What are the health effects of mobile phones and wireless radiation? While Australia has led the world in safety standards, including compulsory seat-belt legislation, plain packaging on cigarettes, and product and food disclosure legislation, it falls behind in addressing the significant issues associated with mobile phone use. In this Dean’s Lecture, epidemiologist and electromagnetic radiation expert, Dr Devra Davis, will outline the evolution of the mobile phone and smartphone, and provide a background to the current 19 year old radiation safety standards (SAR), policy developments and international legislation. New global studies on the health consequences of mobile/wireless radiation will be presented, including children’s exposure and risks.
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“We see either no change or very small increases in incidence in some tumor types,” Quinn Ostrom, the Baylor College of Medicine researcher who has been analyzing these cancer trends, explained. “I would be inclined to say this isn’t as much of an increase as you might expect if cellphones were causative [of brain tumors] due to the very sharp way use of these devices has gone up over the last 20 years.”
We’re also exposed to radio-frequency radiation from the networks that connect our phones. And while the coming rollout of 5G, or fifth-generation, wireless networks is expected to transmit data faster than ever, it will also increase the number of antennas sending signals to mobile devices, and potentially our exposure to radiation, with unclear health effects.
In addition, cellphones potentially harm our health in ways that have nothing to do with cancer. The effect on sperm is concerning to Moskowitz, the director of the Center for Family and Community Health at the Berkeley School of Public Health, and he noted that our current cellphone regulations also don’t account for these potential effects. Plus, we still don’t know what steady exposure to this kind of radiation from devices means for kids.
The program began, but Dr. Carlo soon discovered that everyone involved had underlying motives.“The industry wanted an insurance policy and to have the government come out and say everything was fine. The FDA, which looked bad because it didn’t require pre-market testing, could be seen as taking steps to remedy that. By ordering the study, law makers appeared to be doing something. Everyone had a chance to wear a white hat.”
The research continued, and what it uncovered would be a dire warning to cell phone users and the industry’s worst nightmare. When the findings were ready for release in 1998, the scientists were suddenly confronted with another challenge: the industry wanted to take over public dissemination of the information, and it tried everything it could to do so. It was faced with disaster and had a lot to lose.
It'd be wrong to say that there is no evidence of harm at all. In fact, the re-classification by the IARC came about in the first place because the Working Group contributing to the Interphone study acknowledged "limited evidence" of an increase in glioma (a type of tumour, commonly found in the brain) among phone users in one of the studies. In this study, which concluded in 2004, researchers found that participating phone owners who had used their handsets for calls for more than 30-minutes a day, over a period of ten years, had an increase incidence of glioma.
But, like the human studies, one can pick apart the NTP studies too. For one thing, the animals experienced cell phone radiation that was different from what humans live with. As Bucher said in a statement, “In our studies, rats and mice received radio frequency radiation across their whole bodies. By contrast, people are mostly exposed in specific local tissues close to where they hold the phone. In addition, the exposure levels and durations in our studies were greater than what people experience.”
In 2011, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a component of the World Health Organization, appointed an expert Working Group to review all available evidence on the use of cell phones. The Working Group classified cell phone use as “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” based on limited evidence from human studies, limited evidence from studies of radiofrequency radiation and cancer in rodents, and inconsistent evidence from mechanistic studies (4).
When the draft results of the papers were published earlier this year, all results were labeled “equivocal,” meaning the study authors felt the data weren’t clear enough to determine if the radiation caused the health effects or not. But the panel of peer reviewers (among them brain and heart pathologists, toxicologists, biostaticians, and engineers) re-evaluated the data and upgraded several of the conclusions to “some evidence” and “clear evidence.”
The base station is equipped with antennas for reception and transmission. In order to communicate, the mobile phones and the antennas at the base station emit radiowave radiation (see below). The mobile phone instrument transmits a lower amount of radiation than the one transmitted by the transmission center (cell site), but because the instrument is near the body, the body directly absorbs the energy from the instrument’s antenna.
An analysis of data from all 13 countries participating in the Interphone study reported a statistically significant association between intracranial distribution of tumors within the brain and self-reported location of the phone (7). However, the authors of this study noted that it is not possible to draw firm conclusions about cause and effect based on their findings.