Once an expensive novelty, mobile phones are now considered a necessity. The staggering fact is that more people in the UK now own mobile phones than a landline-connected telephone.
But a mobile phone only works if it's transmitted through radio signals beamed from a phone mast. Each of the four main mobile-phone companies in the UK has its own antennae. So far, the four have installed about 40,000 antennae across the nation, with only the remotest rural parts still without coverage. Indeed, some communities have as many as 16 phone masts on one site.
This figure is set to double in the near future with the advent of the third-generation (3G) mobiles, offering video and Internet access as well as voice transmissions. UK phone companies recently paid the government lb22.5 billion for the 3G system, so there are huge commercial and political interests in not rocking the boat of mobile technology. In practice, this means that the UK government and even the UK judiciary would prefer not to put up legal obstacles to the erection of mobile masts or admit to any possible health risks.
Indeed, in a recent test case, a British judge overruled the objections of parents, the local council, government planning inspectors and even the office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and cleared the way for an 81-foot 3G mast to be erected near three Yorkshire schools. Now under appeal, the decision - where the judge claimed that all safety considerations had been met - was seen to provide a clear path for mobile-phone companies to erect phone masts near schools. It is at variance with government policy, which says that schools should have the right to veto masts planned to be built near their buildings.
The scientists who advise governments on the safety of mobile-phone technology tend to come from the nuclear and microwave industries and, thus, have a particular view of what constitutes a health risk. In Britain, the government advisory body is the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB), and these experts place mobile technology in the same category as microwave dishes and radar.
The principal danger from microwaves and radar has always been thought to be thermal - in crude layman's terms, can these forms of 'non-ionising radiation' cook people? But, as the thermal radiation from mobile-phone transmissions is considered too weak to break chemical bonds or heat up tissue, the NRPB gave an all-clear to the technology as soon as it appeared in the 1980s. In this view, electromagnetic fields (EMFs) are just a kind of external toxin and, in the case of mobiles and masts, too little of one to have any effect.
However, a growing number of scientists are now beginning to question officialdom's complacency as to the health risks associated with mobile technology. Many of these critics are experts in a relatively new field of science called 'bioelectromagnetics'.
US biologist Dr Robert Becker, French biologist Jacques Benveniste and German physicist Fritz-Albert Popp are just a few of the prestigious scientists who have experimentally demonstrated that all living things - humans, animals and plants - generate EMFs and that EM signalling is the primary means of communication between cells.
The new science of bioelectromagnetics has clearly established that we are fundamentally electromagnetic beings. In this view of the human body, the fundamental nature of our being is frequency, and exposure to external frequencies from the entire transmission infrastructure of, say, mobile-phone technology, can cause us to pulse to the wrong beat.
Microcells and macrocells
The mobile phone-transmission system works in separate side-by-side zones, each with its own transmitter. The zones resemble body cells, which is why, in the US, mobiles are called 'cellphones'. Each cell has its own base station, which both receives and transmits radiowaves. However, a base station can only handle about 100 calls at the same time, so large cities may have many cells per square mile whereas less-populated, rural areas may have single cells covering several square miles.
There are three types of mobile-phone transmitters/receivers. Base stations with 'macrocell' antennae have the biggest ranges - up to 22 miles - and are usually attached to tall masts or buildings. 'Microcell' and 'picocell' antennae have much shorter ranges - down to as little as 100 yards - and are used to boost coverage in towns and cities. These antennae are difficult to spot as they are burglar alarm-sized boxes that tend to be sited high on walls, lampposts and flagpoles, or in chimneys and ceiling cavities.
Are masts a danger to health?
This was one of the questions asked by Professor William Stewart, chairman of the UK government's official investigation four years ago [The Report of the UK Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones (The Stewart Report), 11 May 2000].
His committee's overall answer was 'probably not', taken by both government and mobile phone companies as a 'no'. Yet, the small print of the report acknowledged that it is impossible to assess the long-term health consequences of mobile technology after just a few years of experience. And health effects are already showing up.
The earliest warning signs in Europe came from cattle grazing in fields near mobile masts. In Germany, university vets were called to a farm where a dairy herd was experiencing problems after the installation of macrocell antennae. Milk yields were way down, spontaneous abortions were up, older cows were dying and the rest of the herd was behaving strangely.
The problems started when antennae were attached to a TV mast. The vets also discovered that the power output of the antennae was well below official German government limits. 'The evaluation of possible factors which could explain the abnormalities in the livestock did not disclose any factors other than the measurable high-frequency electromagnetic fields,' the vets reported (Pract Vet Surg, 1998; 79: 437-44).
This suggests something unique about mobile-phone transmissions that sets them apart from the usual EMFs.
One scientist specialising in mobile technology is physicist Dr Gerald Hyland, of Warwick University and the International Institute of Biophysics in Neuss, Germany, an international group of scientists like Popp working on the biophysics of biological radiation. He believes that an unrecognised hazard of mobiles is that, in the more modern systems, the EM signals are not sent out continuously like radiowaves, but in pulses. This pulsed transmission is a particular feature of the latest GSM (global system for mobiles) technology, rapidly becoming the standard in Europe.
These pulse rates, says Dr Hyland, can have serious biological effects. 'The pulses happen to be close to some of the brain's own electrical and electrochemical rhythms. Since these are involved in the control and regulation of bioprocesses essential to well-being, it is reasonable to anticipate that the functionality of the body will be impaired' (Lancet, 2000; 356: 1833-6).
Primary effects noted by Hyland were based on Russian research on the brain and behaviour (Vest Novy Med Tekhnol, 1999; VI: 24-6, 40-2). The former Soviet Union is in the vanguard of studies of EMFs and human health. 'Particularly disturbing is that the low frequencies [of] GSM pulsing are close to those at which it is known that human mood and behaviour can be influenced . . . ranging from depression and docility to rage,' he says.
In one study, pulsed radio-frequency waves significantly increased calcium in brain cells. Calcium is involved in the release of neurotransmitters, and any disturbance in the usual ratio could disturb the balance of chemicals in the brain, with repercussions on the nervous and immune systems (Merritt JH, in Klauenberg BJ et al., NATO ASI Series, New York: Plenum Press, 1995).
A recent Dutch study exposed 36 volunteers to radiation as emitted by mobile masts. Most of them reported 'detrimental effects on well-being', including nausea, tingling and headaches, on top of impaired memory, reaction time and alertness. The researchers were surprised as the radiation levels used were well within government limits [Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), FEL-03-C148, 2003].
This ties in well with French research that has uncovered more serious neurological effects from mobile-phone masts. A team from France's National Institute of Applied Science surveyed more than 500 people living near mobile masts, and found a significant increase in headaches, sleep disturbances and tiredness up to 300 metres away from the base station. The problems were worse the nearer the mast. Many of those living within 100 metres experienced irritability, depression, loss of memory, dizziness, lowered libido, loss of appetite and nausea (Pathol Biol [Paris], 2002; 50: 369-73).
In Australia, doctors have reported the case of a man accidentally exposed to high levels of base-station radiation for less than two hours. He suffered from headaches, blurred vision, pupil constriction and other abnormalities of the trigeminal ophthalmic nerve - which took six months to clear up (Occup Med [Lond], 2001; 51: 410-3).
These sorts of problems are consistent with the recent discovery that mobile-phone radiation can make the brain - at least in rats - more vulnerable to external toxins.
Nature has endowed the brain with a kind of Berlin Wall known as the 'blood-brain barrier'. This prevents dangerous molecules from entering the brain and causing damage. However, Swedish researchers have shown that mobile-phone radiation was able to cause brain-cell damage in these animals (Environ Health Perspect, 2003; 111: 881-3).
Even more worrying is the finding that mobile-mast radiation can affect DNA. Lab tests using human cells have shown that mobile-phone radiation is 'genotoxic' - able to interfere with cellular chromosomes and DNA (Bioelectromagnetics, 2002; 23: 7-13).
This has serious implications as genotoxicity is a known risk factor for cancer.
According to Hyland, pulsed frequencies have further worrying effects. They increase levels of the brain enzyme ornithine decarboxylase (ODC), high levels of which can promote tumours (Cancer Res, 1998; 48: 422-6). They also cause overexpression of heat shock proteins (HSPs). These stress proteins are called upon when the body undergoes an environmental stress; they also act like traffic cops in each cell, making sure that proteins are where they should be and that old proteins are disposed of. Most significantly, they help the immune system recognise the diseased cells for disposal.
When overexpressed, these proteins are believed to block apoptosis, or programmed cell death. This could also have the effect of promoting cancer (Differentiation, 2001; 67: 93-7; Differentiation, 2002; 70: 120-9).
When laboratory animals were exposed to mobile-phone radiation, cancer-promoting effects have been found. Among the first of such studies was one from an Australian medical team which used exactly the same kind of pulsed EMFs as radiated by mobile base stations. After directing the EMFs at cancer-prone mice for just one hour a day for 18 months, these scientists found a significantly increased risk of cancer among the mice (Radiat Res, 1997; 147: 631-40).
The evidence continues to mount that mobile phones themselves can cause cancer. An epidemiological US study found a two- to threefold increase in a rare brain cancer where EMF exposure from handsets is greatest. A large Swedish epidemiological study came to similar conclusions (JAMA, 2000; 284: 3001-7; Eur J Cancer Prev, 2002; 11: 377-86).
Those unfortunate enough to have mobile masts sited near where they live are exposed to round-the-clock radiation, and a growing number of communities have seen a sharp increase in illnesses - especially cancers - apparently coinciding with the installation of a mobile mast.
Clusters of cancer cases
The informal pressure group Mast Sanity has found over 18 sites in the UK with clusters of health problems close to mobile base stations. The authorities tend to dismiss these as merely coincidental, but all the cases seem to have occurred after masts were erected.
* In one street in South Woodford, Essex, five people contracted cancer after 16 mobile antennae were placed on top of a block of flats 30 yards away.
* In one street in Thorpe St Andrew, in Norfolk, six people developed cancer after a 120-foot mast was erected a few hundred metres away.
* Of only 180 people living within 250 metres of a 15-foot mast in Shooters Hill, Meir Heath, three died of brain haemorrhages and one child contracted epilepsy - all within a few years of its erection.
* In Tolworth, Surrey, two women living between two base stations both died of brain haemorrhages.
* In Cookridge, Leeds, a housing development near a small forest of mobile masts has the highest cancer incidence in the area.
* In Crediton, Devon, a mobile mast beam went straight through residential housing. The beam was measured as over 4 V/m - way below the UK legal limit - inside some of the bedrooms. A three-year-old girl who had lived with this radiation all her life developed lymphoblastic leukaemia; there have been two other cases of leukaemia and four cases of cancer in the same area.
* In Wishaw, Warwickshire, of the 50 people living within 500 metres of a base station, 34 have reported medical problems - sleeplessness, skin irritation, low blood-cell counts and seven cases of cancer. Local residents have since torn down the mast.
* Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, has reported 10 cancer cases among those living within 100 metres of a base station.
* In Saintfield, Northern Ireland, 12 children developed leukaemia and seven adults developed cancer - all residing within half a mile of a base station.
* Near Dunganon, Northern Ireland, in the five homes below the Cranlome Hill mast, six people got cancer, three of whom died. Again, local residents have since felled the mast, which bristled with 35 antennae.
* In Paris, the mobile-phone company Orange itself dismantled a mast after eight schoolchildren contracted cancer. The company had put the antennae on the schoolhouse roof.
* In Valladolid, Spain, four young children were diagnosed with cancer in a school of 450 children after a mobile base station was installed 50 metres away - seven times the average national incidence. 'In 32 years, there had never been a case of childhood cancer here,' said local doctor Luis Martin.
In October 2002, thousands of German doctors put their names to the Freiburger Appeal, which blamed mobile-phone technology for the 'dramatic in rise in severe and chronic diseases among our patients'. The document cited symptoms such as headaches, behavioural problems, sleeplessness, chronic exhaustion and infections, heart attacks, cancer, leukaemia and brain tumours, and pleaded for a halt to mobile-phone expansion.
Nevertheless, the technology appears to be unstoppable. There are already over a billion users of mobile phones worldwide, a figure that is expected to triple within a decade - mainly because the technology is so much cheaper than landlines and, hence, more attractive to developing countries. But with more mobiles come more masts.
It could be said that we are all participants in the biggest epidemiological experimental study in history.
The mobile-phone companies have tried to insure themselves against future health claims, but no insurance company in the world will take on the liability.