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A team of scientists funded by Telstra to investigate claimed links between cellular phones and cancer has turned up probably the most significant finding of an adverse health effects yet.
When presented to 'Science' magazine for publication the study was rejected on the grounds that publication "would cause a panic". Three other prominent magazines including 'Nature' also later rejected the report, suggesting that they would not handle such important conclusions without the research being further confirmed.
The study looked at 200 mice, half exposed and half not, to pulsed digital phone radiation. The work was conducted at the Royal Adelaide Hospital by Dr Michael Repacholi, Professor Tony Basten, Dr Alan Harris and statistician Val Gebski, and it revealed a highly-significant doubling of cancer rates in the exposed group.
The mice were subject to GSM-type pulsed microwaves at a power-density roughly equal to a cell-phone transmitting for two half-hour periods each day; this was pulsed transmission as from a handset, not the steady transmission of a cell-phone tower.
A significant increase in B-cell lymphomas was evident early in the experiment, but the incidence continued to rise over the 18 months. The implications of the B-cell (rather than the normal T-cell) lymphomas here, is that B-cell effects are implicated in roughly 85 percent of all cancers.
The experiment was conducted as a blind trial, using absolutely identical equipment and conditions for two groups of 100 mice. The only difference between handling the two groups was that the power to one antenna was never switched on. Over the 18 months, the exposed mice had 2.4-times the tumour rate of the unexposed - but this was later corrected downwards to a more confident 2-times claim to remove other possible influences.
According to Dr Alan Harris from the Walter and Eliza Institute in Melbourne: "This is important because at present, there was no convincing evidence that radio fields (in contrast to X- and Gamma-rays, ultraviolet and atomic radiation) can directly cause the changes in genes responsible for cancer development."
In fact, until late 1996, most governments and all cell-phone companies have been claiming that the safety of their product has been proved - and that the only possible biological effect of radio frequency transmission is localised body heating.
The conduct of this experiment actually raises questions more about the potential for cell-phone handset radiation to effect people nearby (passive exposures) than just the user him/herself. The experiment was conducted in the 'far field', at distances greater from the mice than the cell-phone is normally held from the head.
Near-field biological effects in EMF effects are thought to be substantially different from far-field, although the biomedical implications are not clear. Also, in close proximity, most of the energy transfers from the handset to the head by induction rather than just radiation, and this can raise the energy transfer by a factor of four.
The study therefore under-rates the potential power effects on the handset user, while over-rating those for people nearby.
The Adelaide study has been held back from publication for over two years while the B-cell implications were checked at a laboratory in Maryland, USA. Under their contract with Telstra, those involved in the study were prohibited from discussing their findings until after publication.
Increased tumours began to be recorded after about 9 months. It is important to note that these were transgenic mice, specially bred to be susceptible to cancers of the immune system. However susceptible mice are commonly used in these studies as 'proxies', since cancer-causing effects are believed to be cumulative at the cell level.
The total exposure period is very much less than can be expected from human use over a lifetime, so while one of the scientists downplayed the importance, saying, "humans are not rodents" another pointed out that "DNA is DNA".
Every attempt appears to have been made to hose down the significance of this report, however the importance of the finding will not be lost on the international scientific community. This research now places Australia at the fore-front of EMF-health research, and it demands a series of follow-up studies to investigate dose-related responses and near-field effects.
An expensive video-conference is being mounted on Wednesday by Telstra in Adelaide to officially release the report, with Dr Michael Repacholi speaking from Geneva. He has been prominent crusader on the side of "cell-phones are safe" lobby for many years. However, none of the technical or medical press involved in this debate have been invited to Adelaide conference.
The official press release issued by the chairman of the scientific committee, Professor Tony Basten of Sydney University, also leads with gentle fire-extinguisher statement that "In our opinion the findings are valid for this genetically-engineered mouse model, but they must be put in context. Mice and humans absorb energy from these fields differently so we cannot conclude from this single study that humans have an increased risk of cancer from the use of digital mobile phones. More focused research needs to be done to resolve that issue"
I couldn't agree more on the last point, but nothing done in the last few years with the exception of the Drs. Lai-Singh work in Seattle has more obviously established that cell-phone safety has not yet been proved. There has been evidence accumulating over many years that the long-term effects of radio-frequency exposures may have serious consequences for a small percent of the population, but this has been ignored by the industry and by governments.
The fact that Prof. Tony Basten concluded his release with the statement "For the time being, at least, I see no scientific reason to stop using my own mobile phone," is largely irrelevant. At his age and in his occupation, the potential dangers from increased phone use are probably minimal.
The question is, would he buy his teenage child one?
This report follows two other fierce brush-fire in the cell-phone industry. The first was generated last year when Dr Henry Lai and Dr Singh at Washington State University reported enormous increases in double-strand DNA breaks in rat-brain tissue following microwave exposures of only two hours. The industry largely ignored these findings claiming that the frequencies used were not identical to cell-phones.
In addition, the Wireless Technology Research (WTR) group in the USA, which is funded by the cell-phone industry has become embroiled in a number of scandals. The WTR was promoted to the public and to the US Government as being an 'independent' and 'arms-length' body controlling $25 million in research funding.
Recent leaked documents show that it has been under the direct control of the industry association, and it has long operated as a PR front. In the last four years it has spent $17 million "without wetting a test-tube, " according to Microwave News editor, Louis Slessin.
Following the tobacco industry's problems, the WTR scientists recently went on strike for nearly a year, refusing to perform their contracted research until adequately covered for indemnity against law suits by the cellular phone industry association. Last week, the WTR was finally paid US$938,000 to fund indemnity insurance coverage.
The US scientists' sensitivity to this issue follows the filing of thirty-eight cases which are now before the courts over past tobacco-safety studies. Both the tobacco company lawyers and the scientists they funded have been charged as co-conspirators with the Tobacco Institute and the cigarette companies in suppressing evidence and manipulating research results.