Mobile phones - what the experts say

In light of recent scientific evidence of risk, several eminent scientists have recommended precautions when using mobile phones including restrictions on their use by children.

As governments and industries remind us, there is “no conclusive proof” that the radiation from mobile phones causes health problems and they dismiss any possibility of risk at athermal (non-heating) levels of radiation.

Absolute proof there may not be, but evidence there is, in abundance, that the radiation from mobile phones is less than beneficial to our health.

Firstly there is the scientific evidence that links the radiation from mobile phones with brain tumours (Hardell), breaks in strands of brain DNA (Lai), lymphomas (Repacholi), memory problems (Wang), breaches in the blood-brain barrier (Salford), neurological damage (Hocking) and more.

Secondly, there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence—sadly often ignored— of unpleasant symptoms caused by mobile phones. These include heat, pressure, confusion, disorientation, excruciating headaches and memory problems. Even if these symptoms are not indicators of more serious problems, they are hardly consistent with good health and have been reported as interfering with quality of life. More serious are the brain tumours which are alleged to have been caused by mobile phone use and which have inspired a recent rash of litigation in the US.

Britain’s chief scientist, Sir William Stewart (chief author of the May 2000 ‘Stewart’ Report on mobile phone safety for the UK government) has recommended the application of precautions to mobile phone use, particularly by children. Sir William, who has said that he would not allow his grandchildren to use a mobile phone, has called for the cost of handsets to be increased to restrict their use by children. He has also criticised the advertising of mobile phones as essential school resources as “irresponsible”.

The May 2000 report of the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones (IGEMP) of which Sir William was the chief author, recommended restrictions on the use of mobile phones by children under 16 years of age. "If there are currently unrecognized adverse health effects from the use of mobile phones, children may be more vulnerable because of their developing nervous system, the greater absorption of energy in the tissues of the head and a longer lifetime of exposure. In line with our precautionary approach, we believe that the widespread use of mobile phones by children for non-essential calls should be discouraged. We also recommend that the mobile phone industry should refrain from promoting the use of mobile phones by children."

This recommendation was followed by a letter from the Education Secretary to all schools in England suggesting similar restrictions.

Sir William’s recommendations have been endorsed by Swedish professor of Oncology, Dr Lennart Hardell, whose recent study found an increased risk of brain tumour among analogue mobile phone users (see page 3). Dr Hardell suggests that children are particularly vulnerable to the radiation from mobile phones for a number of reasons.

Firstly, “the exposure to the brain is comparatively higher for a child than a grown-up” because a child’s thinner skull does not provide as much shielding.

Secondly, children have a long life expectancy and therefore a longer time in which to accumulate damage from mobile phone radiation.

According to Hardell, the emphatic results of his study need to be taken seriously. “The lesson we have to learn is to adopt the precautionary principle as it was given in the Stewart report.”

He suggests that there are a number of sensible precautions that can be applied to the use of a mobile phone.

  • “Use a handsfree device with an earpiece which reduces exposure 95 to 95% if it is correctly used.”
  • “Use an external antenna in a car” to substantially reduce radiation.
  • “Limit the time for talking on the phone using a regular phone instead when it’s available.”
  • “Children should definitely avoid long talks on mobile phones.”

While there might not yet be absolute proof that the radiation from mobile phones causes health problems, there is clearly enough evidence to warrant precautions. Given that we apply precautions to so many other aspects of our children’s lives— from choice of foods at the supermarket, to fastening seatbelts and installing safety fences around pools—it seems only sensible to apply them equally to the technological risks of modern life.

(Radio National, 06.09.01.)

EMRAA News Sept 2001, Vol 6 No 3