Cell Phone Health Hazard Scares
October 9, 1999
Scares about the ill-effects of mobiles will not stop the phones’ onward march A few months ago the British press was full of stories about mobile phones frying people’s brains, zapping their central nervous systems and generating brain tumors and cancers. Britain was not the first country to suffer from a health panic over mobile phones—that honor probably belongs to one of the Scandinavian countries—and it certainly will not be the last.
Health worries could be the one thing capable of slowing the wireless juggernaut. During the 1990s, there has been a steady drip of studies suggesting links between the phones and various health problems. In 1995 Henry Lai, a researcher at Washington University in Seattle, claimed that rats which had been exposed to microwaves of the sort generated by mobile phones showed breaks in their DNA similar to those caused by carcinogenic chemicals or X -rays. In 1997 researchers at the Royal Adelaide hospital in Australia reported that a group of mice that had been exposed for 18 months to microwave radiation similar to that emitted by digital mobile phones developed lymphomas (cancers of the lymph system) at twice the rate of other mice.
Last year Hjell-Hanson Mild, of the National Institute of Working Life in Umea, Sweden, reported that in a study of 11,000 mobile-phone users in Norway and Sweden, he had discovered that people who made frequent mobile calls were more likely to complain of headache, tiredness and “warmth around the ears” than the population in general. The problem of hot ears also featured in a study conducted by Alan Preece and his team at Bristol University on behalf of the British government. Thirty-six volunteers had devices simulating the microwave output of mobile telephones clamped on their left ears, close to the area of the brain that controls language, and were then asked to perform simple tests. The result was a small improvement in their reaction times. This might possibly have been the result of localised heating caused by exposure to microwave emissions.
However, these studies are a long way from conclusively proving the case against mobile phones. Two teams of scientists have so far failed to replicate Dr Lai’s results, and three other teams have failed to replicate the Adelaide results. Dr Mild’s study raised suspicions because mobile-phone users in Norway were found to be twice as likely to complain of symptoms as those in Sweden, where press coverage of the health risks had been much more restrained. And in a recent study a group of scientists at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas exposed mice that had been genetically engineered to be susceptible to breast tumors to microwaves for 20 hours a day for 18 months, but found no increase in cancer rates. So far none of the court cases brought against cellphone manufacturers has been successful.
The subject has certainly received a great deal of attention: so far some 12,000 studies have been published around the world, and about 50 big research projects are under way. The World Health Organization is spending $6m (some of it provided by the mobile-phone companies) on a study to compare 3,000 brain-tumor patients with a control group to see whether they differ in their use of mobile phones. Scientists may never establish a firm link. The ITU , for example, concludes that “The more one learns about the subject, the more evidence there is to suggest that any risks to health are improbable.” Cellphones emit only tiny amounts of radiation—about one-thousandth of the amount emitted by microwave ovens. And people use their phones in so many different ways that epidemiological research is hard to design.
And not just health scares
Concerns about mobiles do not end with fears of cancers and brain tumors. Three others, in particular, deserve attention.
The first is that mobile phones and cars make a dangerous combination. A study carried out at the University of Toronto found that people who use mobile phones in cars are four times as likely as other drivers to have an accident. Several countries, including Singapore, Israel, Brazil and Chile, ban people from using such phones while driving. (Intriguingly, Chilean police report that about a third of the drivers they pull over are using fake handsets.)
The second is that the very thing that makes the phones so attractive—that you are never out of touch—may also be their greatest drawback. Being constantly available can mean being constantly pestered. Your boss can always get hold of you. Friends are always just a call away. Advertisers are always ready with special offers. The smarter these phones get, the more people will be bombarded with information—and the less time they will have for themselves. The offputting new buzzphrase for all this is “the wireless leash”.
This feeds into a third worry about mobile phones: that they are enemies of personal privacy. Many public figures have been embarrassed by cellphone conversations that have been taped and leaked to the media. Bill Sarpalius, a congressman from Texas, was recorded trying to get a date with a young woman in return for giving her a job; Newt Gingrich was recorded trying to rally fellow Republicans to oppose the decision that he should be reprimanded for violating House ethics; and, most famously of all, some years ago Britain’s Prince Charles was recorded telling his mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles: “I need you several times a week.” But privacy is not just a problem for celebrities. Mobile-phone companies increasingly have a good idea of where their customers wander during the day. The potential value of such information for law-enforcement agencies is obvious.
Many of these problems can be engineered out of existence. Digital technology is good for privacy, because the signals are unintelligible to FM scanners, and the streams of bits can easily be encrypted. The new pre-paid mobiles require no contract and no personal details, so can be used anonymously. Hands-6.00 phones make it safer to talk while driving, particularly if they are equipped with voice-activated dialing; and plenty of people are already programming their phones to use different ringing tones for different people—one for the nanny, another for the boss. Call management, too, is on the verge of a big leap forward. Several companies, including Motorola and Orange, are developing “electronic secretaries” that make sure you get urgent calls immediately, but can screen out unwanted ones and divert unimportant ones to voice mail. Mobiles may not be perfect yet, but you can be sure that somebody is working on it.