Are mobile phones and electromagnetic fields dangerous or not? The debate is starting to heat up again, as Drew Turney learns.
Cigarette makers waged a bitter PR war for decades until the evidence against their products was too obvious to overcome decades of spin by expensive lobbyists. Lately a growing chorus is warning an even more urgent health crisis is coming because of electromagnetic radiation (EMR). In 1945, 72 percent of Australian males smoked versus 17 in 2007. But as long ago as 2006, 84 percent of us had mobile phones. If the rapidly building concern is right, the stakes are going to be high.
In generations past EMR it wasn’t as much of a concern — we sat across the room from the TV with the lights out of the way on the ceiling. Today we work, play and even sleep in close proximity to machinery that emits powerful electromagnetic signals, many of them broadcasting much stronger fields than older technologies because they have to connect wirelessly with various base stations or receivers.
Concern about EMR health effects rose with the advent of the mobile phone, but as wireless data is becoming as widespread as wireless voice, more experts and stakeholders are urging a closer look.
It’s not an easy field to sift through. Stories about scientists on the mobile industry payroll giving the all-clear are part of the zeitgeist, but not even the institutions acting in our interests can agree. The World Health Organisation’s website says ‘to date, no adverse health effects have been established for mobile phone use,’ but it’s own cancer research division (the International Agency for Research on Cancer) classified mobile phone radiation as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans’ in May this year, putting it in the same risk category as DDT and vehicle exhaust.
A sea of EMR
To Lyn McLean, director of research body EMR Australia and the author of The Force: Living Safely in a World of Electromagnetic Pollution, mobiles are the pointy end of a much bigger question about our relationship to EMR. When even the electrical wires in your walls generate an electromagnetic field, a bed or living area badly positioned in relation to a meter box might increase the risk of everything from skin lesions to miscarriage and depression to cancer.
Sounds as vague as it is alarmist, right? Look at it this way — EMR affects atoms, and like everything else, cells are made of atoms. So the possible effects to your system are as varied as the number of cells you have going about their myriad tasks (more below).
McLean actually thinks EM fields are already responsible for a lot of health problems, we just don’t realise it. “What concerns me is that so many people are suffering as a result of what seems to be EMR and improving when they’re taken away from fields, yet their stories aren’t being taken seriously by authorities,” she says.
Of course, if we really are swimming in a carcinogenic ocean waiting to happen, mobile phones have the most potential to do us damage. Ever heard the anecdotes about ears feeling hot after a really long phone call, or felt it yourself? You’re not imagining it — your phone receives continuous jolts of the signal from nearby towers and the resulting electromagnetic field is literally slow-cooking your flesh. Read far enough into any mobile phone manual and you’ll see the most damming evidence straight from the manufacturer — even they recommend you hold the device about an inch from your ear as you use it.
Just as critical as McLean’s The Force is Disconnect, in which US epidemiologist Devra Davis wonders how the mobile phone has conquered the world in the face of the risks. As she points out, we just don’t know exactly what the health effects will be. But as Disconnect asks, the honest research and data out there should give us pause.
It was never the cigarettes that killed you — it was easy to blame the resulting cancer and emphysema on something else. We’re facing the same challenge with EMR because it’s not dangerous in itself. It merely disrupts cellular function, and the runaway metastasis of cellular disruption becomes cancer, which is very hard to attribute to a specific physiological cause.
But Davis cites a study where laboratory rabbits and rats were exposed to mobile phone radiation and produced offspring with brain, liver and eye damage. Though she agrees one study does not make a consensus, it’s enough to call for a closer look. “When you have one case of something extraordinary and you have a possible explanation for what went on, you’d be a fool not to pay attention,” she says.
A new dark ages?
So short of trying to eradicate the mobile phone and wireless modem — to say nothing of the car and the incandescent bulb — how can we save ourselves if there are risks? The answer is to navigate EMR safely. We need limits for certain environments, situations and technologies based on independent science that are proscribed and enforced by international efforts like the WHO (which sets the current guidelines).
The problem is getting our elected leaders and representatives to use that power wisely. According to the International Commission on Non Ionizing Radiation Protection (another arm of the WHO), the public threshold for safe exposure is 2000 mG (milligauss). So why does the International Agency for Research on Cancer call a count of just 4mG ‘possibly carcinogenic’, and why have health problems shown up after exposure to fields of just 2mG, according to Lyn McLean?
We might have a new global crisis on our hands that’s as urgent as climate change. Unless you live in a wooden shack with no power miles from the nearest town, electromagnetic pollution is already affecting you. The question is, how much of it can we safely take?
What You Can Do
â€¢ Use wired rather than wireless devices whenever possible, including a corded rather than cordless phone.
â€¢ Limit your mobile phone use as much as possible. If it’s going to be a long conversation call them back on a landline.
â€¢ Keep mobiles away from your head for extended periods. Don’t leave them beside the bed overnight to charge or use as alarm clocks.
â€¢ Make sure living and sleeping areas don’t place you too close to the household meter box.
â€¢ If you have persistent unexplained health problems, consider looking into your electromagnetic field exposure.
The scene from the doctor’s office
With all this fear-mongering about EMR, what can it actually do to us? There are two types or radiation — non-ionising and ionising. The latter means it has the energy to move electrons away from atomic orbits, which as chemistry teaches us, changes the nature of the matter it comprises. Consensus scientific theory says the non-ionising type is safe because if it doesn’t dislodge atoms it can’t hurt. Devra Davis, author of Disconnect, couldn’t disagree more. “That argument was wrong when it was first argued by physicists and it’s more wrong now,” she says.
But even if Davis is wrong and it’s only ionising radiation we have to watch out for, how bad can a few errant electrons be? The problem is they’re part of molecules that drive, control, regulate and repair everything that happens inside us on a microscopic scale. Different frequencies and amplitudes of radiation can affect different cells in different ways, which is why you often hear such a varied list of potential maladies applied to mobile phones — everything from leukemia to sterility.
The normal background radiation from UV rays, the earth itself and other natural phenomena cause damage to cells too, and they’re the reason you’ll age and die one day, but the human body is built to mostly keep up by repairing cellular damage over the long term. “Electromagnetic radiation causes increased risk of disease by causing DNA strand breaks,” says Dr Michael Wald, a director at US-based Integrated Medicine & Nutrition, “that’s what causes cancer.”
Add to that the fact that the characteristics of our individual DNA puts some of us at much greater risk than others (“It’s thought people with higher antioxidant nutrients are more resistive to electromagnetic radiation,” Wald adds), and it’s very hard to follow the path between EM radiation and ill health.
The bad news is that as Wald explains, the institution that should be leading the way when it comes to warning about the risks — medicine — needs to go back to school itself. “In general, the medical profession has no knowledge whatsoever about the health effects of electromagnetic fields,” he says. “Medical schools simply don’t teach it as part of the curriculum.”
But Davis says while the highly paid lab scientists and directors of intergovernmental agencies dither, GPs on the ground could be the new first line of defence. “Local doctors and paediatricians around the world are deeply concerned about this,” she says. “They’re the ones seeing the consequences.”
Like all radiation, it’s all to do with wavelength, frequency and other wave properties. Microwaves will cook you, UV will give you sunburn, but they belong to the same part of the spectrum as the ELF (extremely low frequency) which is non-ionising, but we just don’t understand enough about the process.
“EM radiation has very specific effects on the body depending on the frequency and phase of the field,” adds Glen Rein, a doctor who’s studied the effect of EMR on human DNA. “There are frequency or amplitude ‘windows’ where biological effects are only seen at certain frequencies — too high or too low and there’s no biological effect.”
It’s also hard to pin down the effects precisely because the tiny processes inside us all operate on vastly different timescales — think of the differences between the growth of bones and hair, for instance. And when you add in factors like the environment or our individual eating habits, it gets even muddier. “Certain chemicals and EM field frequencies trigger specific biochemical pathways which are known to trigger cancer,” Rein explains, “Some fields are considered co-carcinogenic along with chemicals. The steps involved in cancer development after the original initiation can take months or even years, and we don’t know exactly why it takes so long.”
Raw statistics might ordinarily give us a clue, but unfortunately they’re just as inconclusive. On one hand there’s been no complimentary rise in brain cancer cases in the two decades we’ve gone from a wealthy few mobile users to 3 billion of us. On the other, brain cancer isn’t normally a disease of the young, so it’s pretty safe to assume it can take decades to develop. An epidemic might be awaiting us in the 2030s but mired in rapidly changing data, not enough independent enquiry and a staggering amount of money, the jury is still very much out.
The research stigma
Show most people a report saying mobile phones don’t pose any health risks and they’ll roll their eyes and ask you which manufacturer paid the scientists who wrote it. When it comes to exposing health risks someone often has something to lose, and many of the worst health practices endure for so long because rich, powerful interests bury research and buy off law and policymakers — look no further than the cigarette industry.
To many, the field of mobile phone health is no different. “Several industry studies show no harmful effects,” claims Dr Glen Rein. “The authors make that conclusion based on data which actually shows the opposite — an increased incidence of one type of cancer. These studies are designed to fail. There are plenty demonstrating harmful effects by academics who weren’t paid by the cell phone industry, but skeptical scientists believe the standard dogma that an electromagnetic field will only effect a biological system if the intensity is high enough to cause thermal effects.
“Yet plenty of studies show cell phone radiation produces non-thermal effects on the body, and skeptical scientists don’t believe them because they think the mechanism of action isn’t known. In fact several mechanisms are known to cause bioelectromagnetic effects.”
Rein goes further, calling the cell phone industry ‘secretive and corrupt’, and in response to hope about studies that might settle whether mobiles are bad for us once and for all, Dr Michael Wald adds that ‘[Mobile phone companies] have no financial interest in performing such research.’
In discussing The Force with author Lyn McLean, you’re reminded of the example of Richard Doll, the UK scientist who helped establish the link between smoking and lung cancer and was asked by the British authorities not to make the information public for fear it would alarm people. McLean thinks we’re seeing it again, saying the mobile phone industry knowingly buries research about adverse effects. “It’s very hard to get that message out there when so much advertising is paid for by the mobile phone industry,” she says.
According to Disconnect’s Devra Davis, the disdain with which most people treat mobile phone health studies isn’t only outside the manufacturers’ walls. “There’s a lot of conflict in manufacturers right now,” she says. “People in the industry have reached out to me and acknowledged they can develop safer phones but the lawyers don’t want to admit it because they’re going to be liable. And they should be — they knew cell phones could be safer.”
How safe is safe?
Both Devra Davis and Lyn McLean say you should opt for a wired solution wherever possible — including a headset for your mobile rather than either the phone itself or even a Bluetooth headset, and a corded rather than a walkaround home phone.
Russell Castronovo, global communications director for Bluetooth headset maker Plantronics, says it’s a matter of degree. “Mobile phones must emit higher levels of power — enough to go all the way to the base station at times,” he says. “Cordless phones, which are generally not considered to be a health risk by anyone, emit much less radiation in part because the distance is much less. Cordless headsets such as Bluetooth ones emit a tiny fraction of cordless phones and corded headsets emit no radiation.”
But here’s something else to remember. Bluetooth headsets might emit a weak signal, but they’re attached to your head, inches from your brain, constantly searching out their base station (ie emitting). Ask a scientist and he or she will tell you the human body — made up of 80 percent water — has a resonant frequency of around 2.4GHz. That means devices that emit waves of that frequency could act on it and cause localised heating — to the extent that a very small amount of 2.4 GHz radiation could be worse than a lot more of another frequency.
As the debate rages, your brain might not be the only thing hotting up.
International Agency for Research on Cancer findings (pdf)