks are nearly as great. For these phones the 2008 Lennart Hardell study looking at people who started their usage under the age of 20 found a four-fold increase in gliomas compared to controls.
A cordless phone base effectively acts as a type of miniature mobile phone tower, but unlike a mobile phone base station, its radiation levels are usually constant rather than being adjusted down to the minimum level needed to make a call. It is advisable not to spend extended periods near to one, for example when sleeping or working.
A 2010 double-blind study conducted by Canadian scientist Dr. Magda Havas found that people exposed to radiation from a cordless phone base at 0.5% of the current US and Canadian safety guideline limit experienced anywhere up to a doubling of their heart rate. Of the test subjects, most had identified themselves as being to some degree electrosensitive.
Fortunately, DECT models are now available overseas where the base only emits radiation when the handset is in use, and adjusts it according to the distance from the phone. Made by a company called Orchid for the German market, these are labelled as 'lower emission', and the company is struggling to keep up with a healthy consumer demand that has largely been stimulated by government health warnings about DECT phones.
Back in Australia, some retail outlets no longer sell corded phones, making life more inconvenient for the electrosensitive people who rely on them, and for anyone who wants to take steps to curb their EMF exposure.
Austria, France, Germany and Sweden have all issued advice to enable their citizens to reduce mobile phone radiation. Although Australia has not followed suit, instead issuing statements that there is nothing to worry about, it would be wise to follow a precautionary principle.
• Not having a mobile phone, or only using it in emergencies. However, in many cases, this is not practical as many people are obliged to use a mobile for their work.
• Using the speaker phone, or an air tube (a device where the last few inches of wire are replaced with a hollow tube.) There has been some concern that wired earpieces risk concentrating the electromagnetic field in the ear, and in 2005 British expert Professor Lawrie Challis recommended clipping a ferrite bead to a hands-free kit.
• Bluetooth headsets are generally significantly lower-radiation than using a phone against the ear.
• Keeping calls short.
• Sending texts instead.
• Picking a mobile with a low SAR.
• Keeping the mobile four inches from the head in preference to holding it directly to the ear, as the radiation exposure drops dramatically with distance.
• Choosing a stronger-signal area to make a call. Radiation values decrease significantly when speaking closer to a base station, and rise when at a distance.
• Avoiding the use of a mobile in a metal environment such as a car or a train.
• Mobiles send out signals when switched on, and no call is being made. Keep the mobile away from the body, or consider using an anti-radiation bag.
Messages waiting to be received
The size of the global mobile phone market has recently reached the US $1.2 trillion (AUD $1.1 trillion) mark, making it the fastest-growing large industry on the planet. Its influence in terms of lobbying, advertising and funding studies cannot be overstated. It has attracted a legion of supporters who share its dismissive attitude to health concerns. Sometimes these are found in unlikely places.
In the case of mobile phones, the Federal Government is failing in its duty of care, an attitude that is mirrored in its gung-ho attitude to GM food, having abandoned the precautionary principle being followed by some governments overseas. If, or more likely when, mobile phones are finally identified as a serious health risk, much unnecessary damage will already have been done.
The Cancer Council of Western Australia provides a Cancer Myths section on its website in which it largely dismisses cancer risks from a range of everyday objects, substances and exposures. On the 'Mobile phones and cancer' page, a notice appeared on 1st June 2011 (one day after the UN announcement) that the information was currently 'under review.'
As for the seemingly vast number of people, myself included, who suffer from earaches of varying degrees when using a mobile or cordless phone held up to their ear, if they manage to avoid being persuaded that this is psychosomatic, they may feel instead that their bodies are trying to tell them something. These messages are worth listening to; one friend who encountered this discomfort from a mobile phone later experienced two months of pain in her head and neck area followed by a permanent and severe case of electrosensitivity that today restricts her lifestyle considerably.
EMF Explained (Australian industry perspective)
Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore (Northern NSW).