British Scientists Demand Cell Phone Warnings
Reuters, January 12, 1998
Journalist: Kirstin Ridley
LONDON – British scientists are demanding that mobile telephones, an indispensable tool for millions, carry a health warning.
Amid an explosive growth of mobile communications, concerns are mounting about cellular telephones’ potential links to health problems ranging from headaches to brain tumors. “In my opinion, and in the opinion of many scientists, anyone who uses a mobile telephone for more than 20 minutes at a time needs to have their brain tested,” bio-electromagnetics scientist Roger Coghill said. Coghill, who runs an independent research laboratory in Wales, plans to launch private criminal proceedings against a local cellular distributor in a test case seeking to establish a breach of consumer protection laws.
Scientists say electromagnetic radiation from cellphones warms brain tissue and that some strains of mice developed cancer in tests in Australia and Finland while others became disoriented. But, despite research around the world, it is still unproven that cellular phones pose a human health risk. “We can’t categorically prove they will not harm you but that is not the same as saying they will harm you,” a spokesman for Britain’s biggest mobile phone company, Vodafone, said. “There is no evidence anywhere in the world that suggests there is any cause for concern.”
Coghill demands what he calls a “responsible” attitude from industry and, as with health warnings on cigarette packs, calls a warning label on cellphone handsets a “reasonable, precautionary step.” “Mobile telephones are arguably the most radiative appliance we have ever invented apart from the microwave oven and people are putting them by their heads — arguably the most sensitive part of the body,” he told a news conference.
HEALTH HAZARD OR HYSTERIA?
The electromagnetic energy that fuels a cellphone is microwave radiation pulsing from its antenna. Human brains may absorb up to 60 percent of that energy, and although some researchers say those levels are far from hazardous, they are near the top end of international safety recommendations. Cellphone users have reported physical symptoms ranging from lack of concentration, headaches, numb skin and memory loss to brain tumors, which they said might be linked to prolonged use of mobile telephones. A telecommunications engineer in his late 30s, who requested anonymity, said he suffered a severe loss of short-term memory. Within months of using a digital mobile telephone up to six hours per day in 1995, he said, he started suffering from twitching eyes and numbness on the side of his head. He has since been diagnosed with brain damage. “I have been off work for 18 months but it only seems like three or four weeks,” he said slowly. “Tomorrow I won’t remember what happened today.” New Zealand biophysicist Neil Cherry says artificial electromagnetic radiation (EMR) can pose a health risk. “There is a growing body of scientific research which shows that very low, non-thermal levels of radio frequency and microwave radiation alters the basic biochemistry of cells, which have a potential to cause altered brain function, carcinogenesis and impaired immune system functioning,” he said.
WEIGHING THE RISKS
The approved level of cellphone radiation is set by international bodies. In Britain, the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) — an independent, statutory group — sets the standards. Recommended radiation limits are measured in “specific absorption rates” — the amount of radiation absorbed averaged over one gram of tissue.
The NRPB, which says the vast majority of studies have shown radiation levels from cellphones are too low to harm humans, recommends a limit of 10 milliwatts per gram. Proposed European guidelines are five times more stringent.
Despite industry denials of any risks, public concern has prompted manufacturers to develop low-radiation phones and protective covers to shield users from much of the radiation. Some companies, such as London-based luxury gift store Asprey, already try to ensure mobile telephones used by its employees carry protective shields that cut down radiation levels.
Some scientists say drivers who hang on their phones are among those at highest risk — and not just because they could crash. A car acts like a metal cage and kick-starts cellphones’ power levels so they can blast their signals to the nearest base station.
Some car manufacturers warn in their instruction manuals against using hand-held mobile phones without a separate external aerial fitted to the vehicle. Most are more concerned that the electromagnetic emissions from cellphones not designed or fitted to comply specifically with cars might interfere with the vehicle’s delicate electronics. Others report they are also working on adding a direct health warning.
THE “LOW-TAR CIGARETTE” OPTION
But as cellphones come out of yuppie ghettos onto the mass market, some users are becoming increasingly addicted. Robby Walford, a 34-year-old flooring and carpets specialist, used a mobile phone up to four hours a day before being diagnosed as suffering from acoustic neuroma, a benign brain tumor.
That was four years ago. But he still uses a cellphone now — albeit with a radiation shield. “My business relies on it,” he said.
London-based Microshield Industries Plc is among those to have developed a cellphone shield. It has a polyester-nickel layer, slips over the phone and the company says it filters out most emissions.
But having been threatened with legal action by a cellphone manufacturer over allegations in its sales brochure, the firm says it is having trouble breaking into stores and can only sell its product via mail order and in some drug stores.
Seeking to placate the cellphone industry, a spokesman said: “People won’t stop using mobile telephones. We’re offering people, in effect, a low-tar cigarette.”