In less than two decades, cellphones have become one of the dominant means of communication. Their convenience, efficiency and inventiveness combined with slick marketing campaigns offering text deals for pocket money rates nets an annual 5.6 billion cellphone subscriptions globally. However a growing body of scientific evidence suggests cellphone use may harm our health.
Serious health effects
Most media reports on the health effects of cellphones take the angle that the research is still inconclusive and contradictory. However Dr. Henry Lai of Washington University found that 67% of non-industry-funded studies discovered harmful effects whereas only 28% of industry-funded studies found ill effects.1 Another report ‘Mobile phone health risks: the case for action to protect children’ lists over 200 peer-reviewed scientific papers linking cellphone use to serious health effects such as sleep, learning and memory disorders, infertility, heart, brain and liver damage and increased production of DNA-damaging free radicals.2
Some insurance companies concerned about these research findings have taken precautionary cover. As early as April 1999, the London Observer reported that a Lloyds of London underwriter decided against insuring cellphone manufacturers due to ‘concern about the safety of mobile phones … [and] the risk of damage to users’ health… [and] fears that mobile phones will be linked to illnesses such as cancer and Alzheimer’s’.3 In 2009 the Austrian Insurance Company AUVA personally commissioned the Vienna Medical University to research the effects of cellphone radiation. Their research found significant effects on the central nervous system, immune system and protein synthesis.4
Increased risks of brain tumours
When the 2011 international Interphone Study reported finding no significant risk of brain tumour for light and medium cellphone users, there was a sigh of public relief. What media reports downplayed was the study’s finding that ‘heavy’ cellphone users (those using cellphones more than 30 minutes a day over a decade) did have an increased risk of developing glioma, a malignant type of brain tumour on side of the head the cellphone was used.
The recently published Cardis study has also confirmed increased risk of brain tumour for ‘heavy’ cellphone users, but in a shorter exposure period of seven years.5 Researchers Cam and Seyhan from Gazi University, Turkey, found cellphone calls as short as 15–30 minutes also ‘caused significant increase in DNA single-strand breaks in human hair root cells located around the ear which is used for the phone calls’.6
The experimental research of scientists such as Lai, Fragopoulou and Jing on rodents helps explain why cellphone radiation causes brain disease. Dr. Henry Lai showed how exposure to radio frequency radiation is capable of causing strand breaks in DNA.7 Adamantia Fragopoulou and her team from the University of Athens found cellphone radiation alters brain proteins in mice – ‘proteins that have been correlated so far with Alzheimer’s and glioblastoma’ (a malignant type of brain tumour).8 And Jing et al from Shandong University in China concluded that ‘receiving a certain period of microwave radiation from cellular phones during pregnancy has certain harm on fetal rat brains’.9 These findings add gravitas to the argument for cautionary use of cellphones.
After analysing existing research, Morgan and Hallberg in their report ‘The potential impact of mobile phone use on trends in brain and CNS tumours’ produced a model based on a 30-year latency between first mobile phone use and diagnoses of brain cancer. They predict ‘a 100% increased incidence of brain cancer (2-fold) if DNA repair efficiency is decreased by mobile phone use, and a 2,400% increase in brain tumours (25-fold) if mobile phone use mutates DNA’.10
Some savvy shoppers choose a cellphone according to its SAR (specific absorption rate), in the belief that the lower the rating, the less radiation they will be exposed to. It is important to realise that SAR rating is an estimate achieved from tests on a fluid-filled plastic adult model of a 100-kilogram man.11 The dose of cellphone radiation one is exposed to depends on the user’s head size, the degree of radiation, distance from an antenna, and duration of the call.
To feed the unquenchable demand for cellphone and wireless technologies, stronger cell towers are being erected throughout residential and commercial neighbourhoods, their emissions covering our homes, workplaces, schools, hospitals and recreation areas.
The extent to which their emissions have altered our environment is described by Prof. Olle Johansson, a neuroscientist at the Karolina Institute in Stockholm who, in an address to the Canadian Parliamentary Health committee in 2010, stated: ‘in the room you are sitting in right now, just from the 3G mobile telephones … you are sitting in levels that are approximately one million billion times above natural background electromagnetic radiation’.12
Worryingly, some research shows that those living in close proximity to cell towers may be more at risk. A study by the Kaplan Medical Centre in Israel found, after long-term exposure, a four-fold increase in cancer amongst residents living within 350 metres of a cell tower and a ten-fold increase specifically in women.13
These findings were replicated in the 2004 Naila study in Germany, which reviewed case notes of patients living within 400 metres of cellphone towers over a 10-year period. The proportion of newly developing cancers was found to be significantly higher in this group compared to those living further away from the towers in the same town.14
In a study published in 2011 by Professor Bucher and Dr. Eger, the community of Rimbach in Lower Bavaria was monitored before and after the installation of a new cellphone tower. They found cell towers could be a health hazard for those living around them, and that children and those with chronic health conditions such as diabetes, asthma and allergies reacted more strongly than healthy adults. ‘In Rimbach the increase in sleep problems, cephalgia, vertigo, concentration problems, and allergies could be clinically documented after the cell phone base station had been activated.’15
Risk factors from cell towers to take into account include whether the tower has a single antenna or has multiple antennas (intensifying exposure); height and mass differences between men, women and children; and the effects of simultaneous exposures from other radio frequency emitting devices e.g. nearby wifi hotspots.
Better protection of public health needed
Since September 2008 when the New Zealand government enacted the ‘National Environmental Standard for Telecommunications Facilities’, members of the public have no legal right to object to cellphone towers being erected in front of their homes, schools or workplaces. The industry is required to limit the amount of radiation emitted from the equipment to that specified under NZ standard 2772:1. This is no comfort given the findings of the Bioinitiative Report, which finds these standards to be well below those necessary to protect the public from the non-thermal affects of radio frequency radiation.16
Current regulation standards for cellphone technology in New Zealand, as in most Western nations, clearly do not meet precautionary requirements. This means accumulative long-term exposure to this type of radiation could be injurious to our health.
Anne Gastinger is a freelance writer living in Christchurch with a particular concern for the adverse health effects of electromagnetic radiation.
What can you do?
Know your risks and minimise your exposure.
- Choose to predominantly use a landline.
- Cellphones are only for emergencies. The less you use them, the less demand for antennae in our neighbourhoods.
- Cellphones are not recommended for children under 16.
- Avoid sleeping with an activated cellphone under your pillow, and dissuade your teenagers from this practice. If you need a phone in the bedroom get a landline jack point installed.
- Avoid metal bed frames and inner sprung metal coil mattresses which act as EMF conductors.
- Avoid using cellphones in moving vehicles (cars, buses, trains, lifts). Radiation levels are higher due to the extra power needed by your cellphone as it seeks to penetrate the metal and glass, and reconnect with different relay antennae on route.
- Lobby your local MP and other relevant policy makers to have the outdated NZ Standard 2772:1 1999 revised in line with those recommended in the Bioinitiative Report.
- Lobby for reinstatement of your democratic right to object to cellphone towers/masts being erected outside your homes, schools, workplaces and hospitals.
3. Sarah Ryle, ‘Insurers balk at risks of phones’, London Observer, 1999
5. Cardis, E et al., ‘Risk of brain tumours in relation to estimated RF dose from mobile phones: results from five Interphone countries’, Occupational Environmental Medicine, 2 January 2012
6. Cam ST, Seyhan N, ‘Single-strand DNA breaks in human hair root cells exposed to mobile phone radiation’, International Journal of Radiation Biology, 21 Feb 2012
8. ‘Brain proteome response following whole body exposure of mice to mobile phone or wireless DECT base radiation’,Electromagnetic Biology and Medicine, 20 January 2012
10. Klaus Buchner and Horst Eger, ‚Changes of clinically important neurotransmitters under the influence of modulated RF fields – A long term study under real life conditions’, Umwelt Medizin Gesellschaft, 2011, 24(1)
12. Jing J et al, ‘The influence of microwave radiation from cellular phone on fetal rat brain’, Electromagnetic Biology and Medicine, March 2012, 31(1)
13. Journal of Neurology and Neurophysiology, 24 December 2011, www.omicsonline.org/2155-9562/2155-9562-S5-003.pdf
14. Dr. Karl Manet, ‘The Biological effects of Electromagnetic Fields’, www.electromagnetichealth.org
16. International Journal of Cancer Prevention, April 2004, www.vws.org/CellPhoneTowerEffects.html
Recommended reading and websites
- Camilla Rees and Prof. Madga Havas, Public Health SOS: The Shadow Side of the Wireless Revolution, Wide Angle Health, Boulder, 2009
- Prof Devra Davis, Disconnect: The truth about cellphone radiation, what the Industry has done to hide it, and How to protect your family, www.disconnectbook.com
- Can cell phones damage DNA and cause cancer? Dr. Henry Lai, www.youtube.com/watch?v=JrBjQJhHfzk
- Cell tower microwave radiation presentation by Professor Magda Havas, March 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEOcB7Svhvw