Late Lessons

European Environment Agency advises precaution for mobile phone use.

In January the European Environment Agency (EEA) issued a major report which has recommendations for mobile phone users and administrators.

‘Late Lessons from Early Warnings Vol II’ is a 750-page document that considers the risks of new technologies and the consequences of ignoring them. It includes case studies on mercury poisoning, hormone-disrupting chemicals in plastics, nuclear radiation, genetically modified organisms, nanotechnology and mobile phones.

‘The benefits of mobile telecommunications are many but such benefits need to be accompanied by consideration of the possibility of widespread harms. Precaution actions now to reduce head exposures would limit the size and seriousness of any brain tumour risk that may exist. Reducing exposures may also help to reduce the other possible harms that are not considered in this case study,’ the report concludes.

In the chapter about the brain tumour risks of mobile and cordless phone use, the report considered evidence from two main groups of studies. The first are studies by the research team of Dr Lennart Hardell, one of the authors of the chapter. These studies showed that:

  • people who used a mobile phone for more than 10 years had nearly 3 times the risk of developing gliomas and acoustic neuromas on the side of the head used for the call;
  • people who used a cordless phone for more than 10 years had 3 times the risk of developing meningiomas and nearly 4 times the risk of gliomas on the side of the head used for the call;
  • the greatest risk of brain tumours was for people who began to use a mobile phone before the age of 20. They had 3 times the risk of gliomas and 5 times the risk of acoustic neuromas.

The report also considered the group of studies known as the Interphone study, conduced in 13 countries from 2000 to 2004. There was a four-year delay in publishing the study because of disagreements about the results. The study had methodological limitations and probably underestimated the risk and the protocol of the study allowed representatives of industry to be involved as observers or consultants. The Interphone study found:

  • no increased risk of meningiomas overall;
  • highest phone use—equivalent to half an hour’s use a day for 10 years—led to 1.4 times the risk of gliomas and nearly twice the risk of gliomas on the same side of the head as used for calls in the temporal lobe.

‘Results from the Hardell-group as well as from the Interphone group show an increased risk for glioma and acoustic neuroma associated with long term mobile phone use,’ said the report.

Based primarily on these two groups of studies, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified radiofrequency radiation as a Class 2B carcinogen in 2011.

Despite this evidence, the EEA report says that neither industry nor governments have taken the risk seriously. There have been ‘unfounded attacks on individual researchers … a pattern that repeats similar experiences in the asbestos, lead and tobacco histories.’

In the report, Philippe Grandjean said this is the case with many new technologies. ‘Despite its presence in a growing body of EU and national legislation and case law, the application of the precautionary principle has been strongly opposed by vested interests who perceive short term economic costs from its use. There is also intellectual resistance from scientists who fail to acknowledge that scientific ignorance and uncertainty are excessively attached to conventional scientific paradigms, and who wait for very high strengths of evidence before accepting causal links between exposure to stressors and harm.’

Yet we cannot afford to ignore the warning signs. ‘None of the today’s established carcinogens, including tobacco, could have been firmly identified as increasing risk in the first 10 years or so since first exposure.’

‘Taken together, the examples of late action on known hazards illustrate the high cost of inaction. Globally that cost has been paid in millions of lives and cases of disease and dysfunction, much damage to the environment and species, and very large economic penalties.’

The report calls for independent research on the biological and ecological effects of this radiation, particularly in light of the fact that mobile phones are used by more than five billion people and that other species—such as birds and bees—appear to be affected by it as well as humans.

‘Late lessons from early warnings: science, precaution, innovation’, EEA Report No 1/2013,

from 'EMR and Health' March 2013, vol 9 no 1