Parliament electromagnetic radiation and its possible health effects

Democrats In Parliament: 12 February, 1997
Australian Senate Hansard For 12 February, 1997
Mobile Phones
February 12, 1997

Senator ALLISON (Victoria)(7.26 p.m.)–I rise again to speak tonight on the subject of electromagnetic radiation and its possible health effects. I am prompted to raise this matter again because of a number of recent events of which I believe the Senate should be aware.

Just two weeks ago, Telstra ran a very large advertisement in the Age –and, I presume, in other daily newspapers–featuring a young girl in a school uniform, holding a mobile phone to her ear and announcing to her mother that she had made it into the team. The ad stressed the importance of keeping in touch. On 17 January, Telstra also featured in their magazine Our future, on page 2, a girl of just eight years of age who had won a design competition, and she was shown clutching a mobile phone.

I do not single out Telstra as being the only one to attempt to increase their market share by targeting children. No doubt other carriers will jump on this bandwagon if it proves to be profitable, if they have not already done so. But as a former teacher, I can imagine some problems which might arise for schools if large populations of children suddenly begin taking mobile phones with them to school. However, my main concern here is in relation to risks to health which parents might unwittingly be exposing their children to by providing them with this technology.

I have heard, here and in other places, people scoff at the idea that there might be health risks associated with telecommunications equipment, and I have heard people who are concerned about this matter categorised as the lunatic fringe. Of course, the telecommunications industry, with so much to lose from evidence which might establish any such link, is also keen to marginalise views of this sort, and to see that those in government do not look too closely at the growing body of scientific evidence which ought to at least make us cautious.

So my aim this evening is to acquaint senators with some of the scientific work which has been done, which points very clearly to the danger associated with mobile phone use by children. I want to begin with a paper by Dr Ivan Beale from the University of Auckland, published in 1993 entitled, `Biological effects of weak radio frequency radiation’.

He says: Our current safety standards are based only on research showing adverse effects of body tissue heating in animals exposed for brief periods to relatively high radiation levels.

He says that there are no research studies of the long-term animal or human exposures to the complex type of radiation emitted from, for instance, mobile phone towers. For this reason, he questions the legitimacy of the existing exposure standards.

He says that, whilst exposure of the general public to radiation levels of more than a few microwatts per square centimetre is rare, even that amount is millions of times higher than the levels of radiofrequency radiation arising from natural sources.

He says: Given their circumstances and considering also the lack of relevant research studies and the limited applicability of current exposure standards, a responsible course of action is to minimise unnecessary exposure . . . prudent avoidance is now being widely applied for addressing the uncertainties regarding health risks from non-ionizing radiation. Its application is particularly appropriate in situations involving exposure of more vulnerable sections of the public, such as children, who may be particularly prone to effects of exposure and may have limited ability to protect themselves.

The operation of cell sites (mobile phone towers) on or near kindergartens or school properties is likely to result in large increases in radiofrequency exposure for groups of children. This is contrary to the principle of prudent avoidance and inconsistent with good health protection policy.

Dr Beale forms this view in the light of thousands of studies of biological effects of radiofrequency/microwave radiation. He says that this area of research is developing rapidly, but it is generally accepted that there is much more to learn than we already know. I think this is a very important point.

The industry argue that research has been done and has not proved that electromagnetic radiation emitted by their equipment is a significant health risk. Some would say that the onus of proof should be upon the industry to prove that their equipment is safe. However, what is clear is that we are dealing with a very complex number of fields of science and that no one study could ever be expected to prove the case either for or against. Like the case against tobacco, a body of research on electromagnetic radiation will need to be built up, probably over a very long period of time, before we can establish a high level of probability or otherwise.

Biological studies of enzymes and human cells exposed in vitro to radiofrequency/microwave fields have shown a number of effects which cannot be explained simply by the heating effects of radiation on which our current standards are based. These include changes in cell membrane permeability to potassium, sodium and calcium; changes in the composition or behaviour of blood-forming and immunological cells; alteration of calcium ion exchange in nerve tissue; changes in the firing patterns of neurones; and changes in levels of cancer related enzymes.

In spite of the fact that there are some 60 million mobile phone users worldwide in what could well be described as an experiment of mammoth proportions, there have been–for quite obvious reasons, I suppose–very few studies of controlled exposure of human volunteers. Some studies have shown a warmth and pain phenomenon in which the frequency pulses are experienced as clicks, buzzes or chirps.

There have been a number of surveys and reports of accidental exposure to radiation above recommended safety limits. The reported effects include severe anxiety, hypertension, headaches, nausea and fatigue. In one case a pilot inadvertently stood for five minutes in front of an air fighter radar antenna and in addition to physical symptoms such as oedema and necrosis of the neck muscles, he experienced memory loss and extreme sleepiness.

There are also numerous epidemiological studies of people who are known to have been exposed to higher than background levels of radiation. There are obvious difficulties in locating control groups with epidemiological studies, however, Dr Bruce Hocking’s study of TV transmitter towers in Sydney which found a higher incidence of childhood leukaemia in the area is a case in point. If Australia were to adopt the principle of prudent avoidance, then this study would lead us to do what New Zealand has done and avoid locating mobile phone towers adjacent to schools and kindergartens.

The Minister for Health and Family Services (Dr Wooldridge) made a speech late last year when Dr Hocking’s study was published. He dismissed this study somewhat by saying it probably represented a cancer cluster. I am informed that a careful re-examination of Dr Hocking’s paper would show that the increased incidence of acute leukemia in children was uniform across the suburbs proximate to the towers. This is a very strong argument against such a cluster effect. I think we have here yet again an example of a head in the sand approach by government and perhaps a propping up of that industry line.

Other epidemiological studies have shown that chronic exposure may increase the incidence of physical symptoms such as heart disease, cancer, birth abnormalities, pregnancy miscarriage, memory problems and lens opacities, otherwise known as cataracts. Dr Neil Cherry from New Zealand in his paper entitled `Potential and actual adverse effects of cellsite microwave radiation’ said: . . . dozens of epidemiological studies of large populations and large numbers of workers occupationally exposed to radiofrequency/microwave radiation show statistically significant increases of a wide spectrum of cancers, and there can be little or no doubt that chronic low level exposure to radiofrequency microwave radiation produces increased cancer risk.

A recent study in Belgium found that very close range exposure to microwaves from a cellular phone base station increased the effect of a chemical mutagen on human blood cells, leading to increased chromosomal aberrations. The assistant director of a Kuwaiti cancer centre a few days ago warned that mobile telephones can cause headaches, memory loss and chronic ear inflammation. He advised against using cellular phones except in emergency cases and for not more than 30 minutes at a time.

An information sheet put out recently by Austel, the Australian Radiation Laboratory, Spectrum Management Agency and a section of CSIRO, entitled `Safety of mobile phones and towers,’ says in answer to the question: `Do radio waves from mobile phones increase the risks of cancer?’