Cells under the microscope


A report has revived the debate linking mobile phone use ans cancer, causing the usual lurid headlines and public fears. Jasper Jackson looks at the claims and counter-claims to discover the true threat posed by your mobile

Over the last month a familiar set of headlines proclaiming the dangers of mobile phones have shouted from the pages of Britain’s newspapers. Once again they are citing reports that mobile phones could be a hazard to human health.

Last month, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) decided to class “radio frequency electromagnetic fields” created by mobile phone and other communication technology as “possibly carcinogenic”. This puts the radiation emitted by mobiles in the same category as wood dust and bracken ferns. It is below categories reserved for “probably” carcinogenic agents such as lead compounds and engine exhaust and known carcinogens like asbestos and plutonium.

In fact, the IARC said there was “limited” evidence that the radiation created by mobile phones and other communication devices caused gliomas, a form of brain cancer, citing a study finished in 2004, which found a 40 per cent increase in risk for those using their mobile for more than 30 minutes a day.

WHO recommended that, pending further information, people should take “pragmatic” measures to reduce exposure, such as using hands-free kits or texting. Of course, this is a recommendation that has been embraced by hands-free kit makers.

But the IARC was just the second international organisation to choose May to raise questions about the health implications of mobile phones and other communications technology.

New report
The Council of Europe’s Committee on the Environment, Agriculture and Local and Regional Affairs is a body of 84 representatives from parliaments around Europe. It is chaired by former UK deputy prime minister John Prescott and last month it produced a draft report with far-reaching recommendations for European governments.

The report recommended specific risk-assessments of the dangers of all new types of device. It called for new awareness campaigns warning of the potential dangers of mobile phones and other devices. Most controversially, it actually advocated the banning of all mobile phones and wireless internet in schools.

Mobile operators are wary of reports that mobile phones are bad for you. The official UK line from the Mobile Operators Association (MOA), is that current limits on the emission of radiation by mobile phones and base stations, are set by the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) and are strict enough to protect adults and children.

The MOA says there is no conclusive evidence linking mobile phones to adverse impacts on human health. It says current advice from UK Organisations such as the Health Protection Agency and a leaflet authored by the Department of Health, have provided sufficient information to the public.

O2 says it is waiting for further research to be published over the next 12 months, and an O2 spokesperson says: “IARC has not established a direct link between mobile phone use and cancer. It has concluded that there is the possibility of a hazard which requires further scientific investigation.”

Lack of evidence
Vodafone says the IARC report is just a review of existing evidence and contains no new information.

“There have been over 30 reviews in the last 10 years,” said Vodafone’s spokesperson. “There is still no substantiated evidence linking mobile technologies, or indeed any other broadcasting, to human health. We all value our mobile phones: we rely on them for our work, rely on them for our social life. On our network alone, we carry 20,000 emergency calls a day.”

Internationally, the mobile industry takes a similar line on the IARC report. Dr Jack Rowley, director for research and sustainability at international mobile industry association the GSMA, says that the WHO classification reflects only the suggestion of a cancer risk in humans, without any consistent support from animal and cell studies.

“In terms of what consumers need to do, the World Health Organization says what they need to do. Phones are designed to be compliant with standards. If consumers are concerned and they want to reduce their exposure, then the use of personal hands-free kits or sending text messages reduce exposure. That sort of information is included in product manuals and websites.”

Research questioned
Though most representatives of the mobile industry have taken a cautious approach to the WHO finding, they have been far more dismissive of the Council of Europe’s report.

A spokesperson for the MOA described the report as “based on a selective interpretation of scientific studies”.

“Recommendations for non-scientific restrictions are not supported by the WHO or the Health Protection Agency. The (Council of Europe’s) report provides no health benefit, causes unfounded public concern, and could adversely impact the quality of mobile services relied on by millions of individuals, and by public services and businesses.”

However, the report’s author, Luxembourg parliament member Jean Huss, has questioned the role of the mobile industry in funding research it relies on when arguing that mobiles phones are not dangerous.

His report cited research from Bern University, Switzerland. This found that just 33 per cent of studies funded by the industry found a link between mobile phone signals and human health. This contrasted with 80 per cent of reports funded from public funds. However, Rowley says there may be a simple explanation for this.

“Studies that have sufficient funding, from whatever source it is, industry or government, tend to be of higher quality. Our past experience is that larger studies and higher quality control and exposure don’t find any effects.

“We do see the occasional small studies, poorly designed and poorly funded. These are the ones that tend to generate random findings. We specify in our contracts that researchers are wholly independent in conduct, interpretation and publication of the results. We make it a condition of our contracts that researchers try to publish their findings, so that we cannot be accused of suppressing information.”

Vodafone’s spokesperson says it is not unreasonable that the industry should play a role in supporting research into the impact of mobile phones.

“The fact is that, along with governments we contribute towards the funding, as I think a lot of our customers would expect us to do this. There’s a very clear firewall between the industry and research scientists. We have absolutely no influence on what research is carried out.”

Full article in Mobile News issue 490 (June 6, 2011).

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