Exactly 30 years ago last month (January 2015), the world's first mobile phone call was made . . . from a device weighing 4 kg and costing an inflation-adjusted lb4,000.
Today, mobile phones have become so portable and cheap that roughly three-quarters of the human race now owns one, making mobile phones the fastest-growing and most ubiquitous technology on the planet. It clearly answers a need, but at what price?
"This is the largest technological experiment in the history of our species, with potential health risks we still know next to nothing about," says Professor Joel Moskowitz of the University of California (UC) Berkeley School of Public Health.
This view is shared by Denis Henshaw, professor of Human Radiation Effects at Bristol University. "Vast numbers of people are using mobile phones and this could be a time bomb of health problems," he says.
These are minority views, however. In the last 20 years, there has been a slew of official reports on the safety of mobile phones and similar wireless technologies (such as Wi-Fi, laptops and cordless phones), and almost all have concluded that they pose no significant risk to health.
Nevertheless, a group of scientists informally banded together in the mid-2000s and called themselves the 'BioInitiative Working Group'. Largely composed of wireless radiation researchers, the group has penned a stinging riposte to various official reports, listing a wide range of health effects that European Commission (EC) scientists have either ignored or dismissed rather too summarily.
Here are some of the health effects they unearthed, which have been reported in the scientific literature, yet not officially acknowledged:
One early concern with mobile technology was clusters of disease around phone masts. For example, one study in Israel found a 4.5-fold increase in cancers of all kinds in the immediate vicinity of a mast.
In 2009, a Korean team of researchers did a pooled analysis of the results of 23 studies, involving nearly 38,000 subjects, and found a "significant positive association" in the studies that were blinded (the researchers didn't know who were mobile users and who were not). In fact, they found a "harmful effect" between mobiles and tumours of the brain, head and neck.
Since that time, studies by five independent research groups have revealed significantly increased risks of:
Acoustic neuroma, a benign tumour of the cranial nerve supplying the ear, which grows-albeit slowly-and so must be surgically removed in a major operation that frequently results in permanent facial paralysis;
Glioma (astrocytoma), cancer of the glial cells (including neurons) of the nervous system;
Meningioma, or cancer of the meninges, the membrane covering the brain and spinal cord.
A 2014 French study by INSERM (National Institute of Health and Medical Research) researchers found almost three times-and in some cases, nearly six times-more gliomas in long-term "heavy" mobile-phone users. There was also a more than twofold greater risk of meningiomas.
Japanese researchers found more than a threefold extra risk of acoustic neuromas in people using mobiles for more than 20 minutes a day for five years, while the results of an international case-control study revealed that heavy mobile-phone users had a 15 per cent extra risk of meningiomas and 40 per cent greater risk of gliomas.
The most compelling evidence, though, comes from a Swedish team of cancer experts whose research, stretching back over 15 years, clearly demonstrates "a consistent association between long-term use of mobile and cordless phones and glioma and acoustic neuroma".
Overall, they found that using a mobile for more than a decade significantly increases the risk of malignant tumours like astrocytoma-by almost two times with an analogue cell phone, by more than two times with a cordless phone and by nearly four times with a digital phone. Tellingly, the risks were even higher for people who had started using mobiles as teenagers.
In a separate study of acoustic neuroma, this Swedish team also found more than seven times the risk among people using a mobile for more than 20 years, and 6.5 times the risk for long-term users of cordless phones. And as expected, most of the acoustic neuromas and gliomas were on the side of the head usually exposed to the phone itself.
In its 2013 official report on the medical evidence for brain tumours, the prestigious International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that radiation from mobile phones is "possibly carcinogenic to humans".
Although there are studies implicating mobile phones and this form of cancer, the evidence is weak and the increased risk trivial.
But there is strong anecdotal evidence that mobiles carried in women's bras can directly affect breast tissue and cause cancer. Last September, California oncologists reported four similar case histories of young women who had developed breast cancer in precisely the areas where they normally carried their smart phones.
What shocked the doctors was that these women were young (aged 21 to 39) and had no family history or other risk factors, so they shouldn't have had this cancer at all. Just as surprising was that their cancers "had striking similarity; all tumours were hormone-positive . . . [with] an extensive intraductal component, and . . . near-identical morphology".
Men frequently carry their mobiles in their trouser pockets or on their belts, thus inches away from the genitals. There have been over a dozen studies to date, the vast majority of which have shown that this habit can be hazardous.
A review of the published evidence so far revealed that mobiles have a significant impact on sperm quality, with a consistent mean reduction of around 9 per cent in sperm motility (mobility) and viability.
Says lead author Dr Fiona Mathews of the University of Exeter: "Being exposed to radio-frequency electromagnetic radiation [RF-EMR] from carrying mobiles in trouser pockets negatively affects sperm quality. This could be particularly important for men already on the borderline of infertility."
More detailed studies of sperm have revealed that the RF-EMR levels routinely emitted by mobile phones have two major adverse effects on sperm cells as well as the rest of the body.
Two separate studies both found that levels of reactive oxygen species (ROS) are increased-and ROS are known to raise the risk of a wide range of diseases and to even accelerate cellular ageing-and that sperm DNA becomes damaged and fragmented when exposed to mobile phone RF-EMR.
Could this be causing damage to men's genitals beyond the merely short-term effect on sperm? In fact, it's been suggested that RF-EMR can lead to free radicals and oxidative stress, and trigger uncontrolled cell proliferation, thereby even promoting the development of brain and testicular cancers.
Although this may not apply to humans, when Japanese scientists subjected the genitalia of male rabbits to eight hours of radiation a day from a mobile phone on standby (effectively mimicking human male behaviour), they found deleterious effects on "testicular function and structure".
This suggests that damage happens not only to sperm cells, but to many other types of cells in the body.
Cell DNA fragmentation has been found in both test-tube and live-animal studies, although the results have been mixed. At the last count, 74 studies found such genetic effects, while 40 didn't.
Sleep disturbances. There have been tests to determine whether mobile phone radiation affects brain waves while people are asleep. In fact, "large effects on brain activity" have been observed-but not in everyone. Nevertheless, if some people react, but others don't, this suggests that even negative findings are not evidence of a lack of effect.
Over 20 studies have looked at the effects of mobile radiation on the brain, and most have shown some kinds of effect but-rather surprisingly-not necessarily adverse ones. While blood flow decreases in the parts of the brain closest to the mobile phone, it also increases in the more distant prefrontal cortex. This may explain why mental tasks involving attentional capacity and processing speed improved after exposure to mobile radiation, as these functions are linked by the prefrontal cortex. Yet, a review of the evidence from 19 studies showed that mobile radiation generally has only "a small impact on human attention and working memory".
Last year, researchers in Rome carried out a double-blind, placebo-controlled study of the effects of mobile phone radiation in people with focal epilepsy using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). After 45 minutes of exposure, there were significant increases in "cortical excitability", which can increase the risk of seizures.20
But uncovering the true dangers of mobile phones essentially seems to depend on whom you ask. In 2007, Swiss researchers looked at sources of funding in relation to the results of research into the health effects of mobile phones and discovered that studies paid for by the industry were more likely to report no adverse effects compared with those funded by public agencies or charities, while a Canadian review of published reports up to 2002 found that sponsored studies were four times more likely to find good news for their sponsors than studies funded by other sources.
California-based researcher L. Lloyd Morgan compared earlier findings by Swedish researchers, which were non-industry-funded, with more recent industry-funded studies and concluded that, while the former reported "numerous findings of significant increased brain tumour risk", the latter suggested that mobiles either protected against brain tumours or the earlier studies were seriously flawed-findings that he deems "incredulous".
The history of environmental hazards shows that it takes about half a century for their effects to be revealed as the causes of obvious chronic ill health. We've now had 30 years of mobile phone use, so we need at least another 20 years to become certain that we won't have to add wireless communications technology to tobacco, lead petrol emissions, asbestos, hydrogenated fats and all the other hazards of 21st-century living.
How can mobile phone radiation affect the body?
From the earliest days of mobile phones, safety limits have been imposed on their output. Today, no UK mobile is allowed to have an SAR (specific absorption rate)-a measure of how much radiation is absorbed by the body while using the phone-over 2.0 W/kg in 10 g of body tissue (in the US, the limit is 1.6 W/kg).
This figure is based on the theory that, although mobile phone radiation is 'non-ionizing' and so too weak to break chemical bonds in body cells, it can still exert an undesirable thermal (heating) effect.
But the entire rationale behind these safety guidelines has been vigorously contested by some scientists. There's a possible 'informational' and 'non-thermal' influence, says physicist Dr Gerard Hyland of Warwick University. The living human organism is "an electromagnetic instrument of great and exquisite sensitivity", supporting a variety of "oscillatory electrical biological/biochemical activities, each characterized by a specific frequency, some of which happen to be close to those found in [mobile-phone] signals; this coincidence makes these bioactivities potentially vulnerable to interference".
In other words, while mobile-phone radiation isn't strong enough to break chemical bonds, it can still impair the functionality of the living organism even with sub-thermal levels of radiation.
Dr George Carlo agrees and points out that, until the advent of mobiles and similar wireless technologies, most man-made electromagnetic fields (EMFs) have used frequencies similar to those found in the earth's natural background radiation, which our bodies have evolved to cope with.
What's different about mobiles and wireless technology is that they use 'information-carrying radio waves'. Although low-powered, these waves operate at frequencies that our bodies have never met before externally, but which can resonate with the body's cells, causing adverse reactions.
Carlo's theory is that mobile radiation activates a 'protein vibrational receptor' on the cell membrane, which the body interprets as a foreign invader. In self-defence, the cell shuts down its normal functions, striving to make the cell membrane less permeable. But this also stops cell nutrients from getting in and waste products from getting out.
The result is a buildup of reactive oxygen species (ROS)-a harmful state that leads to cell death/damage-breaching of the blood-brain barrier and interference with DNA synthesis. "There is no level of radiation below which this mechanism is not triggered," he claims.
For the vast majority of us, our immune systems can cope-at least in the short term, says Carlo. But there are a substantial number of less fortunate people with weaker immune systems who become electrosensitive, "in whom the cellular damage is probably irreversible", he says.
1 Hyland GJ. How Exposure to GSM & TETRA Base-station Radiation can Adversely Affect Humans. December 2002; www.psrast.org/mobileng/hylandbasestation.pdf
REFERENCES: MAIN TEXT
1 Int J Cancer Prev, 2004; 1: 1-19; www.powerwatch.org.uk/news/20050207_israel.pdf
2 J Clin Oncol, 2009; 27: 5565-72
3 Occup Environ Med, 2014; 71: 514-22
4 Bioelectromagnetics, 2011; 32: 85-93
5 Int J Epidemiol, 2010; 39: 675-94
6 Int Arch Occup Environ Health, 2006; 79: 630-9
7 Int J Oncol, 2013; 43: 1036-44
8 'Non-Ionizing Radiation, Part 2: Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields, volume 102'. IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans, 2013
9 Case Rep Med, 2013; 2013: Article ID 354682, 5 pages
10 Environ Int, 2014; 70: 106-12
11 Reprod Biol Endocrinol, 2009; 7: 114
12 PLoS One, 2009; 4: e6446
13 Int J Androl, 2010; 33: 88-94
14 Mutat Res, 2005; 583: 178-83
15 BioInitiative 2012, 12 April 2014; www.bioinitiative.org/potential-health-effects-emf/
16 Bioelectromagnetics, 2012; 33: 86-93
17 J Cereb Blood Flow Metab, 2006; 26: 885-90
18 Neuroreport, 2002; 13: 119-21
19 Occup Environ Med, 2008; 65: 342-6
20 Brain Stimul, 2013; 6: 448-54
21 Environ Health Perspect, 2007; 115: 1-4
22 BMJ, 2003; 326: 1167-70
23 Pathophysiology, 2009; 16: 137-47
REFERENCES: TIME LINE
1 Int J Radiat Biol, 1996; 69: 513-21
2 Letter to AT&T Chairman & CEO, Oct. 7, 1999; www.emf-health.com/reports-carlo-att.htm
3 Nordenberg T. 'Cell Phones and Cancer: No Clear Connection'. FDA Consumer magazine, six-tnethsNovember-December 2000; www.stat.ucla.edu/~vlew/stat10/archival/FA01/handouts/cell4.pdf
6 Int J Epidemiol, 2010; 39: 675-94
7 Coggon D. MTHR. Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme Report 2012; www.2degreesmobile.co.nz/c/document_library/get_file?uuid=b2e74831-f9e6-47df-af1a-32b6c12a7db4&groupId=10128
8 Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) Preliminary opinion on Potential health effects of e xposure to electromagnetic fields (eMF), 12 December 2013; http://ec.europa.eu/health/scientific_committees/emerging/docs/scenihr_o_041.pdf
Published in the February 2015 issue