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Mobile Phones, Health Effects
And The Problem With Advertisers
Jim Mochnacz worked for British Telecom's Cellnet for eight years, initially siting and installing mobile phone transmission masts, before managing installations throughout a third of Britain. At the end of this period, Mochnacz fell seriously ill with problems of memory loss, chronic tiredness, personality changes, a permanent ringing in his head, and a feeling of constriction around his skull like a metal band tightening. "When I was working on transmission masts I had such huge electrical currents going through my head that my teeth would clamp together," Mochnacz says. "I couldn't wear a digital watch, the LCD display just faded away on my wrist. To stop my jaws clamping, I had to have all my metal fillings removed." Ten years on, the problems remain: "I'm convinced I've got 'microwave poisoning' , for want of a better phrase."
Steve Corney, a colleague of Mochnacz, was tasked to drive around mobile phone base stations checking signal strengths. "Unfortunately, he had two mobile phones," Mochnacz says, "one to each ear. He'd be speaking to different headquarters checking signal strengths at different sites and so on. He lost his memory totally. He forgot, not only where he'd left his car, but even the fact that, a few years before, the company colours had been changed from yellow to grey. His speech and hearing are permanently damaged." Corney stammers when he speaks but also when he listens: sounds break up like a faulty radio transmission, making it hard to understand what is being said to him.
A "definitive" British government-backed report released by the Stewart Committee in May recommended that children be discouraged from using mobile phones because they are more at risk from radiation. The media made light of the report declaring that these recommendations had been made on the basis of literally no evidence. The BBC and ITN news both reported that there was "no evidence" of a risk to human health. The Guardian focused on the fact that the Stewart Committee had found, not a risk exactly, but "a risk of a risk".
Even the esteemed journal New Scientist joined in: "There is currently no evidence that mobile phones harm users or people living near transmitter masts."
A remarkable statement - even anecdotal evidence is evidence - given that the government report had recommended that children be discouraged from using mobile phones.
The Stewart Committee found conclusive evidence that mobile phones have biological effects on humans even where the radio frequency or microwave radiation is emitted at very low levels. Children are most susceptible because their skulls are thinner, allowing their brains to absorb more radiation, and their cell growth and brain wave activity are still developing. It is expected that, following the report, mobile phones will have to carry health warnings.
Sources close to the committee said: "The effects of exposure to radio frequency radiation at levels way below the current guidelines are a cause for concern. This is very new technology. We may not be seeing cancers now but in 10 years, who knows? That is why we need to take precautions and plan to prevent future problems."
Indeed the very real evidence that led the committee to make its recommendations regarding children included British and Finnish studies, which showed that, microwave radiation from mobile phones does affect the brain.
Alan Preece, of Bristol University, who conducted the British study, said he was confident that mobile radiation affected the human system but stressed it was still too early to say whether it was harmful. Dr Preece said: "There is undoubtedly an effect but we just don't know what the mechanism is which is causing it."
Research carried out by Dr Henry Lai at the University of Washington, in Seattle, also submitted to the Stewart committee, discovered that radiation from mobile phones could split DNA molecules in rat brains - the kind of damage that in humans is associated with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. In Norway and Sweden, researchers found that workers who used cell phones for over 15 minutes a day were more likely to complain of fatigue, and more likely to suffer headaches, than those who used the phone for less than two minutes. When phone use exceeded an hour, the fatigue level went up 4 times and headaches 6 times.
One reason that the press were able to talk in terms of "no evidence" and trivial risk, was that vital evidence of harmful effects on children from transmitter masts had been kept from the Stewart Committee by a government agency, the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB).
The independent panel had asked the NRPB, acting as its secretariat, for copies of a study on schoolchildren living near a radio mast in Latvia. They were told that the research was unpublished and unobtainable. Sarah Ryle of the Observer has since reported that the research, published in an international scientific journal in 1996, was peer reviewed by other scientists and has been easily obtained by ordinary members of the public.
The study by the Latvian Academy of Sciences examined the impact of a military radio transmitter on local schoolchildren, comparing them with a control group. The research, which studied nearly 1,000 children aged 9 to 18, found that "memory and attention were significantly impaired in all children living in front of the Skrunda station".
Dr Hilary Kennedy, a biologist and chairperson of Northern Ireland Families against Telecommunications Transmitter Towers (NIFATT), said, "I believe that the NRPB has misled Sir William Stewart's committee". NIFATT's secretary, Margaret Dean, has said, "By withholding the findings of this important study I also believe the NRPB is guilty of a gross disservice to the general public."
Also unreported in the press, was evidence provided by the Wireless Technology Research (WTR), a leading surveillance and research organization funded by the US telecoms industry. The role of WTR is to identify and solve any problems concerning consumers' health that could arise from the use of mobile phones. In February of last year, after six years of research, the WTR presented findings that its Chairman, George L. Carlo, described as "surprising".
The WTR found that the rate of death from brain cancer among handheld phone users was higher than the rate of brain cancer death among those who used non-handheld phones that were kept away from their head. The risk of a benign tumour of the auditory nerve was also fifty percent higher in people who reported using cell phones for six years or more. The risk of rare tumours on the outside of the brain was more than doubled in cell phone users as compared to people who did not use cell phones. There also appeared to be some correlation between brain tumours occurring on the right side of the head and the use of the phone on the right side of the head. Laboratory studies looking at the ability of radiation from a phone's antenna to cause functional genetic damage were "definitively positive".
Carlo reported that while none of these findings alone were evidence of a definitive health hazard from mobile phones, the pattern of potential health effects "raised serious questions". The response of the telecoms industry to the WTR's findings has been shocking. George Carlo says, "Today, I sit here extremely frustrated and concerned that appropriate steps have not been taken by the wireless industry to protect consumers during this time of uncertainty about safety. Alarmingly, indications are that some segments of the industry have ignored the scientific findings suggesting potential health effects, have repeatedly and falsely claimed that wireless phones are safe for all consumers including children, and have created an illusion of responsible follow up by calling for and supporting more research."
In an attempt to utilize the best sites for providing strong signals, mobile phone Network Operators are increasingly approaching schools and owners of blocks of high-rise flats for permission to erect transmission masts a few feet high on their roofs. Dr. David Carpenter, the former Executive Secretary of the New York Power Lines Project, now employed as the Dean of the State of New York School of Public Health, is outraged by this practice: "In my view it is totally irresponsible to position a cellular antenna near a site where children spend significant periods of time. While I am not saying that the association between these exposures and childhood cancer is proven beyond any shadow of a doubt, I do see evidence to be suggestive."
A major problem, as ever, is the clear clash of interest between the corporate media and the reporting of business-unfriendly news. In a rare departure from the mendacious norm, Richard Ingrams of the Observer noted last December that, "Looking at the advertisements in the Christmas pages of the newspapers, you get the impression that the only things that will be given as presents this year are mobile phones - different varieties of which are displayed on almost every page."
The conflict of interest, Ingrams noted, is not difficult to discern: "When the newspapers are obviously doing so well out of all this advertising, it is not so surprising that they tend not to give much coverage to the growing evidence that mobile phones are not only anti-social but extremely dangerous."
The Great Mobile Phone
In 1953 the tobacco industry faced a problem - their own reviews of the available scientific data concluded that smoking could kill. A report for RJ Reynolds stated: "Studies of clinical data tend to confirm the relationship between heavy and prolonged tobacco smoking and incidence of cancer of the lung."
Leading PR firm Hill & Knowlton (H&K) were brought in to "get the industry out of this hole". H&K indicated where the focus should lie:
"We have one essential job - which can be simply said: Stop public panic... There is only one problem - confidence, and how to establish it; public assurance, and how to create it..."
There were other problems - caring for the sick, burying the dead, comforting the bereaved - but they were somebody else's problems.
Flat rejection of claims of adverse health effects was a given for industry executives. But this alone was unlikely to pacify the public. Instead H&K understood that the key was to throw as many spanners as possible into the public's cognitive works:
"The most important type of story is that which casts doubt on the cause and effect theory of disease and smoking." Eye-grabbing headlines were needed and "should strongly call out the point - Controversy! Contradiction! Other factors! Unknowns!"
Phil Lesley, author of a handbook on public relations, explains how this organised confusion can be used to prevent profit-costly action being taken on everything from ozone depletion to global warming, to nuclear disarmament, to lifting sanctions against Iraq:
"People generally do not favour action on a non-alarming situation when arguments seem to be balanced on both sides and there is a clear doubt. The weight of impressions on the public must be balanced so people will have doubts and lack motivation to take action. Accordingly, means are needed to get balancing information into the stream from sources that the public will find credible. There is no need for a clear-cut 'victory'. ... Nurturing public doubts by demonstrating that this is not a clear-cut situation in support of the opponents usually is all that is necessary."
The tobacco industry knew, of course, that the heroes of the 'free press' could be relied upon to play their part in "nurturing public doubts", as recognised in an international memo put out by Philip Morris:
"The media like the money they make from our advertisements and they are an ally that we can and should exploit... we should make a concerted effort in our principal markets to influence the media to write articles or editorials positive to the industry position on the various aspects of the smoking controversy."
The writer Gore Vidal puts it more succinctly:
"The bullshit just flows and flows and flows and the American media is so corrupt and so tied into it that it never questions it."
Fortunately for people and planet, one of the perennial threats to this strategy of organised bamboozlement is the rogue establishment expert whose credentials are matched only by his or her humanity. Consider, for example, Dr Gerard Hyland who, in a report submitted to the European Parliament's Industry, Trade, Research and Energy Committee on 11 July 2001, has blown a wide hole in the silence and deception that surround the threat of mobile phone radiation.
Pointing to nothing less than an industry-inspired cover-up of the threat, Hyland, from the Department of Physics at Warwick University (UK) and the International Institute of Biophysics in Germany, describes how the voice of those with a view contrary to the officially perceived wisdom "is at worst silenced, or, at best, studiously ignored".
The impression of a campaign to suppress truth is reinforced, Hyland writes, by stories of industry attempts "to 'persuade' those who discover findings that might prove to be potentially damaging to market development to actually alter their results to make them more 'market friendly'".
Existing safety guidelines relating to mobile phone masts are completely inadequate, Hyland reports, since they focus only on the thermal effects of exposure to electro-magnetic fields. Various non-thermal influences mean that existing guidelines intended to protect the public - such as those issued by the International Commission for Non-ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) - "afford no protection".
As a consequence, "a major contemporary threat to the health of society is man-made 'electrosmog'". The nature of the pollution is such that, for people living in the vicinity of mobile phone masts, there is literally "nowhere to hide". Given the short time for which humans have been exposed to it, we have "no evolutionary immunity either against any adverse effects".
"Quite justifiably," Hyland writes, the public remains sceptical of attempts by governments and industry to reassure them that all is well, particularly given "the unethical way in which they often operate symbiotically so as to promote their own vested interests, usually under the brokerage of the very statutory regulatory bodies whose function it supposedly is to ensure that the security of the public is not compromised by electromagnetic exposure!"
Also doubtless driven by market imperatives, rather than genuine concern for public health, are efforts to establish a global "harmonisation" of radiation exposure standards, by attempting to persuade countries that currently operate more stringent limits - such as Russia and China - to relax them in favour of the higher levels tolerated in the West.
It can be no coincidence, Hyland argues, that in Russia, where the sensitivity of living organisms to ultra-low intensity microwave radiation was first discovered over 30 years ago, the exposure guidelines are approximately 100 times more stringent than those of ICNIRP.
As for the media, Hyland notes that there is "a regrettable tendency to attribute market-friendly (negative) results a greater significance, publicity and profile than positive ones indicative of the possibility of adverse health impacts".
An example of this is provided by the publication of the results of a recent study in the United States, which found an increased risk amongst users of mobile phones of a rare kind of tumour (epithelial neuroma) in the periphery of the brain - "precisely where there is maximum penetration of radiation from the mobile phone". This aspect of the report, Hyland argues, "completely escaped the attention of the media, who focused instead exclusively on the negative finding that there was no overall increase in the incidence of brain tumours amongst mobile phone users".
In the UK, as ZNet readers know, the media have stuck tenaciously to the claim that there is "no evidence" of adverse health effects.
Hyland points out that the problem is not that research necessary to establish mobile phone safety has merely been bypassed or compromised, "but rather - and more reprehensibly - that already available indications that the technology is potentially less than safe have been (and continue to be) studiously ignored," not only by the mobile phone industry, but also by national and international regulatory bodies.
Hyland gives as an example the conduct of the UK National Radiological Protection Board, which was 'unable' to provide the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones (IEGMP) - for whom they were acting as the Secretariat - with certain highly relevant published papers, on the grounds that they could not 'find' them.
This, despite the fact that they had been provided with the full references by at least two individuals who gave evidence to the IEGMP, and despite having had no difficulty in providing less important papers from the same issue of the journal!
According to Hyland, "If the same level of uncertainty and debate as currently surrounds the safety of human exposure to GSM radiation obtained in the case of a new drug or foodstuff they would most certainly never be licensed!"
Among the evidence of adverse health affects recorded by Hyland, is the following: